After a successful season opener of Thursday Night Football with a jump in ratings and plenty of high-tech innovations, Fox Sports looks to cap off its 2018-19 NFL Campaign in style with the NFC Championship on Sunday in New Orleans. The Rams-Saints matchup will feature many of the tools that became staples of Fox Sports’ TNF and Sunday A games this season — including dual SkyCam systems and an army of Sony 4K and high-speed cameras — as well as an onsite edition of the Fox NFL Sunday studio show produced in 1080p for the first time.
“We really liked our [production] complement on Thursday Night Football this year,” says Mike Davies, SVP, technical and field operations, Fox Sports. “We thought we hit a very good recipe of storytelling and technology without overdoing it. So Sunday’s game is going to look a lot like Thursday Night Football.”
TNF Staples: Plenty of Slo-Mo, Dual SkyCams, HOF-Quality Audio
Of the the 40-plus Fox cameras on hand for Sunday’s production, nine will be high-speed systems, including nearly all field-level cameras. One Sony HDC-4800 will be shooting in 4K from the high–end-zone position; another will be on the sidelines shooting at up to 16X slo-mo (in HD) to capture NFL Films-type cinematic shots. Launched at last year’s NFC Championship, the latter has become a key tool in creating cinematic replays for both the game broadcast and pregame show.
“We’re really excited about that 4800 on the sideline, and some of the stuff [our operator] is getting is absolutely phenomenal,” says Davies. “You’re able to take the benefits of a film-quality camera and turn it around quickly for the live broadcast, as well as put it in the edit system. I think that we’re only scratching the surface in terms of incorporating [cinema-style] cameras and lenses into the broadcast.”
In addition, seven Sony HDC-4300’s will be shooting at frame rates ranging from 3X to 6X to even 8X, depending on their locations in the stadium. PylonCam systems will be covering both end zones, while an RF Steadicam and an aerial blimp will also be on hand.
As has been standard for all of Fox’s TNF and Sunday A games this season, two SkyCams (a high and a low) will cover the action — both capable of displaying SMT augmented-reality graphics.
“I think [dual SkyCams] have become pretty standard for [all NFL broadcasters] at this point,” Davies observes. “It’s been interesting to see how all the different networks use it, and I think it’s been an amazing tool for all of us from an analytics standpoint.”
In terms of audio, the 5.1-surround production will be headed by Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame A1 Fred Aldous, with Eddie Verstraete overseeing the on-field–audio submix. Aldous and company will be tasked with capturing sound from what is surely to be a raucous atmosphere inside the Superdome.
“There’s an old saying that it’s not the wand, it’s the magician. And I think that we’ve got a really great magician on our audio crew [in Aldous],” says Davies. “New Orleans is always tough because it’s a dome and the PA is extremely loud by design. So it’s tough to get those field effects that you’re looking for, but you know Fred’s got some tricks in terms of dealing with that.”
The Move to 1080p: Fox NFL Sunday Onsite in the Big Easy
The Fox NFL Sunday studio show, which was just announced as a 2019 NAB Broadcasting Hall of Fame inductee, will be onsite. For the first time, it will be produced in 1080p (games are already produced in the format) during this season’s playoffs (although it is downconverted for distribution to the home).
Says Davies, “We think 1080p definitely adds to the quality a little bit in terms of what we end up sending home to the viewer even with [the downconversion].”
Sunday marks the second road trip for Fox NFL Sunday this season, following a visit to Fort Benning, GA, on Veterans Day weekend. According to Davies, of all the potential NFC Playoffs venues, the Superdome is ideal for the studio show since it is indoors and has suitable spots for an on-field set.
Fox will use Game Creek Video’s Pride mobile unit for the pregame show (the same truck used for NFL Network’s TNF Pregame show during the regular season), and it will be integrated with the network’s main game truck, Game Creek’s Encore (A, B, and C units).
“We’re going to leverage a lot of what we did with the NFL Network from a technical standpoint because we’re using the same facilities [for pregame],” says Davies. “I think one of the more impressive things we’ve seen for [onsite pregame shows] is how the two trucks work together. And I think we’ve got a really good formula with our directors: Stephanie Medina on the pregame side and Rich Russo on the game side. They work great together, and we always make sure the pregame gets the cameras and resources needed to do a great show.”
As NFL Season Winds Down, Fox Gets its Pick of the Crew
Joining Russo in the truck for the game production will be TNF producer Richie Zyontz and TD Colby Bourgeois. Pete Chalverus is technical producer.
Although this weekend game will be among the most the most high-tech productions of any football game this season, Davies sees the world-class crew as Fox’s main differentiator this weekend.
“We are lucky because we got not only the equipment that we needed but we also got the team to do it,” says Davies. “While our level of equipment is great and we’re lucky to have all these tools at our disposal, I think the most important thing about the NFC Championship is, there is hardly any other football going on, so we get to pick from the very best of the best in terms of the crew. We can augment our amazing Thursday Night crew with other top-flight talent.”
A Look Back at 2018: TNF Flourishes in Year 1
In the first year of a five-year deal for TNF, Fox not only was able to launch a “second A game” package on top of its already sizeable number of NFL games but also created a brand-new Thursday Night Football Pregame Show at Fox News Channel headquarters in New York City.
“I’m really proud of how quickly we were able to build up TNF,” says Davies. “We didn’t have a ton of time to put this in gear and all of the things that needed to happen — not only on the road but also in the studio in New York. There’s no question, TNF would not be what it was this [season] without the hard work of our crew.
“It was also great to work with our partners at the NFL Network,” he continues. “We knew there would be challenges, but, frankly, I don’t think it could have gone any better, so we’re really looking forward to next [season].”
Of course, Fox Sports operations team accomplishments go beyond TNF. Fox made incremental upgrades to its game productions and, for the first time, worked with CMSI to provide every NFL on Fox production full file-transfer capabilities between the remote and its L.A. headquarters.
“Across the board, there were a lot of things to be proud of for the road crews and all the folks that work not only one football show a week but sometimes two,” says Davies. “It was great to see how the production teams rose to the challenge of covering the phenomenal matchups that we were given. From an operational standpoint, our crewing department was huge this year and deserves a lot credit for making this season go as smoothly as it did.”
A Look Ahead to 2020: Super Bowl LIV on the Horizon
Davies and company have already been working on operational plans for Super Bowl LIV in 2020 for the better part of a year.
“We’ve got some ideas to put in the hands of our producers and directors that will germinate over the next 12 months,” says Davies. “There have been a lot of Super Bowls in Miami, and the stadium has never been in better shape. I think that we can build on what [previous Super Bowl broadcasters] have done there and add plenty of our own Fox twist. So I’m really looking forward to this one.”