NFL Kickoff 2017: Audio for the New Season Has Mostly Subtle Changes

The league will follow the networks’ lead on future improvements

The broadcast audio for NFL games has achieved near-cinematic status. The integration of more on-field sound, in the form of wired players and officials, and more-powerful sideline capture systems create a formidable focus for surround-sound mixes that envelop listeners and put them inside the stadium. As an immersive-sound future looms, the league is looking mainly to its network partners to move the audio ball forward.

Blake Jones, director, broadcasting, NFL, observes that the audio among all the league’s broadcast partners has attained and maintained a remarkably high level of quality. Thus, he says, “we’re keeping our protocols around audio consistent [from last season], from field-level capture with parabolic [microphones] to our enhanced-audio program,” a reference to the player audio in use for several years. “But all of our network partners are always working to find what they can do to take it to the next level.”

Developments in immersive sound will be led by the networks themselves, he says. “From the league’s point of view, we’re not necessarily pursuing initiatives in that direction but rather working with our partners on it.”

Game Changes To Speed the Game
The status quo is largely consistent amongst those broadcast partners. “Facility-wise, everything is almost identical to last year and the year before,” says Wendel Stevens, senior audio engineer for NBC’s Sunday Night Football and Football Night in America. SNF will originate from NEP’s ND1 truck, and NBC’s Thursday Night Football games will be done from NEP ND7, with the pregame show produced out of Game Creek’s Pride.

The real changes, he notes, are the ones within the game itself, which the league announced earlier this year and which audio has to adapt to. They include reducing the number of commercial breaks to four per quarter, each lasting 2 minutes 20 seconds rather than the previous 1:50. Commercial breaks will be reduced from 21 per game to 16, although each will be a half-minute longer.

“There is one less break per quarter, but the breaks are 30 seconds longer each,” Stevens explains. “Also, the referee doesn’t have to wait until we get back from commercial for his call after a challenge flag. So we may need to record that call and turn it around. Both of these changes are about trying to speed up the game.”

Other game-flow changes that will affect television production include referees’ being brought a tablet out on the field, instead of taking the time to go under a hood to watch a play on the sidelines.

Scott Pray, senior A1 for ESPN’s Monday Night Football, agrees that changes to the game flow could have an effect on audio’s workflow. The network is making accommodations for that, he notes, such as keeping an iso microphone on key officials so that the audio can be replayed if a call takes place before a break ends.

MNF will have a few small new wrinkles. They include new parabolics for sideline effects capture and a switch to Shure’s Axient wireless system for on-field reporters, such as Lisa Salters, who use handheld mics. Pray says the switch to the Shure wireless system was due to its ability to seamlessly jump to preset alternate frequencies in real time. The show will also implement Shure’s Wireless Workbench frequency-management software in the truck this season, as ESPN looks for more tools to help deal with a more difficult post-auction RF landscape, says Pray. “The graphical interface will let us see our RF status at a glance.”

Senior A1 Jonathan Freed, the effects submixer on MNF, notes that ESPN’s EN1 production truck has added a DirectOut MADI router for PL and IFB audio. “This one has level control per channel, which we didn’t have before,” he points out. “It gives us better overall control of the signal.”

Listening In
CBS Sports has made some significant workflow changes. For instance, it has integrated Dante audio networking aboard NEP’s IP-friendly SSCBS truck used for Thursday Night Football. The Dante signal from the booth into the Calrec Apollo console feeds an Evertz audio router, which joins the audio on the SDI output of the IP gateways connected to the IP video router.

“It’s a way to do it on the way to a true IP network,” he says, referring to future implementation of the SMPTE 2110 transport and timing protocol for A/V and metadata, which will streamline the process further by eliminating de-embedding or re-embedding audio with video.

CBS Sports will also continue a process, begun experimentally toward the end of last season, of gathering two or three veteran A1s in an optimized listening environment at its Manhattan broadcast center to monitor game audio in real time. They listen to the feeds from the production trucks and make any comments or suggestions directly to the A1s onsite, usually via texts.

“The A1 in the truck is getting stuff coming at him from all sides: the game audio, the announcers, the effects, the director, the producer. It’s almost impossible to fully concentrate on the quality of the mix at every moment,” explains Mike Francis, director, remote engineering, CBS Sports. “And, every week, they might be in a different truck, in a different monitoring environment. This is a way to give them some additional perspective on the mix.”

The practice, which unsurprisingly got a bit of pushback from A1s initially but has since drawn very positive responses, will continue throughout this season, he says. In addition, the network will continue working on making more uniform the hardware, from microphones to headsets, that its vendors deploy for games. “The goal,” he says, “is creating what we’d call the ‘CBS Sports Audio Package.”

Says Freed, “The sound for NFL has just gotten really, really good over the past several years. We’re not going to see really big changes going forward. But even the smaller ones will mean a lot.”

UPDATE: Sept. 21, 2017
Audio Gets in the Picture
When it comes to sports on television, sound is always critical, although it’s rarely the star of the show. But, like some kind of sonic Zelig, audio — in the form of a parabolic microphone held by an anonymous A2 — was definitely in the picture for one of the NFL’s emblematic Thursday Night Football commercial spots. Taken from footage of a 49ers–Buccaneers game, the spot is part of the “When it’s on, it’s on” series developed by ad agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners. According to the agency, the NFL provided the footage and used the concept/template that the agency had developed for the series.

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