After garnering yet another record-breaking season, the last thing you’d expect to hear from Fox Sports is the need to improve. But improving the on-air product year after year is exactly what keeps NFL on Fox at the top of the charts.
In 2010, NFL on Fox bested its own average-audience record (19.1 million, set in 2009) by 1 million viewers (20.1 million per game) and recorded its highest household rating in 15 years, making last season the most-watched in Fox history. According to ratings released by Nielsen Media Research at the end of last season, Fox Sports reigns as America’s No. 1 sports network, a distinction the network has held for 14 straight years.
“We have a very uniform vision in how we want to see the sport presented, and it’s something that, when Ed [Goren, vice chairman, Fox Sports Media Group,] and I started this in ’94, is a process,” says Fox Sports Chairman/CEO David Hill. “Television has to change minute by minute with the audience. A show that looked fantastic in ’94 or ’95 is not going to fly with audiences today.”
Improving Coverage All Season Long
NFL on Fox kicks off its 18th season on Sept. 11 with a double dose of football. The first of nine America’s Game of the Week national doubleheaders features the New York Giants and Washington Redskins in an NFC East showdown. Currently, Fox is scheduled to broadcast 108 regular-season games, enhancing the camera setup for the A-, B-, and C-level broadcasts.
“We wanted to improve our coverage across the board,” says Mike Davies, VP of technical operations for Fox Sports, “[for] not only our biggest games but our B- and C-level games as well.” Fox Sports will add at least one super-mo and one Inertia Unlimited X-Mo camera to every production.
“The A crew always had four super-mos,” he continues. “Adding the X-Mo and the super-mos together is going to give more visual clarity in terms of replays than we’ve had before.”
To maximize the X-Mo’s potential, Fox Sports added a double sideline cart to every package, with one turret devoted to the X-Mo while the other turret continued to operate a normal camera. Davies’s crew will be able to experiment with the camera throughout the season by changing the placement of the X-Mo or using it as a handheld.
Fox Sports will roll out the same fleet of trucks this season for its A, B, and C games with one brand-new addition: NEP’s SS22. After a tryout at the PGA Championships, the SS22 traveled to Jacksonville, FL, on Aug. 19 for a preseason bout between the Jaguars and Atlanta Falcons before taking up its permanent post as one of two B-game mobile units.
“It’s a beautiful brand-new truck, and we were involved at the very beginning of its design,” says Davies, as the team prepares for the preseason contest in Jacksonville. “We’re excited to get crackin’ on it.”
Keeping the Audience With the Game
A key initiative for the Fox Sports team is keeping the fan engaged with the game itself. To this end, the Vizrt graphics package and Fox Box will remain largely the same as last year (the Fox Box will be slightly smaller and take better advantage of Fox Sports’ widescreen format), providing the fans with in-game information without distracting them from the action on the field.
“We want to keep everything in the moment and never take the audience away from the field of play,” explains Hill. That means no full-screen graphics, no missed snaps, and making sure viewers can see the team break the huddle and get to the line of scrimmage.
Fox Sports President Eric Shanks echoes this idea, opining that the improvement process requires scrutinizing every game, maintaining an on-going dialog with production team and talent, and remembering that the game is first and foremost.
“We spend a lot of time talking about what makes the broadcast a good listen, what makes it a good feel,” he says, “and making sure our guys are not trying to format a live game, that we’re letting the game dictate the broadcast.”
NFL on Fox Gets Animated
The animation package, however, has been updated significantly. This season, the NFL on Fox broadcast will feature new open, replay wipes, and interstitials.
A staple of NFL on Fox, Cleatus the Robot, will get a makeover as well. Gary Hartley, EVP/creative director for Fox Sports and father of the robot, plans to reposition Cleatus, giving him more personality while keeping him within the Fox Sports brand.
“We added functionality to it; we made it a little cooler, a little more fun,” he says. Wanting to situate Cleatus as more of a super-hero figure, Hartley’s crew teamed with Blur, a company that specializes in videogames, movie effects, and character animation, to outfit the robot with jetpacks, shields, and stabilizers.
“The production value that was put into [the robot] was pretty high,” says Hartley. “It feels bigger, it has more scale.”
Trek Across the Pond
NFL on Fox will travel to the United Kingdom on Oct. 23 to broadcast a special presentation from London, as the Chicago Bears take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Wembley Stadium. The fifth time an NFL game was played overseas, this season’s contest will be Fox Sports’ second trip across the pond.
“We’re excited to get back to London,” says Davies. “We did the first regular-season London game years ago.” The Miami Dolphins hosted the New York Giants at Wembley on Oct. 28, 2007.
Fox Sports employed UK-based OB company CTV and worked alongside the NFL and Wembley to develop an approach that would appeal to an American audience. CBS followed in Fox Sports’ footsteps, using the same vendors and building on Fox Sports’ infrastructure to broadcast games from London in 2008, 2009, and 2010.
“[CBS] got to build upon and refine the original plan, so we’ve got a whole set of facilities and people over there that now know how to do that game very well,” says Davies. “We’re looking forward to getting back and seeing how things have been improved upon over the years.”
Putting the Lockout in the Rearview Mirror
With an enhanced camera complement, updated animation, and preparation to head overseas, Fox Sports is ready to kick off the regular season this Sunday. As the network looks to extend its “America’s No. 1 sports network” distinction for a 15th year, the lockout is a mere memory for all involved in the broadcast.
“We couldn’t let the lockout affect our preparation whatsoever,” says Davies. “When they finally did get the lockout settled, we didn’t miss a step. We were all ready to go.”