Arrowhead Stadium, the home of the Kansas City Chiefs, the N.F.L.’s defending champions, is a very loud place. Players say that when the noise reaches top volume, they can feel vibrations in their bones. During a 2014 game, a sound meter captured a decibel reading equivalent to a jet’s taking off, earning a Guinness World Record for “Loudest crowd roar at a sports stadium.” Chiefs fans know how to weaponize noise, quieting to a churchlike hush when the team’s great quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, calls signals but then, when opponents have the ball, unleashing a howl that can even drown out the sound of the play call crackling through the speaker inside the rival quarterback’s helmet.
There are others whose work is complicated by the din. Around 11 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 7, Brian Melillo, an audio engineer for NBC Sports’ flagship N.F.L. telecast, “Sunday Night Football,” arrived at Arrowhead to prepare for that evening’s Chiefs-Detroit Lions game. It was a big occasion: the annual season opener, the N.F.L. Kickoff game, traditionally hosted by the winner of last season’s Super Bowl. There would be speeches, fireworks, a military flyover, the unfurling of a championship banner. A crowd of more than 73,000 was expected. “Arrowhead is a pretty rowdy setting,” Melillo said. “It can present some problems.”
Melillo was especially concerned about his crowd mics — three stereo microphones intended to catch the ambient oohs and aahs of fans, mounted atop 16-foot-high painters’ poles that he and a colleague had secured to the railing separating the seats from the field. These needed to be kept at a distance from exploding pyrotechnics and angled away from the blare of the stadium’s public-address system. A perhaps greater hazard was overzealous fans, who are prone to shaking the poles or even pulling them down. “You’ll get people who’ve been tailgating for five hours,” Melillo said. “I might have to bribe some people to stay off those poles.”
Melillo and his microphones were part of a huge deployment of personnel and equipment descending on Arrowhead that morning. Broadcasting a football game on live television is one of the most complex technical and logistical challenges in entertainment. The task is magnified in the case of “Sunday Night Football,” which is known for sparing no expense to deliver the most comprehensive coverage and the most arresting spectacles.
For the Kickoff game — one of three 2023 regular-season broadcasts by the “S.N.F.” team that do not take place on Sunday — an NBC Sports work force of 200 traveled to Kansas City. A convoy of 10 trucks made the trip: four mobile production units, an office truck, a generator in case power went down, a truck for the “Football Night in America” pregame show and three haulers packed with sets, cranes and dozens of cameras. There were hand-held cameras, cameras that sit atop mobile sideline carts, robotic cameras that record “beauty shots” of the stadium exterior, ultra-high-resolution 4K cameras that yield super-slow-motion replays. Suspended from a web of fiber-optic cables, more than 120 feet in the air, was Skycam, ready to zip-line over the field at up to 20 miles per hour. Another camera would arrive later to provide a still loftier vantage point from a fixed-wing aircraft.
Then there were the microphones. There were mics mounted on many of the cameras. There were six parabolic mics, contraptions resembling satellite dishes that operators strap on like sandwich boards and schlep around the sidelines to soak up sounds. The N.F.L. is particular about what audio can air — no conversations on the bench allowed — but for each game, the league mics up several offensive linemen, allowing broadcasters to catch the quarterback grunting his cadence and the crunch of pads colliding after the snap.
The person responsible for the sonic personality of “Sunday Night Football” is Wendel Stevens, the lead audio engineer. That morning, Stevens was getting ready at his station, a 144-channel mixing console in the show’s main production truck. What viewers might assume to be an unmediated flow of in-game audio is more like a live D.J. mix, sculpted spontaneously by Stevens, who blends sounds from dozens of sources. “You don’t want this constant roar and thunder,” he said. “Football is a dynamic game in terms of sound.” He has other rules. One is: You mustn’t miss “the doink,” the percussive thump when an errant kick strikes the goal posts, which resonate like a giant tuning fork. Stevens was in the chair for NBC’s 2019 broadcast of the Bears-Eagles wild-card playoff game, which ended with a Bears field-goal attempt that rebounded from the left upright to the crossbar — an event that entered N.F.L. lore as the Double Doink.
Stevens’s core principle is that the voices of the play-by-play man, Mike Tirico, and the analyst, Cris Collinsworth, must be boosted in the mix so they dominate even at moments of peak sound and fury. They are the stars of “S.N.F.,” along with the sideline reporter, Melissa Stark, who interviews players and coaches and offers scuttlebutt during games. But that on-air talent is supported by a vast, unseen army, in the packed broadcast booth and the trucks: producers, directors, editors, graphics specialists, researchers, statisticians, “spotters” and others. By the afternoon, nearly every member of that team had arrived at Arrowhead and was at work in the TV compound just outside the stadium gates.
There, in the control room of the A-Unit truck, the coordinating producer Rob Hyland and the director Drew Esocoff stood facing a wall of LCD monitors showing nearly 200 video feeds. It was 3 p.m. The production team had just finished the “FAX,” or facilities check, a lengthy run-through when game elements are rehearsed and technical effects — the Telestrator used to explicate instant replays, the video overlay demarcating the line to gain — are tested. Now it was time for a meeting with the camera crew. Camera operators were given sheets containing head shots of coaching staffs, players’ families, anyone whose face they might be called upon to pick out on the sidelines or in the stands. “Isolation plans” were distributed, indicating which cameras would follow key players. “It’s been 207 days since the Super Bowl,” Hyland told the group. “Our country has been waiting for tonight. So let’s make sure we capture the scene. Let’s give America a reason to stick around throughout the night.”
