NFL Kickoff 2020: CBS Sports Forgoes Virtual Fans To Show Off Range of SkyCam

Games will be covered by 26 cameras, POVs in unique locations

With other professional sports falling victim to COVID-19, the 2020 NFL season is the lone survivor and is playing games on their originally scheduled dates. On Sunday, Sept. 13, NFL on CBS will embark on another year as broadcaster of the Super Bowl, but, for the regular season, the Tiffany Network has decided against virtual fans in favor of flying SkyCam unrestricted above and near empty seats in the stadium.

“We may be using augmented-reality stats and graphics, but we will not have virtual fans [in the stands],” says Harold Bryant, executive producer/SVP, production, CBS Sports. “[These games] will present an opportunity for our directors to build the drama with their shots and show more player and coach reactions on the field.”

Flying Without Boundaries: Fanless Stands Allow SkyCam To Roam Freely

The decision to go without virtual fans will ultimately allow CBS Sports to release the constraints on SkyCam. For a typical game, the production team is restricted to the boundaries of the playing field because of safety concerns and obstructed views. These days, with fans at home, the camera will be allowed to hover where fans usually sit. In addition, it can go as high or as low as needed to add closeups and extra texture to the broadcast.

NFL on CBS will have 26 cameras and multiple POVs in unusual locations throughout the stadium.

For the 2019 AFC Championship Game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tennessee Titans, the network deployed a dual SkyCam system, with one camera patrolling the stadium’s higher reaches and the other near the lower bowl and closer to the field. If high-profile games late in this season are played without spectators, this dual model may return to cover even more area.

Offsite Operations: Remote Productions Are Key in 2020

As the pandemic continues to play a factor, CBS Sports will implement stringent guidelines to keep staffers safe and healthy. Over the past months, the Eye Network has become accustomed to these protocols during other live sports production.

“It’ll be an added element to deal with, but health and safety is a primary priority at CBS Sports,” says CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus. “We’ve learned a lot of lessons during our consecutive weeks of PGA TOUR coverage.”

Though important, these valuable lessons aren’t exclusive to health and safety but apply to technical execution and production as well. To limit a swell of onsite workers, a handful of games will be sprinkled with remote-production workflows.

“Some games will be produced remotely at our location in New York City,” McManus notes, “but fans won’t be able to notice the way that we produce them.”

With no fans in the stands this season, SkyCam will have extra space to fly.

In addition to offsite resources, CBS’s pregame and postgame programming lineup will be filled with shows this year. For the fourth straight season, host James Brown and analysts Boomer Esiason, Bill Cowher, Phil Simms, and Nate Burleson will take part in The NFL Today.

Also on game day, fans can enjoy That Other Pregame Show, which features Adam Schein, Amy Trask, London Fletcher, and a recently announced addition, former NFL lineman Kyle Long.

Gene Steratore will return as NFL Rules Analyst, and Jason La Canfora is back as NFL Insider.

Onsite Tech: Productions To Leverage 26 Cameras, Fabricated Crowd Noise

Although SkyCam will be the headliner of the telecasts, production crews will have a large arsenal of cameras to choose from throughout the season. Games will include 26 cameras at the beginning of the season, and, in the absence of fans, POVs and hard cameras can be placed in positions that wouldn’t be allowed or readily available in a packed stadium.

Following the lead of Major League Baseball and its 30 franchises, venues will produce fake crowd noise with the help of an audio operator hired by the league. In addition to being used for atmosphere in the stadium, the sound will play a vital role on the broadcasts. Jim Rickhoff, lead game producer, CBS Sports, sees implementation of crowd noise as a gamechanger for members of his team.

“As we’ve all learned over the summer with other professional sports,” he says, “it’s important that crowd sound enhances the game. Directors like Mike [Arnold] will have to evolve our coverage through subtle adjustments, and, as the season progresses, we’ll continue to get better.”

On-air talent will be calling each game onsite. The A team of Tony Romo, Jim Nantz, and Tracy Wolfson will return to the booth. In a change made over the offseason, Charles Davis joins Ian Eagle and Evan Washburn on the B team. The network has also created two new broadcast teams: Kevin Harlan, Trent Green, and Melanie Collins; and Greg Gumbel and Rich Gannon. Other pairings feature Andrew Catalon and James Lofton, Spero Dedes and Adam Archuleta, Tom McCarthy and Jay Feely, and Beth Mowins and Tiki Barber.

In addition to Wolfson,  the on-air team will include sideline reporters Amanda Balionis, Sherree Burruss, A.J. Ross, and Michael Grad, who will be seated in the first row on either sideline.

Stay tuned to SVG for more in-depth coverage of NBC Sports’ SNF operations in the coming weeks.

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