Sunday Night Football's Game Behind the Game

NBC’s Sunday Night Football isn’t only the most-watched show on television—it’s also one of the most complicated to produce. As the show’s veteran crew gears up for Super Bowl LII, we go behind the scenes to see how the magic happens. 

Sunday Night Football's Game Behind the Game

Photography Matt Conant

The sound of the opening kickoff of an NFL game involves the surging roar of the crowd and

the crack of pads, but inside the high-tech truck where the broadcast is produced it’s a little different:

“Dissolve 40. Ready 2. Take 2.”

“Standby Cowboys left 13.”

“Let’s go left 13.”

“Cue it up right there 61.”

“35, kicker, 35.”

“Replay 83.”

“Ready 83. Wipe to 83. 10 wipe on far side.”

The voices are those of Drew Esocoff, the director of NBC’s Sunday Night Football, and Fred Gaudelli, the show’s executive producer, their faces illuminated by a floor-to-ceiling array of high-definition video monitors that span one wall of the soundproofed, windowless control truck. (The numbers refer to the dozens of camera angles and replay possibilities available.) The dialogue lasts exactly 28 seconds, which is how long it takes for Dallas Cowboys return specialist Ryan Switzer to catch a booming, 63-yard kick from the Philadelphia Eagles’ Jake Elliott and run it back 61 yards before finally being muscled out of bounds.

It’s a dramatic half-minute of football in the November 19 matchup at the Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium between the NFC East rivals, but nothing that Gaudelli and Esocoff haven’t seen thousands of times before. They’ve worked together since 1983, first at ESPN and now at NBC, where they’ve helped make Sunday Night Football the most-watched show on television for six straight years. On February 4, they will be in this same truck, parked inside Minneapolis’ U.S. Bank Stadium, to produce Super Bowl LII. It will be Gaudelli’s sixth Super Bowl and Esocoff’s fifth.

 

Esocoff, an intense man with close-cropped hair and a thick New Jersey accent, directs each game while sitting at a desk in the production truck facing the video wall, which displays feeds from the 35 cameras filming the game, plus all the available replays and graphics. Standing behind Esocoff and to his left, like a submarine captain looking over the shoulder of his executive officer, is Gaudelli, a native New Yorker whose crossed arms and relaxed demeanor bespeak long experience in command.

Although there are five other production technicians in the room, Gaudelli and Esocoff are clearly running the show. When everything is clicking during a broadcast, their back-and-forth patter has a Zen-like quality. The broadcast seems to enter a nearly frictionless flow state in which camera angles are called up before they are requested, graphics appear unbidden, replays materialize out of the ether. “As the director, you’re not directing 30 camera guys between every play,” Esocoff says. “Those guys know what we expect, and we know what they’re going to offer, so a lot of this stuff is done with silent communication.”

The same is true of the relationship between the production truck and the broadcast booth, where it’s the job of play-by-play legend Al Michaels and analyst Cris Collinsworth to interpret the game for viewers at home. “There’s a reason why Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have been the best for a long time,” says Collinsworth, who has called Sunday Night Football games with Michaels since 2009, when he replaced the retiring John Madden. “It’s the same system. They draft into the system, they have the same coordinators, the same head coach and quarterback. Well, Fred Gaudelli and Drew Esocoff and John Madden and Al Michaels started this train running. They kept improving it all the time. John retired and I sort of jumped on, so they trained me up.” As Michaels puts it, “We’ve all worked together for a very long time. It’s almost as if we’re an offensive line, and we all know what the other guys are doing. Everybody knows what everybody’s job is. It’s a feel more than anything else.”

 

Cris Collinsworth (standing) and Al Michaels (seated) prepare for the Eagles-Cowboys game

It’s Thursday before the game, and a convoy of four NBC production trucks carrying $120 million worth of technology rumbles into AT&T Stadium and parks on the lower concourse. Crews fan out to take on their various duties, some focused on audio, some on video, some on details such as set design. Over the next few days, they rig up a complex nervous system: 30 miles of cables stemming from the trucks throughout the stadium to the on-field studio, to sideline reporter Michele Tafoya’s setup, to the myriad cameras rigged in the perfect spots—some handheld, some on cranes, some high up in the seats or directly over the play.

The Skycam, which zips around behind the play on cables, is taking on more and more prominence in the broadcast. This year, NBC has been experimenting with using the Skycam, positioned just behind the quarterback, as the principal shot to start each play, instead of the traditional high wide-angle shot from the side of the field. “I’d say the response to it has been 50-50,” Esocoff says. “And I think the demarcation line is, people who grew up playing the Madden video game, that’s the look they’re used to. And those of us who didn’t grow up playing the Madden game are probably more apt to enjoy the traditional view.”