The word “America” is bandied freely at “S.N.F.” as a synonym for the show’s audience. It’s partly an expression of the nationalism entrenched in football culture — the flags and flyovers and patriotic hullabaloo that surrounds the N.F.L. But it is also a frank acknowledgment of the stature of televised football in American life. Football is, by far, the most popular thing on TV. Last year, according to Nielsen, 83 of the 100 most-viewed telecasts were N.F.L. games, including 19 of the top 20. It’s no exaggeration to say that television’s continued existence as a purveyor of prescheduled “linear TV” programming is predicated on football. “Year-over-year TV usage is crashing,” says Anthony Crupi, a media reporter for the website Sportico. “But the N.F.L. is trending up. To keep growing — to increase your ratings by 5 or 6 percent when viewership as a whole is down 10 percent — that says how spooky the N.F.L.’s dominance is.”
The crown jewel of TV football is “S.N.F.” Last year it registered a 12th consecutive season as prime time’s top-rated show, at least according to NBC’s interpretation of Nielsen metrics. Its average viewership in 2022, 19.9 million, including the audience watching on streaming services, bested the top scripted show, the Western drama “Yellowstone,” by more than eight million. That audience has impressive demographic breadth: One-third is Black, Latino or Asian; 36 percent are women. At a time when cultural fragmentation and streaming are transforming the very idea of TV, “S.N.F.” is something like the last consensus choice, the proverbial hearth around which the nation assembles each week.
At 7:10 p.m., the Kickoff game went live. There were performances of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Fireworks exploded; a B-2 bomber raced overhead. In the booth, Tirico and Collinsworth set the scene, wondering aloud how the Chiefs would fare without two of their stars — the tight end Travis Kelce, out with a knee injury, and the defensive tackle Chris Jones, who was embroiled in a contract dispute. Still, the Chiefs had Mahomes. “I think America is about to find out how good he really is,” Collinsworth said. In the A-Unit, Hyland and Esocoff had taken their places in front of that phalanx of screens. Hyland turned to the assistant director Alex Haubenstock. “Be great, Haubie.” He spoke into his headset mic. “Be great, graphics.”
The teams lined up for the kickoff. Tirico, 56, is a suave and eloquent announcer who typically steers clear of clichés and bombast. But the moment called for a touch of grandiloquence. “Deep in the distance, it’s Las Vegas,” he intoned, a reference to the site where Super Bowl LVIII will take place in February. The Chiefs’ place-kicker, Harrison Butker, boomed the kick into the end zone. In the control room, Esocoff drawled a request into his headset: “Looking for 16 white.” He wanted a shot of the Lions’ quarterback, Jared Goff, who wears the number 16. A moment later, America — or some not-insignificant chunk of it — watched Goff jog onto the field to take the season’s first snap.
For two decades, we have talked about a new golden age of television, heaping acclaim on “prestige” streaming and premium-cable series. But our praise songs to televisual art have largely ignored the most popular — and the most richly televisual — TV of all. Prestige dramas and comedies are, in essence, serialized movies, but a football telecast belongs to a different category. It is an extravagant exercise in visual storytelling: an hourslong motion-picture collage, assembled on the fly, pumped up with interstitial music, graffitied with graphics, embellished with hokey human-interest segments and narrated, with varying degrees of wit and magniloquence, by the featured soloists in the broadcast booth. As a technical feat, it’s a mindblower: a collective improvisation by a team of hundreds, pulled off with top craftsmanship under conditions of extreme pressure. “Sunday Night Football” is television’s biggest show, but it might also be the best — the flashiest, most exciting, most inventive, most artful use to which the medium has ever been put.
On April 19, four and half months before the Kickoff game, Rob Hyland was in a conference room in Stamford, Conn., where NBC Sports has been headquartered since 2013. The 300,000-square-foot facility houses the studios and control rooms where the network produces coverage of such properties as the Olympic Games. But in Stamford, as in NBCUniversal’s executive suites, there is an understanding that “S.N.F.” occupies its own echelon. “It is the calling-card show,” says Mark Lazarus, the NBCUniversal Media Group chairman. “It’s the cherry on top of the sundae of all the great content we have at Universal.”
The exalted status of “S.N.F.” was the subject, more or less, of the conference-room gathering. It was the “production philosophy” meeting, an overview that begins the run-up to the season. Hyland and Esocoff were joined by 16 staff members, with nine others participating by video. Also present was a legend: Fred Gaudelli, who helmed “S.N.F.” from its founding in 2006 through the 2021 season and is regarded by many as TV’s greatest football producer. More recently, Gaudelli has led “Thursday Night Football” on Amazon Prime Video, which is produced mainly by NBC staff, but he maintains an executive-producer role at “S.N.F.”
“This show is one of the only in all of television that still has the resources to allow you to really think big,” Hyland told the group. “If you’ve got a great idea, you can actually do it on this show.”
