The synthesized theme music. High camera views of the stadium. Pregame interviews with the star quarterback. Replays. Freeze frames. Kickoff under the lights. An experimental three-man booth. Most of the staples of modern football broadcasts debuted on Sept. 21, 1970, in the NFL's regular-season premiere of Monday Night Football.
"From Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio," intoned ABC announcer Keith Jackson, "two powers of professional football meet for the first time." Howard Cosell handled the interview with New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath. Broadcasting newcomer Don Meredith endured a series of embarrassing video lowlights from his playing career, as Cosell guffawed on a split screen. And with that, the longest-running prime-time show in American history was born -- a petri dish of technological and stylistic innovations that laid the foundation for what we will see Monday night when the Jets once again play their 1970 opponents, the Cleveland Browns.
Much of the evolution of today's football broadcasts can be traced in a straight line back to 50 seasons ago, when ABC committed $25.5 million over three years to bring "show business to sports," in the words of producer Roone Arledge. While technology has improved, and the advent of replay review has changed some artistic priorities, the product displayed in 1970 is structurally the same as what we see now.
But as the industry awaits the 2022 expiration of broadcast rights deals, it's worth asking: Are NFL broadcasts on the precipice of much more dramatic change? What will the product, and viewership, look like when Monday Night Football hits its future anniversaries?
There is a tension in broadcasting football that often requires deep subordination to the traditionally held tastes of viewers. New camera angles, graphics and even announcers are often met with skepticism. The driving force behind improving broadcasts, said ESPN content innovation leader Ed Placey, is whether the tweak has staying power to elevate the broadcast or simply "looks cool."
For example, ESPN outfitted some umpires in college football several years ago with cameras to provide an up-close look at the action. But because umpires were often focused on the interior line, rather than the ball, "it didn't really serve any specific purpose other than, 'Isn't it cool that we can see that?'" Placey said.
This season, however, ESPN gave cameras to side and/or field judges. That change actually provided the definitive angle of an onside kick attempt at the end of the Aug. 31 game between Oregon and Auburn. "It served a purpose, and it had notable results," Placey said. "That's what you try for."
According to Hans Schroeder, the NFL's executive vice president and chief operating officer of NFL Media, audiences thirst for more behind-the-scenes access as well as hearing from the primary participants in real time. But there is a limit, Placey said, to how much they will accept.
During a preseason game, for example, Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay spent several series speaking to the announcing crew from the sideline. The insight, not surprisingly, was tremendous. But would viewers accept that during a game that counted?
"When I see that in other sports," Placey said, "to me, it shouts that this is an exhibition. It definitely impacts the sanctity of competition. The technology allows for it. But is it the best thing for the game, which is a serious competition where the outcome of the game matters most?"
Indeed, technology has driven more of the changes to football than creativity has in recent decades, from stronger cameras to better lighting to the quality of replay and super slow-motion capabilities. And so has the necessity to provide replays to leagues for review, along with the perceived audience interest in determining whether a call was accurate.
Stadium cameras are routinely arranged to ensure unblocked sight lines of the sidelines to capture close plays. Today, it's common to see cameras in the end zone pylons. This season, the NFL approved ESPN to use cameras in the line-to-gain markers -- and used it to rule on a first-down challenge late in the first half of the New Orleans Saints' 30-28 victory over the Houston Texans in Week 1.
What innovations are possible in the coming years? The "Holy Grail" of football broadcasting, Placey said, is finding a way to accurately determine whether a runner crossed the plane of the end zone and/or a first down. It would probably require some version of virtual reality, such as the "K-Zone" depiction of balls and strikes in baseball. To date, no one has demonstrated a reliable technology that can both capture the position of the ball and determine when a player is down at the same time.
"The technologies we've seen have provided the illusion of capability without actually having it," Placey said. "But you look at that kind of technology in other sports and hope that it can be introduced into football. You see it in Hawk-Eye technology in tennis. It really changed the sport in a positive way. That's when you know you have a winning technology. It serves the viewer. It serves the game. It serves the players. The K-Zone technology is starting to show that effect, as well, as baseball considers whether that should be how balls and strikes are called in that sport."
Meanwhile, the NFL has relaxed some of its pacing and distribution rules that had been based on concerns of another era. It has almost eliminated "double-up" commercial breaks after scores, reducing its total to 11 for the 2018 season after hitting more than 550 in 2017, according to Schroeder. It is also allowing local television stations to broadcast games opposite the home team for home games, long considered a disincentive to home stadium attendance, and it is attempting to use newly mined data to better schedule national games of interest in local markets.
Separating replay review
The advent of replay review, in the NFL and later at the college level, generated many of the innovations in football broadcasting. But it also forced a shaky partnership between officials and broadcasters. To evaluate a call and determine whether to change it, the referee relies on the broadcast to capture the definitive angle and then provide it in a timely matter.
That arrangement hasn't been perfect. Most fans have been frustrated by instances where officials never saw the angle that could have provided a definitive look. In those cases, they were limited either by the number of cameras employed by the broadcaster, the decisions of the director or both.
As it turns out, the NFL is now taking steps to relieve broadcasters of much of this responsibility.
This season, the league is testing a method for ingesting all available camera angles into its own network and making it available in real time to the league Command Center in New York. According to Michelle McKenna, the league's senior vice president and chief information officer, the NFL has carved out work space at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey and CenturyLink Field in Seattle for testing.