For the Super Bowl, they’ll add a few more end zone cameras to make sure they have definitive views of key plays; otherwise, the production will be identical to a regular-season game.

All told, it takes a team of 130 people to swoop into town and produce each broadcast, including camera operators, video technicians, replay producers, graphics designers, statisticians, riggers and makeup artists.

Early Sunday morning, Gaudelli and Esocoff gather most of the crew, including Tafoya, for a meeting. They run through hundreds of specialized graphics ranging from simple chyrons to elaborate 3D animations designed for each game. Gaudelli, a football savant, occasionally spots obscure errors. “You might want to check your math on that,” he tells an assistant. “I think the number is 39 percent.”

A few hours before game time, Gaudelli, Esocoff and replay director Charlie Vanacore gather the dozens of camera operators on the field and give them their assignments. Some will keep wide shots of the entire field; others focus on the quarterback, running backs, wide receivers or defensive line. Others still track the ball wherever it goes, or zero in on specific areas of the field. It’s a tapestry, but the aim is total visual coverage of every play. During the game, Gaudelli and Vanacore sometimes improvise and request special shots, like a look at the owner’s box or a celebrity in the stands.

Gaudelli, a 21-time Emmy Award winner, is widely considered the top NFL broadcast producer, due in part to his focus on what happens away from the ball. While spectators follow the quarterback, he’s looking for subplots: a rookie left tackle struggling with a nasty pass rusher—how will that affect play calling? How will that affect this drive? What kind of commentary can Collinsworth add?

“Look, there are great players who don’t touch the ball,” Gaudelli says. “[Former Cowboys guard] Larry Allen is one of the greatest players of all time, and he never touched the ball. Reggie White, Lawrence Taylor, those guys might have touched the ball on a sack, but they were doing a lot more than that. If all you do is show the ball, you’re missing so much of what this game is about.” To understand these subplots, Gaudelli coaches his camera operators to track key linemen based on his production team’s research. He spends the previous week studying the lineups of both teams, understanding their strengths, weaknesses, injuries, tendencies.
 

It’s fourth and 5 on the Dallas 17 and Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz fires a pass to Alshon Jeffery. Touchdown. The ensuing replay has to come up quickly, be on-point, from all kinds of angles, and have instant insights from Collinsworth. To achieve this feat, live feeds from each of the cameras stream back to the production trucks, where a team of 14 technicians immediately record, label and save multiple angles of every play on replay machines.

While Michaels is doing the play-by-play live, Collinsworth, unbeknownst to viewers, uses the “talkback” button to confer with Gaudelli about replay strategy. Sometimes Gaudelli tells him which replay is coming; other times Collinsworth requests a specific angle. Or sometimes it’s just that Zen-like frictionless flow state, with Collinsworth intuiting what replay will appear. In the few seconds it takes for the play to transpire and for Esocoff to call for the replay, Collinsworth usually knows what he’s going to see, what he’s going to say about the players, their skills, their brilliance, their errors, and, occasionally, how he’s going to diagram it.

Then, they get ready to do it again, reacting in real time to the high-speed collisions of 22 men, bringing viewers in close, adding context. If everything goes smoothly, all this behind-the-scenes work remains invisible to the viewer. “The most important part of the job is making sure the pictures you see on TV match what the talent is talking about,” Esocoff says. “To me, that’s a critical thing, or else the whole show seems disjointed. I let Fred [Gaudelli] and the talent set the path, and I fine-tune how people are going to see it on television.”

As its creators freely acknowledge, Sunday Night Football is the number-one show on television for many reasons, but a large share of credit goes to the crew’s culture of perfectionism, and the camaraderie that drives it.

“Nobody’s ever happy,” says Collinsworth, who is known to spend hours editing his own research tapes in addition to reviewing scouting reports or talking on the phone with coaches. “If I take a few minutes off to relax during the week, I feel like I’m letting the guys down,” he says. “And I know they feel the same way, too.”

“We want to be perfect,” adds Michaels. “It doesn’t happen very often. But once in a while, you know, you almost get there, and you’re pretty happy. And then you’ve got to turn around and do it the next Sunday.”

Sunday Night Football By the Numbers

Seasons: 11 (founded 2006)

Emmy Awards: 26

Production team: 130 employees

Cameras: 35

Miles of cable: Approximately 30

Production trucks: 4

Total cost of production trucks: $120 million

Weekly budget: $1 million

Cost of a single replay machine: $250,000

Weight of heaviest camera: 90 pounds (Sony HDC-4300)