On a screen, a slide show listed goals:
Continue to be the leader in storytelling, presentation and innovation.
Take the viewer somewhere they have never been and could never go.
Identify a “Make You Laugh/Make You Smile” in each episode.
“Over the next couple months,” Hyland said, “we’re gonna deconstruct the show and think about how we can do everything better. Everything gets re-evaluated, every single off-season.”
“Everything” is not just a figure of speech. “S.N.F.” is defined by an attention to minutiae that extends from the “metallic sheen” on the chyrons to the placement of cameras for capturing quarterback pressures by edge rushers. “If you work on this show, you have to be willing to nitpick,” says Erin Bollendorf, the show’s sideline producer. “No detail is too small.”
In the meeting, Hyland laid out a “significant and subtle change to our presentation for the coming year”: a tweak to the onscreen placement of the play-clock graphic. (“It will now live right-justified within the capsule of the score bar.”) He discussed the importance of limiting the number of replays during red-zone scoring opportunities, to not step on live action. (“The third look at a fullback not catching a pass — we don’t need that.”) He screened clips from the 2022 season, talking through a muddled sequence in which “S.N.F.” failed to cut swiftly to footage of the Green Bay Packers’ coach, Matt LaFleur, calling a timeout, and Tirico and Collinsworth were momentarily baffled by the play stoppage. “We need to answer the question for the viewer right away,” Hyland said. “We can’t look for the answer, collectively, with 20 million people.” A production assistant, Samantha Segreto, praised a moment in the Chiefs-Jaguars divisional-round playoff game when a camera caught a telling view of Patrick Mahomes hobbling on a sprained ankle. “That’s a good note,” Hyland said. “Much of the time, the most effective storytelling is going to be simple. A well-composed shot that includes an athlete’s foot will tell a better story than some animated graphic with laser beams coming off of it.”
Hyland is 48. He is handsome in a vaguely midcentury way, like Don Draper without the dark secrets. He has tidy hair and a running back’s build, though when he played football, at Williams College in Massachusetts, he was an offensive lineman. In 1997, he got a job as a production assistant on NBC’s N.F.L. pregame show. He joined “S.N.F.” in its debut season as a replay director. He held the job for just three years, but working with Gaudelli was transformative. “I’d never been in a room where we did forensics on every element of the show,” he says. “The idea was, and still is, whether it’s an average game or a great game, it has to look and feel special. Because it’s a ‘Sunday Night Football’ game.”
That mystique once belonged to ABC’s “Monday Night Football,” the prime-time showcase that started in 1970. But by 2005, N.F.L. executives had concluded that Sunday was a better spot for marquee matchups. NBC paid a reported $3.6 billion for a six-year contract. In May 2006, Dick Ebersol, the NBC Sports chairman, completed a raid on “Monday Night Football,” hiring its producer and director, Gaudelli and Esocoff, and its legendary broadcast tandem: Al Michaels, a virtuoso game caller with a wry mot juste for every play and plot twist, and John Madden, who revolutionized sports television by turning exegesis into entertainment, illuminating football’s complexities with folksy verbiage and a Telestrator’s pen that he wielded like an action-painter. Ebersol showered “Sunday Night Football” with resources, telling Gaudelli he need only worry about producing a great program.
The result was bigger, brighter and more sensational than any previous football telecast. Each game was hyped like a mini-Super Bowl, with a glare and blare designed to jolt the senses. The production values embraced Disneyfied pomp: computer animation, flashing lights, power chords. For years, the opening theme song of “Monday Night Football” was a version of Hank Williams Jr.’s “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight,” a choice that pitched a football telecast as a night of white male bonding and debauchery. The “Sunday Night Football” anthem was sung first by Pink, then by Faith Hill and for the last 11 years by Carrie Underwood, artists with huge female fan bases. “S.N.F.” dragged the big game out of the man cave and into the living room. It has proved a blockbuster. “It’s an unnecessarily lavish show, but that’s part of the charm,” says Bill Simmons, the sports pundit, podcaster and founder of the website The Ringer. “Since day one, NBC has made it clear that money doesn’t matter to them on Sunday nights. Like, at all.”
An NBC Sports spokesperson declined to provide specifics, but the outlay is evidently enormous. NBC now pays about $2 billion per year for broadcasting rights; the “S.N.F.” production costs are thought to be $40 million to $50 million annually. Even huge ad revenues — $1.37 billion in 2021-22, according to Standard Media Index — would leave the endeavor hundreds of millions in the red. “Does the ad revenue cover our rights fee?” Lazarus says. “No, but the value to our company” — and affiliates and partners — “is real.” That value, it seems fair to suggest, lies not just in the show’s appeal to advertisers and cable companies, but in NBC’s old-fashioned pride in “must-see TV,” in airing the biggest thing in prime time.
