Oct. 9, 2014
By Karen Heisler
Several minutes before the 3 p.m. pre-game show goes live to 211 network affiliates across the country, a pair of international broadcast partners and a Web stream audience, Rob Hyland, the producer of Notre Dame Football on NBC, slips into his chair in the cramped and windowless production truck that sits just outside the media entrance to Notre Dame Stadium.
Over the next five or so hours, Hyland, fueled by adrenaline, a laser-like focus and cans of Coca-Cola, will rarely, if ever, leave his perch before a wall of 20-plus monitors as he oversees the behind-the-scenes chaos that characterizes the live production of a major sporting event.
Viewers see a fluid telecast that weaves together a variety of elements–live video from 20 cameras, commentary from analysts in the booth, on the field and in the studio, pre-produced feature packages, replays, graphics, music and, of course, commercials. But, most know little about how those intricate pieces mesh into a seamless, compelling production that often offers the audience one of the “best seats in the house.”
Television is never as quick and easy as it looks to the viewer.
“Game Day” for Hyland, and a few other members of his 80-person crew, actually began in early summer with preparation for the 2014 season, the 24th year of Notre Dame Football on NBC. There were site visits to both Notre Dame Stadium and Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis since NBC also would televise the Shamrock Series matchup against Purdue in the Circle City. There were numerous phone and email conversations with Notre Dame athletic department administrators and information-gathering sessions with Irish coaches. Plus, lots of behind-the-scenes planning and production work on opens and graphics themes as well as discussions on telecast strategies, technology and staffing began to take place.
“I love the atmosphere of a college football game,” said Hyland, who played football at Williams College in the late nineties. “The bands, the cheerleaders and the fans all make it unique. The players on the field are also 18-22 year-old student-athletes who have to find a way to balance the demands of school with the demands of playing time for a big-time college program.”
Once college football season starts, Hyland and his crew follow a routine that requires long hours, perseverance and passion for what they do. In contrast to popular relief, working in sports television is rarely glamorous. Travel and 12-plus hour workdays are the norm rather than the exception. And during the season, there is rarely a day off.
Hyland and director Pierre Moossa begin planning for the next telecast almost as soon the screen fades to black on the Saturday broadcast. After traveling back to their homes on the East Coast, both will watch the previous game of Notre Dame’s next home opponent and take notes on what to expect when that team comes to Notre Dame. This particular task also gives them ideas for storylines, interviews and graphics. Although many members of NBC’s on-air talent crew have broadcasting obligations on Sunday, they also manage to watch film of Notre Dame’s opponent during the week.
Mondays mean research. NBC staffers generally spend hours talking to the football media relations directors of both schools, culling information, statistics, historical facts and figures and discovering potentially interesting developments surrounding the respective programs. All that data adds to the storylines and atmosphere of the upcoming games and often can help set a theme or angle to the telecast. Hyland, Moossa and the on-air staff try to ready everything they can get their hands on that references Notre Dame football as well as its next opponent. The production elements for the broadcast–graphics and pre-produced packages–also start to take shape on Mondays.
Key production staff members generally meet on Tuesdays of a telecast week to review the previous game’s production to learn what they did well and what they could improve on in upcoming broadcasts. Most of the time the staff is its own harshest critic. Work also continues on the production elements and graphics.
On Wednesday, Hyland and others will talk via conference call to the visiting team’s head coach, offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator and a few key players. NBC may also send a crew to that campus, if necessary. In the world of sports broadcasting, coaches and television personnel understand that what’s said in those conversations stays among themselves.
Hyland, Moossa, production manager Jackie Smith and others from NBC Sports’ headquarters, now located in Stamford, Connecticut, usually travel to South Bend on Thursdays of game week, almost always arriving in time to attend Notre Dame’s practice.
Work and preparation kicks into an even higher, more intense gear on Fridays. Hyland, Moossa and on-air talent Dan Hicks, Mike Mayock, Kathryn Tappen, Liam McHugh, Doug Flutie and Hines Ward meet with Irish head coach Brian Kelly, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and a few players. Then, an early evening production meeting, that usually lasts 90 minutes to two hours, brings talent and key production staff members together to review the next day’s game plan for the telecast. While lots of individuals have worked on their own assignments and responsibilities during the week, that Friday night gathering, followed by a “team dinner,” makes sure everyone in front of the camera as well as behind it is on the same page.
And Saturday, as everyone knows, is when the plan comes together.
The following offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse into NBC’s 2014 season opening telecast of Notre Dame versus Rice.
Hyland, who began producing NBC’s football broadcasts in 2009, understands full well that no matter how much pre-game planning goes into a telecast, something unpredictable almost always will tinker with that script. For the 2014 Irish home opener against Rice, the potential for bad weather began hovering over the NBC crew several days before kickoff. The National Weather Service predicted severe storms with hazardous lightning, conditions that could elicit a stadium evacuation sometime midway through the game. Even though NBC had been through this scenario before–when Notre Dame Stadium was evacuated twice (and for the first time in its history)–during the 2011 home opener against South Florida, the current threat of nasty weather was a prominent topic of conversation and concern for all involved. The production crew and on-air talent had to be prepared for every scenario, and there had to be a contingency plan in both South Bend and Stamford, Connecticut, if the game went into an extended delay. Although the storm was still on the horizon, the potentially dark and dangerous cloud was never far from anyone’s thoughts.
But, still, this was the season opener, and the NBC staff had to focus on the game — no matter the uncertainty of the weather.
