Behind the Scenes at Monday Night Football

I was privileged to attend several Monday Night Football games around 12 or 13 years ago as the guest of director Craig Janoff and learned then why MNF was the best sports broadcast in America at that time.

Producer Kenny Wolfe worked with announcers Al Michaels, Dan Dierdorf, Boomer Esiason and Frank Gifford, and the sideline reporter was Lynn Swann in one of the games I attended. Dierdorf, Gifford and Swann were all members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Boomer was a Pro Bowl quarterback who had led his team to the Super Bowl. Michaels and Janoff have received lifetime achievement awards for their professions, and the broadcast team won multiple Emmy Awards during their tenure. The team was highly experienced, having broadcast the Olympics, World Series, Triple Crown, and many other sporting events and they knew how to make broadcasts more exciting while focusing on the game and players instead of media sideshows.

Janoff hired the best cameramen, all of whom had been working college and other pro games over the weekend, and their experience resulted in great camera shots. When Andre Rison caught the pass from Elvis Grbac to beat the Raiders in a come-from-behind victory on the last play of the game, Janoff was getting three or four angles from three or four different cameramen while the pass was still in the air. He had two others zooming in on Al Davis to get his reaction. He had 20+ screens in front of him and he had cameras focused on Davis, Marty Schottenheimer, the Raiders coach and bench, the Kansas City bench, the scoreboard, the crowd, Andre Rison and the Black Hole.

Yet you only saw one screen on TV, and it was presented seamlessly. Inside the control booth behind the stadium, Janoff was firing off instructions to the various cameramen, Wolfe was directing announcers through earphones, and the announcers presented the broadcast as if they were sitting in their living room instead of a booth overlooking a stadium erupting in jeers.

For Chiefs fans it was a magical moment. Al Davis looked like he was about to puke in disgust,

Janoff’s job as director is the net equivalent of trying to play 20 video games at the same time, while showing only the best one on the screen at any given time and making the transitions appear natural. Wolfe handled the production and announcers, and the announcers delivered the broadcast while receiving all of the voices in their earphones time delivering stats and updates, viewing the game and listening to each other.

The normal NFL broadcast featured about 10 or 11 cameras, while MNF used 21 to 26. They had at least two or three stationary cameras in the stands on each side, four end zone cameras, a camera on a scissor lift running up and down one sideline, cameras operated by joysticks focused on the offensive coordinators up in the booths, cameras affixed to the goal posts for viewing kickoffs and field goals, a camera on the broadcast team, two or three roving cameramen that walked up and down the sidelines, who could also cover interviews with players and coaches, a camera in the blimp that would fly over the broadcast.

ABC would turn over control of its entire network at the beginning of the show to the control booth, which had three seats in front of the 20+ screens, occupied by the technical director, Janoff and Wolfe. Behind them were two more rows of seats where network executives, consultants and others would sit observing the action, or answering questions. To the right of the main control booth was another small booth occupied by the guys who coordinated all of the sound for the broadcast. To the left was another small booth, where the production team sat, and they handled providing instant replays, pre-recorded replays from other games, pre-recorded segments on each player for each team, with status updated from the week prior, and features that the production team pre-recorded regarding injured players, deactivated players, or previous highlights from prior MNF broadcasts in case the game became too one sided.

On the day prior to the game, the production team would meet with the coaches for each team to get a general outline of what the team intended to do in given situations on both offense and defense. They would also ask questions about on-going player issues, such as healthy players who might be declared inactive, injuries, past performances, etc. Based on the answers or more often, non-answers that they got, everyone got together to determine what each team would really do during the game, and the cameramen were, in turn, briefed accordingly.

All the equipment is generally set up two or three days prior to the broadcast, and is tested as much as time will permit. The announcers have generally watched previous games played by the teams, and everyone has used their contacts to determine the latest story lines that might develop prior to and during the game. Like Bob Gretz covering the Chiefs, they watched everything, including interviews, interaction between the staff during production meetings, players working out prior to the game, celebrities and guests talking out of the field prior to the game, wind conditions, field goal attempts, punts, quarterback throws, receivers catching the ball, bandages on players, lighting conditions, etc.