But “S.N.F.” isn’t just a testament to excess. From the beginning, it has struck an improbable balance between carnival and seminar, seeking new ways to make a byzantine game more comprehensible. Today that task falls chiefly to Collinsworth, the 64-year-old former Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver who took over analyst duties in 2009. Since then, he has solidified his place as football’s most sagacious color commentator, rendering judgments in a gravelly bass-baritone that has inspired a cottage industry of impersonators. Meme culture has seized on other tics, like the Collinsworthism “Now here’s a guy. …” But unlike the folkloric Madden or the hopped-up CBS analyst Tony Romo, who flaunts his smarts by predicting plays before the ball is snapped, Collinsworth isn’t first and foremost a personality. He has the cool, questing demeanor of a detective — a guy, as Collinsworth himself might put it, who regards football as a grand puzzle that rewards endless inquiry.
His investigations entail fieldwork. Collinsworth flew into Kansas City on Sept. 4, three days before the Kickoff game. The following morning, he led an “S.N.F.” delegation to the Chiefs’ practice facility, where they held private interviews with Mahomes and others and spent 45 minutes watching the team run through plays. They also caught breaking news: Collinsworth and Tirico were on the sideline chatting with the Chiefs’ general manager, Brett Veach, when Travis Kelce limped off with a bone bruise in his right knee.
The Kelce injury was Topic A the next day in a meeting room at a downtown Kansas City hotel. This was the “coaches’ film” meeting, where Collinsworth screens game tape and talks X’s and O’s and producers formulate camera-isolation and replay plans around the game he expects to see. How might Detroit combat a Chiefs offense without Kelce? In 2022, the Lions played man-to-man pass coverage at the second-highest rate in the N.F.L., but Collinsworth explained that they had made a scheme change. There would probably be more zone coverage, he speculated, or perhaps zone match. As for Mahomes: Since 2018, when he became the Chiefs’ starting quarterback, he had played just one game without Kelce. Now the Chiefs had two new offensive tackles and a shaggy receiving corps with no clear star. “Kelce’s ability to chip, get out on routes — it can’t really be replaced. So where is Patrick going with the ball?”
Collinsworth’s erudition is the fruit of obsessive film study and immersion in stats and data. (He is the majority owner of the sports-analytics company P.F.F.) But it also reflects a perspective shift that is intuitive to football’s wonks. “I never watch the ball,” he says. When he’s in the broadcast booth, he will follow Tirico’s call to learn where the ball went, but his eyes are elsewhere. He scans the presnap formations to make quick reads of the defensive coverage. After the snap, he turns to the Skycam monitor — the view from behind the quarterback — to catch the offensive linemen’s first step, which tells him whether the play is a run or a pass. If it’s a run, he’ll stick with Skycam; if it’s a pass, he may switch his attention to the defensive secondary to watch coverage develop. When the play is over, he says, “I’m on the button to Rob” — talking to Hyland in the truck to suggest what replay the show should air.
“Every play can take you in a different direction,” Hyland says. “You can go to a replay to help support what your announcers are talking about. You can show America a different angle on a play. Or you can take America in a whole new direction narratively. You can go to a preproduced element to showcase something interesting about a specific athlete or coach. You can go to a graphic to help support a story line or to introduce a new story line. It’s like John Madden used to say to me: A football broadcast is the greatest open-book test there is.”
With 9:27 to go in the first quarter of the Kickoff game, the Lions lined up for a punt at their own 17-yard line. Brian Melillo, the audio engineer, was patrolling the sidelines to monitor communications, including the critical link that lets NBC signal league officials when it wants to stop play to go to commercial. In the broadcast compound, the replay director, Charlie Vanacore, stood in the C-Unit truck facing what looked like a psychedelic video-art installation: three giant panels, each holding more than two dozen small screens with feeds from live cameras and replay sources. In the A-Unit, Esocoff spoke into his headset, giving instructions to the operators of Cameras 5 and 1 about coverage of the punt. (“5: kicker, waist-up. 1: returner, waist-up.”) Nearby, Alex Haubenstock reminded Hyland that Tirico should drop the name of a sponsor during the rollout to the next commercial: “Going to break after the kick. YouTube mention.”
But the commercial break would have to wait. Dan Campbell, the Lions’ head coach, likes to run fake punts. Over the past two seasons, Detroit successfully converted the trick play on six of seven attempts. Now, just minutes into the new season, the Lions tried again. The ball was snapped to the special-teams captain, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who barged through a stack of Chiefs to gain the first down.
On NBC’s airwaves, Tirico let out a cry: “Dan Campbell, dice rollin’ from inside the 20 on drive two of the season!” Ten plays later, Jared Goff completed a nine-yard touchdown pass to the receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown. In the truck, Hyland spoke into his headset, asking Vanacore and his team to feed him shots of St. Brown. As “S.N.F.” bumped to commercial with slow-motion images of the catch and the celebration, Tirico said: “The fourth-down pickup. A 91-yard drive. They kept Patrick Mahomes off the field for eight minutes. And the guy who makes the Lions’ offense go — Amon-Ra St. Brown — first to the end zone this year. Seven-nothing, Detroit.”