During that Friday night meeting led by Hyland, key production personnel and the on-air talent were provided a relatively thick package of information that included notes on both Notre Dame and Rice, a rundown of the half-hour pregame show as well as the live game telecast and postgame show. The staff discussed talking points and themes and watched the pre-produced graphics and packages. Although the meeting isn’t a rehearsal, it does provide an opportunity to dissect the TV “game plan” and make necessary changes.
This season opener provided more than its share of potential storylines. Everett Golson was returning as the Irish quarterback after missing the 2013 season. Notre Dame had new defensive and offensive coordinators. Five Irish veterans had been suspended from football activities for the time being. Notre Dame Stadium now had FieldTurf, a controversial decision some Irish traditionalists were still bemoaning loudly. As analyst Mike Mayock told the group, “This is not your father’s Notre Dame.” That theme would be repeated and played out throughout the telecast.
And Rice offered its own storylines. A prominent Rice player was a game-day decision. The Owls had finished 10-4 in 2013, but they had lost by a combined 58 points to two Southeastern Conference schools. Rice, the second smallest school in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision, is one of the most prestigious schools in the country, along with Notre Dame. And the Owls’ starting tackle Ian Gray just happens to be the son and namesake of the former Irish Monogram winner who had flown from work in Saudi Arabia to South Bend for the game.
For the 2014 season, NBC decided to make Doug Flutie, a prominent presence in the pre-game, halftime and post-game shows, a sideline analyst during the telecast. This broadcast would be the first opportunity to showcase Flutie, who began working on NBC’s Notre Dame football telecasts in 2013, in that new role.
Hyland and Moossa both encouraged Flutie to roam the sidelines during the game and relate his location to the crew when he had something to contribute to the broadcast.
In addition, the season opener also marked the debut of the newest member of the on-air crew of Notre Dame Football on NBC. Kathryn Tappen would be serving as the sideline reporter for her first game at Notre Dame Stadium, and she needed to be introduced to the audience.
So, there was plenty to talk about even without the weather. Yet, everyone knew if the storm did arrive as feared, all the planning would throw everything and everyone off kilter.
Saturday’s production crew has an early wake-up call with many members arriving shortly after 7:30 a.m. Many of the camera operators, technical personnel and runners are based near South Bend and work as independent contractors for NBC Sports. And most have done this for a number of years.
Hyland arrives at the trucks around 9 a.m. and begins making sure everyone is ready for the job ahead.
At 12:30 p.m. Moossa, who directs the broadcast and sits next to Hyland in the truck, meets with the camera operators on the fourth floor of the Notre Dame Stadium press box to share the telecast’s game plan and potential storylines and to remind them what they hope those lenses will capture for the viewers. Each camera operator has his or her area of coverage, and all are experienced veterans. They receive a game-day packet that includes game notes, timing rundowns, flip cards, depth charts and a two-sided legal-sized sheet that offers all sorts of information on camera assignments, replay assignments and head shots of key individuals that NBC might be looking for in the stands and on the sidelines. Moosa makes it very clear what sorts of camera angles he’s looking for on almost every conceivable play.
Moossa tells the crew one of the criticisms of NBC’s coverage of Notre Dame football is that it too often resembles the telecast of an NFL game.
“My New Year’s resolution is to show more shots of the crowd, the leprechaun, the band and the pageantry of Notre Dame football,” he said. “Help me find those scenes.”
And once again, the weather plays a prominent role in Moossa’s advice to the camera operators. He assures them that while everyone in the NBC truck and at the university will be keeping a close eye on the radar, “If you don’t feel safe, lock the camera down and leave.”
During the meeting with the production staff, color analyst Mike Mayock, now in his fifth season on the Notre Dame broadcasts, talks with the NBC statistics crew whose members sit in the broadcast booth as well as near the official Irish stat crew on the third level of the press box. He tells them what sort of stats he’s particularly interested in and again offers the perspective that with all the changes, “This is not your father’s Notre Dame.”
Hyland directs another meeting with the pre-game, halftime and post-game talent in a small conference room in the NBC office on the first floor of the stadium. The room holds two TV monitors–one is tuned to the Michigan-Appalachian State game, while the other offers the weather radar. The group rehashes storylines and game plans and feels confident it’s ready to kickoff the season.
After rehearsals of the pre-game show in the portable set situated in the southwest corner of the stadium, it’s time for some last-minute checks and adjustments as the crew and talent take their places and wait for the red light to go on.
A live television production features a thousand moving pieces, but a sports broadcast has a million, often uncontrollable, parts. As producer, Hyland has to make all those elements fit without missing a beat. And he has to do it on the fly while relaying instructions to his crew and on-air talent amid the chatter and the clatter of a multi-million dollar control room that just happens to be squashed into a semi-truck. He has to make sure the packages air, the graphics move in and out, the replays work effectively, the sponsors’ promotional copy gets read and the commercials all air on time. And on this particular occasion, he has to do his regular job while also keeping one eye on the green, yellow and orange blob on the radar screen that’s quickly approaching South Bend.
Producing is not for the faint of heart or for someone who can’t think on his feet. And those on the crew have to have thick skin, the ability to adapt to changing conditions quickly and recover immediately from missteps and miscues.
While a hundred things may go wrong during the broadcast, the odds are pretty good that no one watching at home notices. Broadcasting a sporting event is a team sport and everybody on the crew – from Hyland down to the production assistants and runners – understands how their particular role contributes to the success of the broadcast of Notre Dame Football on NBC.