They were also flooded with press releases from the public relations departments for each team outlining how well their players were doing, how their draft picks were successfully progressing, etc. A lot of this was to deflect controversy, such as poor performances by a player in the past few days, or criticism over high draft picks who had not produced. As I recall, the Chiefs submitted about 20 or 30 pages of material, a lot of it focusing on the good statistics accompanying the Chiefs’ poor start that year and to counter criticism over one of their offensive line first round draft choices that was not working out. By contrast, Oakland was typical Al Davis. They argued about camera placements, cut short production meetings, and refused to talk about players who were in the doghouse with Al Davis. It fooled no one in the end, but made for great theater, particularly when the cameras zoomed in on Al Davis when the Rison caught the pass to end the game.

There was plenty of pre-game drama as well. A skinny kid with spiked hair wearing spiked shoulder pads and a black painted face screamed “You want some?” at Marcus Allen while he was giving a pre-game interview. Allen just wagged his finger at him, daring him to jump down on the field. Shortly thereafter, Al Davis came out of the tunnel and walked across the field on his way to the owner’s box dressed in a while outfit that looked like an old Elvis costume complete with a bunch of necklaces, shaking his fist in response to cheers from the same skinny kid. The Oakland punter repeatedly aimed punts into the area where the Chiefs were working out, and one of the Chief receivers caught a long pass and then jumped into the Black Hole section, causing several cops that patrol that end of the stadium to run over fearing violence would break out at any minute. While most of the crowd, including women, all wearing silver and black, swore and screamed at the Chiefs player while more Chiefs ran to his aid, a few of the Oakland fans clapped at either his foolishness or courage. The player showed no fear. He jumped down, told them he wouldn’t respect them if they didn’t cheer for their team, and ran off while the cops screamed at him not to do that again. Several cups, ice and other unknown objects flew out of the stands at him while he ran off laughing. It was just another love fest between the Chiefs and Raiders.

The cops warned me not to walk in front of the Black Hole during the game as they were known for throwing batteries, drinks, ice, rocks, clothes, food and any other thing they could get their hands on when things were not going well. OSHA should designate that place as a hard hat zone.

Marcus Allen and Derrick Thomas both made sure to get close enough to them to aggravate them, and the cops told me that John Elway used to walk down to the end zone in front of the Black Hole and just stand there with his hands on his hips for a few minutes, laughing at them while they screamed obscenities at him. They hate him, the cop told me, but they respect him. I didn’t get the same respect, as I got hit by ice and dodged a couple of drinks and chewing tobacco spit cups when I had to cross in front of them during the game.

There just isn’t the same rivalry and drama between Spanos and Clark Hunt as there was between Lamar and Al Davis and their organizations. Instead of fist shaking and screaming, there’s more likely to be an exchange of politically correct owners’ prepared statements written by someone else designed to deflect the already reported controversies within their respective organizations.

The game still promises to have lots of fireworks, as it’s a must win game for the Chiefs. If they lose they fall two games back of San Diego and will likely lose most tie breakers. Let’s hope the Chiefs can duplicate their performance from last year’s MNF game against San Diego and the crowd generates the excitement it did last year, so they can get back into the division race. That was a great game to watch.


3 Responses to “Behind the Scenes at Monday Night Football”

  • October 30, 2011  - Dan-NY says:

    Fantastic post, Douglas. I’m always impressed that the MNF crew can manage to function without being paralyzed by information overload, particularly the director and the announcing team. NASA’s Mission Control seems sedate in comparison.

    Are there multiple people yammering into the announcers’ earpieces, or is everything channeled thru one designated CapCom-type of guy?


  • October 30, 2011  - Doug says:

    Dan-NY

    I’m not sure because I only got to watch, but I think the producer was the only one talking to the announcers, the director was talking to the cameramen, and the director and producer sat next to each other and talked directly, while at the same time talking to everyone else.


  • October 30, 2011  - Enrique says:

    Great piece Doug. This is an outstanding contribution. It’s always great to learn what happens behind the scenes, and you did one heck of a job in breaking down the MNF experience for us. Terrific insight.




Get the Flash Player to see the slideshow.


Categories

Other News

Archives


RSS


Pages

Home