The delineation of duties in a sports-broadcasting booth hews to a famous formula. The play-by-play person handles what; the color commentator’s job is why. Tirico is one of those eerily gifted announcers whose what flows like water running over rocks in a riverbed. His national-TV career began in 1991 on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” He has broadcast countless events, from N.H.L. games to the Olympics, as both a studio host and a booth announcer. He succeeded Al Michaels on “Sunday Night Football” in 2022, and while some complain that today’s “S.N.F.” booth lacks the swagger of the old Michaels-Collinsworth partnership, there’s no gainsaying Tirico’s mastery. He sets a tone of relaxed omniscience — the feeling that, at every moment, you’re being told all you need to know, in an optimally elegant and succinct way. “He’s a TV savant,” Hyland says. When Tirico worked on “Football Night in America,” he was known to shadow Gaudelli in the truck during games. He would sit in the tape room to watch the replay operation; he would lurk in the graphics area. “There is no one I’ve ever worked with,” Hyland says, “that comes close to his ability of the mechanics of television.”
Tirico’s methodology is based on an ominous-sounding acronym, DIE: document, inform and entertain. He thrives especially in the informing department. Each week, he spends dozens of hours compiling his “boards” — notes about players, coaches, ownership groups, hundreds of people who could become the story of the night — logged on a Microsoft Surface that sits at his side in the booth. “I always start with the backup quarterback,” he says. “As soon as the backup quarterback gets in the game, you can tell if somebody’s prepared for the broadcast or not.”
Ideally, informing overlaps with documenting and entertaining in surprising and even poetic ways. As halftime approached in Kansas City, with the score tied at 7-7, “S.N.F.” returned from commercial with an aerial shot of Arrowhead. The stadium was in its 52nd season, Tirico said, and it shared its parking lot with Kauffman Stadium, home of the Kansas City Royals. As Mahomes barked signals, Tirico noted another baseball connection: The quarterback, who is famous for throwing the football using arm angles like a shortstop, was drafted by the Detroit Tigers before committing to football. Two plays later, with 37 seconds remaining in the second quarter, Mahomes zipped a four-yard pass to the tight end Blake Bell. “Sidearm sling for the touchdown!” Tirico exclaimed. Then he pulled out a final fact: “Like Mahomes, Bell was also drafted by the Detroit Tigers. In 2010.” This was classic Tirico: a stream of improvised narration, decorated with details from his boards, that unfurled like a scripted riff — a touchdown drive with a baseball leitmotif.
This suavity is a solvent: Hyland calls Tirico “the master of sanitation” for his talent at cleaning up awkward on-air moments. He’s also expert at knowing what not to say, a key skill he shares with most every N.F.L. announcer. During the run of “Sunday Night Football,” a period that corresponds almost exactly to the tenure of the N.F.L. commissioner, Roger Goodell, the league has achieved unprecedented popularity while experiencing a breathtaking series of scandals. It has been accused of racism and sexism; been scrutinized over the racial disparity between its owners, executives and head coaches and its majority-Black work force of players; been assailed for inadequate handling of off-field violence and abuse charges; and settled numerous lawsuits, including the Colin Kaepernick collusion grievance and a class action stemming from the epidemic of chronic traumatic encephalopathy and other cognitive impairments among former players. These vexations hover over the weekly orgy of televised football, conspicuous in their absence.
The N.F.L. refers to TV networks as “broadcast partners,” a phrase that implies a certain ideological lock step. That characterization doesn’t sit well at “S.N.F.” (“We’re not a mouthpiece for the N.F.L.,” Hyland says.) Tirico views the problem as one of context. “In general,” he says, “the body of a football game is a really poor place to have an intelligent discussion of a significant issue.” A better venue, he suggests, is a pregame or postgame show, where the careful hashing through of a domestic-assault charge or a racial-justice protest will not be interrupted by a punt return.
But a skeptic might point out that those conversations rarely do take place on such shows. And while the N.F.L. and broadcasters often prefer to distinguish between on- and off-the-field matters, the reality is fuzzier. Last season, when the Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest after making a hard tackle, the near-death experience caught ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” flat-footed: The moment called for a moral vocabulary, or at least for journalism’s hard questions, but the broadcast mustered mostly platitudes. For viewers, part of the shock was the jarring tonal shift as the game was postponed and then canceled — a disruption of televised football’s usual brisk rhythms, where the frequent carting-off of injured players is marked by perfunctory words of concern as play swiftly resumes.
In fact, TV football is not the politics-free zone imagined by the league and its broadcasters. It is saturated by the N.F.L.’s own politics, which play down the consequences of football’s gladiatorial clashes while enshrining them as civic rites. For decades, the league has wedded itself to patriotism that veers into jingoism, adopting as its logo the martial symbol of a flag-decorated shield and embracing military fanfare that broadcasters air as a matter of course. Other strange scenes turn up on TV. Viewers who tuned into the Kickoff game were shown an Arrowhead Stadium ritual, the beating of a “ceremonial war drum” accompanied by fans belting out the Chiefs’ pseudo-Native American “war chant” while performing the hand gesture known as the tomahawk chop — an inarguably racist spectacle that the “S.N.F.” team chose to treat as opening-night pageantry.
Yet who can doubt that, as Tirico and others suggest, viewers turn on the game to tune out the world? The pleasure we take in watching the N.F.L., like the multibillion-dollar revenues that support it, rests on a collective decision to not think too hard about it all. Football’s cruelties and inequities, the toll it exacts on bodies and minds — that stuff is easy enough to ignore when a thrilling show is on the flatscreen. “What’s crazy to me is how foolproof football is,” Bill Simmons says. “The sport can survive any scandal and basically anything unseemly.” He added, “People forgive the league for literally anything.”