"As we worked on consistency in general," McKenna said, "and how we can make sure that every game is officiated at its highest and best, we wanted to look at ways that we didn't leave the decision in the hands of someone in a broadcast truck about what angle might be the best angle to see. We'd like to be able to, if possible, sort through them ourselves with people who really have an eye toward officiating. The person in the broadcast truck -- and rightly so -- their eyes are tuned to what's right for the broadcast."
In essence, the league would use video compression software to upload the various feeds into the cloud. It would also send clips from the NFL-owned "All-29" camera that sits high atop each stadium, one that captures each of the 22 players and seven officials on the field, to give officials in New York a better understanding of who made the actual call.
The league has long rejected suggestions, from both inside and outside the game, to install proprietary replay cameras in every stadium, citing cost and competitive inequity issues. Assuming control over feed distribution is as far as it seems willing to go.
"The people that know how to broadcast our games the best, and capture the angles the best, are our broadcasters," McKenna said. "We just want to be able to use it ourselves in a way that we think is best. I think that's the best approach rather than using our own cameras."
The league has no timetable on implementing the program, but McKenna said she is "very optimistic" that current technology is suitable.
"But first we have to prove that we can do it," she said, "and that it's timely enough and the benefit is worth the cost, because the cost of this will not be insignificant."
In the meantime, however, broadcasters will be in the uncomfortable position of potentially impacting the outcome of games based not only on distribution of resources but also its immediate directorial decisions. Jay Rothman, ESPN's producer of Monday Night Football, is rooting for the day when the league handles that on its own.
"I hope that one day -- and I believe the league wants it, as well -- that they will take in these individual camera feeds into New York," Rothman said, "... because it does put a lot of pressure on us in the moment to provide these looks."
Accommodating digital migration
In some ways, television broadcasters find themselves in a similar position as newspapers in the 2000s, navigating a new platform while recognizing that its traditional content delivery remains more lucrative. The vast majority of NFL fans watch games on television, but the digital audience has far more capacity to grow.
In Week 1, for example, 43% more viewers watched games online than they did during the first week of 2018. The number was still relatively small, an average of 514,000 per game, but it grew enough to capture the attention of executives. In three years, when the time to negotiate new deals arrives, the league likely will have opportunities to shift at least some games exclusively to digital distribution.
"We have today an interest and excitement about what our games can do on those platforms and how they can bring an audience to a digital-first partner in a way that is unique in the content ecosystem," said the NFL's Schroeder. "I think we're going to have some opportunities in front of us, and as we think about the next media package that we do, I think we'll have more interest than we've ever had before and I think we're going to have to work through and figure out which of those opportunities are the best for us in a landscape and environment we should all expect to continue to be changing rapidly."
Would it be smart to abandon television, even for a small number of games? For now, at least, the NFL is hedging its bets while waiting to see how big the digital audience can grow. It will once again simulcast 11 Thursday night games on Amazon Prime, as well as stream local and national prime-time games on the NFL App. The most eye-opening digital performance to date, however, came in last season's Week 13 matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and Saints. Nielsen reported an average of 21 million television viewers, while the league tracked another 1.1 viewers on Amazon Prime.
In at least the short term, those numbers suggest opportunities for supplementing the television audience rather than replacing it. A two-year television ratings drop in 2016-17 leveled off last year, and the league improved in Week 1 on its 2018 pace.
"A political way to think about it," Schroeder said, "is it's both turning out your base and getting our games out there for everyone that wants to watch, having it easily available wherever they want to watch. But we're also looking to expand and build our fan base. People, especially the younger demographic, are increasingly spending their time on certain platforms, and you want to be on those platforms to develop the fans of tomorrow."
Rather than a mass shift of games, the NFL is focusing on providing unique content to digital platforms. Earlier this month, it partnered with TikTok to provide highlights and behind-the-scenes videos geared toward its audience's tastes. The company that owns TikTok boasts 1 billion users across its apps around the world.
Pumping the brakes on virtual reality
There was a time when virtual reality seemed to be the next frontier of sports broadcasts. An NFL fan, for example, would sit on the couch, put on a visor and be transported to the 50-yard line at the Super Bowl.
For now, the NFL does not see a robust market for full-game virtual immersion. After a series of product tests in recent years, it is focused mostly on using VR for content before and after games.
"Sports generally tend to be a really communal experience," Schroeder said. "So if you have to disassociate yourself from the environment you're in, it would be interesting to see if people really want to do that. I haven't seen a sustained experience around the live game itself [that would be compelling]."
Instead, the league is looking at separate VR products, including a version of the Madden video game as well as promotional experiences for international fans to get a sense of game day. Virtual trips into the locker room could have value. But for games, the NFL's near-term focus is on quality of broadcasts using such innovations as 4K and HDR signals.
"It'll continue to evolve," Schroeder said. "But some of the virtual experiences to me are more like additive experiences to the game window than they are a possibility for the game window itself. When you look at things like 4K and other enhancements, the game presentation itself has ways other than [virtual reality] in the near term to advance and evolve."
So where does this all leave the future of football broadcasts? Ultimately, the tension between tradition and possibility figures to limit wholesale innovation and change.
"What we want in that three-hour window," Schroeder said, "is to focus on the game."