In Depth

NFL Amps Up Action on TV

Famous Faces, Tech Tweaks Add Sizzle

New faces on some channels, fewer faces on others, and a whole lot more access to the action set the stage for the 2008-09 National Football League broadcast season as networks finalize plans for game coverage.

Last year’s season saw record ratings for most of the networks, culminating with the most-watched Super Bowl of all time. Now studios are out to capitalize on that momentum by adding some famous faces to their pre-game coverage, and tightening up broadcast teams for the in-game action. While Fox has added Michael Strahan and NBC has tapped Dan Patrick for its telecasts, ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” is tweaking its format heading into the new season.

Fox

“NFL on Fox” adds new blood in its pre-game show, a rarity for the series, by tapping the talents of former New York Giants player Michael Strahan as an analyst, joining Howie Long and Jimmy Johnson. Curt Menefee will continue as host of the series with Terry Bradshaw on board as co-host. Before signing with Fox, Mr. Strahan had quickly become a hot commodity among the NFL networks following his retirement earlier in the year.

“Our pre-game show is going into its 15th year and while we’ve added elements through the years, Michael is the first analyst to be added to the main desk,” said Fox Sports President Ed Goren. “There have been other opportunities over the years, but they never felt right. In Michael’s case, however, we think he is a wonderful fit for us, as there is such a likability factor that was hard to resist.”

A key addition was made to the broadcast booth as well, with Fox tapping former Baltimore Ravens Coach Brian Billick as an in-game analyst. Mr. Billick will join Thom Brennaman for some games, and when Fox has less than seven games on a weekend, he will team with Dick Stockton and Brian Baldinger for a three-man booth.

“A lot of guys want to go to the studio when they finish their careers in the NFL, because doing games is a challenge,” said Mr. Goren. “But I spoke with [Mr. Billick] and noted that if you look across all the networks and all of their game analysts, only one former coach (John Madden) is sitting in that seat, and he’s had a nice career.”

CBS
The network picked up a quarterback, as Dan Fouts, the NFL Hall of Famer and former All-Pro quarterback with the San Diego Chargers, returns to CBS as an in-game analyst. Mr. Fouts comes to CBS from ABC, where he called college games.

Mr. Fouts served as an analyst for CBS Sports’ coverage of “The NFL on CBS” from 1988-93. During those years, Mr. Fouts primarily teamed with Dick Stockton and Verne Lundquist in calling games. He will call selected games throughout the 2008 “NFL on CBS” schedule, as well as selected games for CBS Sports’ “SEC on CBS” broadcasts and CBS College Sports Network’s college football coverage.

The big addition for the CBS family, however, will be the acquisition of former HBO staple series “Inside the NFL” for Showtime, where James Brown, Cris Collinsworth, Phil Simms and Warren Sapp will host the weekly roundtable discussions beginning Sept. 10.

“This is a dream job,” said Mr. Sapp, who has served as a guest analyst on CBS Sports’ NFL pre-game show, “The NFL Today.” “It’s the job I’ve always talked about wanting after my playing career. ‘Inside the NFL” has been a staple of television for a long time. The show digs deeper into the games and the issues surrounding the league, more than any other football show out there. I think this new approach will be fresh. For my part, I just came off the field and I’ve got 13 years of experience in the trenches to bring to the table.”

NBC
Taking its turn with the Super Bowl this year, NBC added talent to “Football Night in America” by bringing Dan Patrick to the show, reuniting him with fellow former “SportsCenter” anchor Keith Olbermann.

Producers for NBC’s football coverage are quick to point out that the addition to an already star-studded cast that includes Bob Costas, Cris Collinsworth, Tiki Barber and Jerome Bettis will only provide more insight for fans of the game.

“Obviously Bob is the host, and he’ll deal with the big stories of the day, along with Cris,” said Fred Gaudelli, executive producer of “NBC Sunday Night Football.” “And Dan and Keith are going to do the highlights, as they do better than anyone. And Tiki and Jerome will work with Cris and kind of tell you why it happened and why it should have happened or why it didn’t happen. So I think you’ve got a pretty good formula in the studio over the course of the 75 minutes they’re on, where there’s enough piece of the pie for everyone to excel.”

NBC also will be streaming its games online for the first time, with Sunday night matches made available on both NBC- and NFL-owned sites.

ESPN
Perhaps the biggest changes structurally will come from the sports network, with tweaks planned for both the legendary “Monday Night Football” as well as within the NFL studio.

On “MNF,” while Mike Tirico, Tony Kornheiser and Ron Jaworski remain the faces of the game from the broadcast booth, producers are cutting out some of the fat. This year’s telecasts will focus more on down-on-down football, eliminating the booth guests scheduled in recent years. Sideline reports will occur only in rare situations involving injury or breaking news.

“We did a lot of research during the offseason and heard time and time again that the Monday night game is our fans’ prime-time drama, and we learned they want us to dig deeper and focus more on the nuances of the game,” said Jed Drake, senior vice president and executive producer of event production at ESPN. “As we enter our third year, we realized that while we took some risks, there were some things that viewers didn’t appreciate [in] the way we wanted, and we decided to fix that and will now bring viewers right into the action, with a special emphasis on Ron Jaworski.”

Meanwhile, the game will offer enhanced graphics to allow more of the screen to be seen during the game, increase the use of player tracking and add super slo-mo cameras, which shoots around 300 frames per second, to the coverage.

“The trick with these cameras is to find a way to eliminate the blur without increasing the length of the replay,” Mr. Drake said. “We think we found that balance at around 270 frames per second, which benefits not only the officials but our analysts and viewers at home as well.”

From the NFL Studio, former players Cris Carter, Trent Dilfer and Tim Hasselbeck will join “NFL Live,” while Emmitt Smith will shift to an expanded Sunday morning “SportsCenter.”
This season marks Chris Berman’s 30th year covering the NFL for ESPN.

NFL Network
With Bryant Gumbel departing the broadcast booth, the NFL Network tapped Bob Papa to join Cris Collinsworth to call the games. To top it off, the channel is adding new series to its lineup of original programming, including “NFL Replay Real-Time,” “Starting 11,” “Live Wire,” “Team Cam” and “America’s Game: The Missing Rings.”

“Everyone can expect a lot more of what we’ve been establishing since we launched, which is more coverage and more opportunities to service this amazing fan base,” said Eric Weinberger, executive producer, NFL Network. “There is such a hunger for this information, and that was the basis for some of the really exciting things that we are going to be doing this year.”

Perhaps the most innovative of the new shows is “NFL Replay Real-Time,” which in 60 minutes will span all the games played the previous day and deliver time-stamped highlights of the key plays. According to the network, if Brett Favre throws a touchdown pass at 1:06 p.m. and Devin Hester returns a punt for a touchdown at 1:11 p.m., fans will see those big plays and more from a different perspective—as they unfolded in real time.

“We’ve looked at a couple versions so far for the pre-season and it’s been amazing,” said Mr. Weinberger. “The real challenge was being able to turn it around in a couple of hours. What we’ve been able to do here in such a short amount of time truly speaks volumes about the excitement of the new season.”