Halftime at Arrowhead. The score was 14-7, Chiefs. In the broadcast compound, Esocoff emerged from the A-Unit truck in search of his usual midgame sustenance, a peanut-butter sandwich. Esocoff is 66, tall and imposing, with a droll manner, full of wisecracks aimed at colleagues and mordant jokes at the expense of his beloved New York Jets. He is also, by nearly everyone’s account, the auteur behind “Sunday Night Football.” Esocoff’s work has won 19 Emmy Awards, and he has directed seven Super Bowl broadcasts, including Super Bowl XLIX, the 2015 Patriots-Seahawks game that remains the most-watched program in U.S. television history. Hyland compares the experience of doing a football broadcast with Esocoff to driving a Ferrari. Al Michaels has called him “the Steven Spielberg of live television.”
All sports are telegenic, but the marriage of football and TV was a true love match. It’s a story that stretches back to television’s midcentury infancy, when the N.F.L. occupied a less lofty tier of the sporting pantheon and was quicker than, for instance, Major League Baseball to embrace the new medium. The experiment was aided by unlikely visionaries. In 1965, the father-and-son team of Ed and Steve Sabol, small-time filmmakers from New Jersey, partnered with the league to found N.F.L. Films, an in-house movie studio. Their films’ blend of orchestral swells, voice-of-God narration and stately cinematography — slow-motion shots tracking spiraling passes, ghostly game footage from the “frozen tundra” of Green Bay’s Lambeau Field — cast the N.F.L. in transcendent terms. Crucially, the Sabols aestheticized and ennobled football’s violence, with highlight montages (“Moment of Impact”) that emphasized the brutal beauty of gang tackles and blindside hits, depicting the players’ ability to dispense and endure punishment as masculine virtue.
But the affinity between football and TV is not just about violence. It is rooted in the sport’s geometries and rhythms: in the rectangular gridiron playing field — a clean, green backdrop for football’s maze of movement — and in the stop-start tempo that makes room for the trimmings broadcasters favor. There are other pauses, built into the schedule. The N.F.L. operates on a scarcity principle: Teams play just 17 times over an 18-week period, a stakes-raising regimen that makes every game important. The drama is heightened on Sunday nights, when the field is washed in light and everything — hash marks, helmets, coaches’ headsets — takes on a cinematic gleam. Viewed in high definition, the game is both intimate and enormous: Cameras pick out beads of sweat and blades of grass, and they sweep up panoramic troop movements and eruptions of athleticism.
At “S.N.F.,” Esocoff is the person most attuned to the craft — the art — of televised football. As the halftime break wound down, he retook his position in the control room, facing that big wall of screens. One showed a live shot of fans in Detroit watching the game on a jumbotron at Ford Field. Another held a shot from Stamford of Terry McAulay, a former N.F.L. referee who serves as the “S.N.F.” rules analyst. Two monitors, nicknamed Elvis and Costello, had been used in the first half for a segment featuring the parents of the Lions defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, who agreed to wear mics in the stands so NBC could air their reactions. Esocoff was seated in front of the two largest screens: the program monitor (showing the picture currently on air) and the preview monitor (the image cued to go live next). He had a cup of coffee, and a flip card of team rosters was spread in front of him.
As Esocoff explains it, directing a football game is both diabolically complex and simple in its essence. You must have command of vast amounts of information and comfort with state-of-the-art machines. You have to know where each camera is positioned and how to locate its feed amid the dizzying grid of monitors. Every week, you have to commit to memory the names and uniform numbers of dozens of players. You must be capable of conducting simultaneous conversations with the dozens of camera operators hooked into your headset and with your colleagues in the truck, while listening closely to the live audio going out on air. And you need to do all this while calling out a virtually nonstop series of commands to the technical director on your right.
Yet the heart of the gig is straightforward. “It’s storytelling,” Esocoff says. “My job is to make the audio and the video match as closely as I can.” He clings to pillars of classic narrative: cause and effect, triumph and defeat. “If the QB hits the receiver for 75 yards up the seam, it’s probably because he had plenty of time to throw. So we’re going to find a shot that shows you the pass protection. You want to show both sides of an event. I always say, the hero on a play is no more important than the goat. So right away I’ll be in the ear of my cameramen: ‘56 blue is the goat.’ A word I use a lot is ‘bummage.’ I want to see the bummage. Because a lot of times the bummage is a more dramatic picture than the celebration.”
The famous climax of the 2015 Super Bowl was a case in point. Its startling twist ending brought a new main character surging into the spotlight — the Patriots’ rookie cornerback, Malcolm Butler, who intercepted the Seattle quarterback, Russell Wilson, in the game’s closing seconds — while offering scenes of ecstasy and a Boschian panorama of bummage. “With a Super Bowl on the line,” Esocoff says, “the key figures are going to be isolated for reaction shots. Belichick, Pete Carroll, Brady on the bench, Richard Sherman. Malcolm Butler probably wasn’t ISO’ed, but you’ll get shots of him if the receiver is ISO’ed, and you’ll probably get other views on Skycam. I know my cart camera’s going to be on Russell Wilson. I know Brady is ISO’ed over here. I know Pete Carroll and the coaches are going to be on Cameras 5 and 11 or 21 and 25. So it becomes just a matter of sequencing the shots. You know: the coaches, the stars. It’s basic.”
