The NFL Draft’s move to primetime last year resulted in a philosophical shift by ESPN, which is taking a less-is-more approach to covering the event. Traditionally considered a marathon telecast that filled every square centimeter of the frame and crammed in as many talking heads as possible, ESPN’s early-round coverage has segued into a cleaner and more efficient primetime event focused on informing rather than overwhelming.
“The change to Thursday night was a major format shift, and it has really accelerated the speed of the first round,” says producer Bryan Ryder. “Our primary intent this year is to streamline everything. We wanted to take away some of the clutter and stay as efficient and clean as possible.”
This new approach is reflected in ESPN’s decision to implement a wider full-screen presentation without the scrolling graphic on the right-hand side of the frame and to further reduce its use of on-air talent at Radio City Music Hall.
“The Draft is just so fast now under the new format,” says Rider. “You’re constantly behind the 8-ball in terms of the clock. Last year was our first run through it, and we’ve made the appropriate changes for this year.”
The full-screen presentation is part of a concerted effort to eradicate the glut of graphical content that has been a staple of ESPN’s Draft coverage for years. The bottom-line crawl will serve as the sole constant graphic on-screen.
After eliminating a significant amount of on-site talent at the Draft last year, the talent on the main set this year has gone from five to three. Draft veterans Chris Berman and Mel Kiper Jr. will join Jon Gruden (Steve Young and Tom Jackson were also present last year) on the main set. In addition, a telestrator with full playback control will make its first appearance at the Draft, under the command of Gruden.
The other two sets at Radio City will remain unchanged, with Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter manning the secondary set in the first mezzanine and Suzy Kolber conducting interviews on a third set near the stage and throughout Radio City.
Overcoming the Time Crunch
ESPN will once again deploy NEP Supershooter 25, the Monday Night Football unit, for its 16 hours of Draft coverage. The network’s 18 cameras comprise two RF Steadicams, three jibs, five hard cameras (all at the main set and podium), and a battalion of handhelds.
Although the mobile unit and camera complement remain similar to last year’s coverage, the setup will be markedly different. Because of a Sunday-night concert at Radio City, ESPN was not able to begin setup until Monday afternoon, and its trucks could not be parked on-site until Tuesday morning. In an effort to overcome this time crunch, Supershooter 25 A and B were prepped in Bristol, CT, on Monday rather than on arrival at Radio City. ESPN will also rely more heavily on fiber than usual.
“We’re going to put a lot more fiber cable in for our audio and video monitoring,” says ESPN Senior Operations Manager Steve Carter. “We’ll still use triax for the cameras, but we will use TAC-12 fiber for our audio and video monitoring. By using the fiber optics, it saves a lot of time pulling the cable in. We gain a few hours back by pulling fiber-optic cable rather than DT12 and coax.”
More Players Than Ever
ESPN expects to have 25 of the top prospective draftees in the Green Room (the most ever present at the Draft), as well as Glowpoint HD telepresence video conferencing with all 32 NFL teams (at least five accompanied by reporters), and 25 on-site setups for top players around the country (several with reporters).
“We’ll have more players covered this year between the Green Room and the live shots than we ever have,” says Rider. “We could potentially have a reaction from all 32 picks in the first round, which is pretty unprecedented.”
In addition, Jeremy Schaap will cover events hosted by the NFL Players Association during Draft weekend and supply any breaking news regarding the ongoing NFL labor dispute.
ESPN will also deploy the virtual-graphics technology seen during several high-profile telecasts over the past year, including Winter X Games and the network’s Super Bowl coverage. The system uses sensors on the two main jibs to create the illusion of real signage and banners.
“Instead of using a full-page graphic for ‘best available players,’ we can utilize this technology to really dress it up and make it look like there are banners hanging at Radio City,” says Rider. “We’re really excited to see how this looks with the backdrop of Radio City because it’s obviously a tremendous venue.”
A Vault of Highlight Packages, Matrix-Style Bumpers
ESPN’s production crew will hit the Draft with more than 300 highlight packages in tow, a considerable bump up from about 200 packages in 2010.
“The [amount of player-highlight packages] speaks to the uncertainty of the draft this year,” says Rider. “Compared to most years, there are very few picks where you know how it’s going to play out. We handle that by covering our bases as much as possible.”
More than 75 rapid-fire player bumpers of prospects shot in a 16-camera “Matrix-style” environment will be used in and out of commercial breaks. These segments were produced using 14 locked-off cameras situated in a semicircle around the player in front of a blackscreen, along with an overhead camera and a handheld. Footage from all 16 cameras was then integrated to create the Matrix-style 360-degree effect.
“It was the first time that we attempted something like that or that anyone in TV has really attempted it outside of a few big commercials,” says Rider. “We would get [the players] on the set and just run them through drills and try to highlight their personalities using this Matrix [technology].”
At the NFL Combine in February, ESPN also captured live shots of more than 125 players over a green screen. These will be used as part of title cards when a player is drafted and allows ESPN to insert the player’s new team into the virtual environment behind them.