However diligently the creators of “S.N.F.” plan, they have little idea what kind of show they will be putting on. For the Chiefs-Lions game, there were nearly 50 pre-edited tape elements and more than 100 graphics — animations, photo bumps, stats, “storytells” — ready to go. But the vague hope was that most of this material would never make air. “We’ll always have a million elements in place,” Hyland says. “The most important thing, I think, is having the discipline to know when it makes sense to bring those things in and when to stay live in the moment. Because sometimes, all of a sudden, a football game’s gonna break out.”
That’s what happened at Arrowhead. All night long, Esocoff had cameras returning to Kelce, who was on the sideline in street clothes. Collinsworth had been right: Without their talismanic tight end, the Chiefs’ offense was stymied. Four minutes into the second half, Mahomes fizzed a pass to the wide receiver Kadarius Toney, who bobbled it into the grasp of the Lions’ rookie safety, Brian Branch. Branch dashed 50 yards down the left sideline for a pick-six touchdown: 14-14.
The Chiefs added a field goal late in the third quarter and another early in the fourth to reclaim the lead, 20-14. Now the crowd was unleashing the notorious Arrowhead roar. At the 12:11 mark of the fourth quarter, the Lions’ offense took over at their own 25, calling two running plays that left them facing a key third down. As the screen wiped to a shot of the teams facing off at the line of scrimmage, the game clock on NBC’s airwaves showed 10:56 left in the game.
But the play clock — that right-justified graphic that Hyland spoke about months earlier in Stamford — had turned red and ticked under five seconds. Jared Goff was furiously clapping his hands, trying to get the ball snapped before the clock expired. The Arrowhead throng was doing its work: Goff’s signals were swallowed up by the din; his teammates couldn’t hear him. The referees threw a delay-of-game flag. “It’s gonna only get louder,” Tirico said. As the referee John Hussey announced the penalty, Wendel Stevens, seated at his console, adjusted the levels on the field mics capturing the raucous “nat sound.”
Esocoff, meanwhile, made a series of cuts, showing, in rapid succession, Dan Campbell, Goff and the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo — a nifty triptych, two parts bummage, one part triumph. But the sequence needed a final image. Esocoff raised his voice and snapped into his headset: “Left 5, both huddles, crowd behind,” indicating that Camera 5 — positioned slightly ahead of the ball on a sideline cart — should pull back its focus to include the far-side crowd in the framing of its “two-huddle shot.” That image popped up on the preview monitor. Esocoff issued directions: “Ready 5. Set 5. And dissolve 5.” And viewers at home watched the screen fade from the close-up of Spagnuolo to a wide shot capturing the teams breaking the huddle, the fans in the stands and an LED scoreboard, wrapped around the stadium’s lower bowl, flickering the phrase “Get Loud!”
But the Lions weren’t done. They converted a third-and-12, and six plays later the running back David Montgomery rumbled into the end zone. The extra point gave Detroit a 21-20 lead.
In the control room, Hyland stood to Esocoff’s left. Years ago, he had a water-skiing accident that required emergency hamstring surgery. When he returned to work, it was too painful to sit. Now, even after healing, he prefers to stand: He gets a better view of the screens and finds it easier to concentrate through the marathon telecast. During the commercial break, he spoke to Collinsworth on his headset: Did the color man notice the block by the tight end Sam LaPorta on the Lions’ touchdown run? Tirico got on the button to the truck: “Was there a live look that Drew caught of Mahomes? It was really good — just, like, shaking his head, saying, Let’s go. I don’t know if that’s a good look, on super-mo?” Hyland had a different idea: “I want to see Detroit.” He wanted a shot of Lions fans celebrating at Ford Field when they came back on air.
Together, he and Esocoff were engaged in a collaboration that invites superlatives and mixed metaphors. When Dick Ebersol first saw Gaudelli and Esocoff at work in a production truck, he said: “This is like watching the frickin’ ballet.” Hyland and Esocoff choose football analogies: They liken their roles to those of a coach who puts a game plan in place and a quarterback who executes it. Other comparisons spring to mind: Their ratatat back-and-forth — Hyland summoning replays for Collinsworth’s Telestrations (“Comp-Tele! And clear it … play it!”), Esocoff’s near-constant recitation of camera numbers and wipes and dissolves — calls to mind a rapper’s bars or an auctioneer’s chant. The effect is enhanced when you realize that this patter represents a gigantic game of telephone, a conversation ricocheting between Hyland, Esocoff and the more than 100 individuals who are “in their ears” at any time.
On the possession that followed the Lions’ touchdown, the Chiefs stalled, punting with 5:07 left. “They have a chance to take the game right now,” Collinsworth said. But it wasn’t to be. After one first down, the Lions came up short on their next three plays, and Campbell rolled the dice again, trying a fourth-down pass that was batted away at the line of scrimmage. Tirico said, “The Lions hand the ball to the league M.V.P. at the 45-yard line with 2:29 to go.” The Chiefs had a chance to steal a win, needing perhaps 20 yards to move into field goal range.
And then drama turned to farce, as Mahomes’s receivers let him down and penalties pushed the Chiefs backward. A dropped pass. A completion nullified by a holding penalty. Another pass, another drop. A near-interception. A fourth-and-20 that became fourth-and-25 when Jawaan Taylor was flagged for a false start. In the control room, the sequence rolled out in a blizzard of quick cuts, Skycam close-ups and split-screens, as Hyland and Esocoff blurted commands with rising urgency: “Gimme dejection on Mahomes.” “Field to right tackle, 4K.” “5 left, 11 right! … Preview effects. Take effects.” For the professionals in the A-Unit, it was merely a heightened version of what they had been doing for hours. To an untutored lurker, the whole thing seemed like … a frickin’ ballet, or some less dainty choreography, a headlong dance of astounding precision.
On fourth-and-25, the Chiefs went for it again. Mahomes took the snap, rolled left and launched a throw that arced across the line to gain, reaching the fingertips of the receiver Skyy Moore, who couldn’t clasp it. Detroit was getting the ball back. NBC went to commercial with its “final act,” a slow-motion montage of jubilant Lions and doleful Chiefs. Esocoff said, “Good stuff, guys” and, for the first time since the half began, rose and stretched. Just over two minutes later, Detroit converted a third-and-two for a first down. Barring a catastrophic fumble, the Chiefs weren’t getting the ball back. On the air, Tirico said: “The Detroit Lions are right there.” In the truck, Hyland’s pronouncement was less circumspect. “Game over,” he said.
One measure of the success of “Sunday Night Football” is how “Sunday Night Football”-ish the competing broadcasts are looking. If you tune into “Monday Night Football” or the big Sunday late-afternoon games on CBS and Fox, the rhythms and aesthetics of the broadcasts show a clear debt to “S.N.F.” For the “S.N.F.” team, Hyland says, the challenge is to “continue to distinguish our presentation from all others.” He and Gaudelli had talked about this, he said later. “There’s really not a lot that separates the A-level shows anymore. Everyone is trying to do the exact same show.” Competitors are certainly throwing money at the problem. In addition to the billions they pay the N.F.L. for rights, the networks in recent years have shelled out huge sums to re-sign top broadcast-booth talent and lure glamorous new announcers. In May 2022, Fox Sports announced that it had landed Tom Brady as the lead analyst for its N.F.L. broadcasts, in a deal said to be the most lucrative in television sports history, a reported $375 million for 10 years.
The broadcasters engaged in this arms race are, arguably, fighting the last war. The generations that have come of age with social media may not attach the same mystique, or FOMO, to a live event unfolding in real time. Why bother watching the whole game when you can catch quick-hitting highlights on an app? A trend of disaggregation and downsizing can be seen across fan culture and sports media. Fantasy football and prop betting view games through a splintered lens, prizing individual stats and discrete in-game events over wins and losses. There are alternative telecasts like ESPN’s “ManningCast” starring Peyton and Eli, which refigures “Monday Night Football” as a chatty hang with the bros, and the NFL Network’s “RedZone,” whose whip-around coverage offers viewers multiple games at once in split-screen formats.
The “S.N.F.” model — airing one floodlit weekly game, from opening kickoff to final whistle — is, by definition, dowdy. But for the time being, at least, it’s huge. NBC tallied an audience of 27.5 million watching the Kickoff game across broadcast and streaming platforms. It ranked as media’s most-watched prime-time show since the last Super Bowl. Three nights later, the whole operation had trucked to MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., for Cowboys-Giants, the show’s first Sunday broadcast of the year. It was a washout: a 40-0 Cowboys rout, in the driving rain, that found “S.N.F.” filibustering its way through a dismal second half with segments like a Melissa Stark report about the leg tattoo of the Cowboys’ quarterback, Dak Prescott. Yet, according to NBC, the game still earned a viewership of 22 million. Through the first 11 weeks of the 2023 season, “S.N.F.” is averaging 21.4 million viewers, a 7 percent increase from last year and the show’s best performance since 2015.
But it is not the way of “Sunday Night Football” to gloat. Three days after Cowboys-Giants, the production team was in Stamford, in the conference room again, doing a post-mortem on its first two games. That morning, Hyland had sent an email to the staff that included his granular review of the Kickoff-game telecast. He found many areas for improvement:
First 4 or 5 replays were a little late — Cris was waiting — awkward silence.
Play-action pass to Josh Reynolds — should have froze VT-99 when the LBs stepped up.
Did not replay Mahomes scramble for 1st down before the end of the qtr.
Pylon video needs to be addressed.
Rashee Rice reaction to commercial after the TD was not good.
Black virtual line of scrimmage line for the Chiefs looked terrible.
Mike was close to getting clipped out of breaks.
“I want to be a little bit tough and thorough this first week,” Hyland told the group in the conference room. “I just really want everyone to think about precision and execution. There is a lot we can and must do better. I know, America probably doesn’t even notice this stuff. But we notice, right?”
Jody Rosen is a contributing writer for the magazine and the author of “Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle.” Brian Finke is a photographer from Texas who lives in Brooklyn. His last assignment for the magazine was a feature on Formula 1 and the Netflix docuseries “Drive to Survive.”
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