NFL Kickoff 2020: In 50th-Anniversary Season, Monday Night Football Has a Fresh Look in Front of, Behind the Camera
With a new producer, ESPN adjusts to a COVID-friendly onsite presence
It’s a milestone year for one of sports television’s most iconic properties. Monday Night Football enters its 50th-anniversary season when it premieres tonight with an opening-week doubleheader (Pittsburgh Steelers–New York Giants, 7 p.m. ET and Tennessee Titans–Denver Broncos, 10 p.m., both on ESPN). However, while ESPN will honor the legacy of MNF, 2020 is undoubtedly the beginning of a new era for one of the longest-running series in TV.
Much will be made of the entirely new broadcast booth — play-by-play man Steve Levy and analysts Brian Griese and Louis Riddick — but the production truck’s front bench also features a new face: Phil Dean takes the helm as producer for the first time, joining second-year director Jimmy Platt.
These new faces in the truck may have missed the benefit of a handful of practice reps in the preseason, ESPN EVP, Event and Studio Production, Stephanie Druly says, “I think it’s really interesting to get a fresh set of eyes. Those two guys are super-talented. They’re also like the two nicest people in the world and will build this team camaraderie very quickly. I know they’ve already started to do that. I think it’s going to take real reps, though; it’s just the reality. It’s like playing the game: until you hit the field, you don’t know. But everybody has been set up to succeed in really challenging circumstances.”
Dean is no stranger to big-time broadcasts. He’s a veteran of the industry of nearly 30 years and has been one of ESPN’s top producers since 1999, when he was elevated to the college-football circuit. He has produced an annual national semifinal game each season since the inception of the College Football Playoffs in 2014 and has produced numerous ESPN Saturday Primetime college football games.
Earlier this month, the new MNF crew did get together to participate in a dress rehearsal on the ESPN campus in Bristol, CT, allowing the on-air talent and above-the-line and below-the-line crew to begin to create some of that all important chemistry.
— Derek Volner (@DerekVolner) September 9, 2020
The onsite presence, though scaled back for safety reasons, is still substantial. Druly estimates that about 130 people will be onsite each week, compared with about 225 last year.
Some key positions in the truck— perhaps most notably, graphics —will be run from Bristol. This year’s MNF product features the second year of a comprehensive graphics redesign that garnered the network praise this summer. The project helped ESPN sweep the Sports Emmys graphics awards, claiming trophies in Outstanding Live Graphic Design and Outstanding Post-Produced Graphic Design.
The new MNF on-air team will be onsite each week but will be in a spread-out, socially distant booth. In addition, positions like Levy’s spotter will be working with him remotely over a video call.
“There are things that you can’t replicate in a conference room or in an audio booth,” Druly explains. “Those things we’re going to have to feel out as we go, but we’re prepared for it. I’m really proud of what our team has done to prepare for the curveballs that distancing has thrown at us.”
She adds that ESPN is working with the league to integrate enhanced crowd audio (which will be pumped into empty stadiums by the in-venue video crews) and the virtual-fan elements seen on many of the other NFL broadcasts through Week 1. ESPN also aggressively used that virtual-fan integration during the remote NFL Draft in April.
“We’re going to learn as we go,” says Druly, “but I know we’re really, really well-positioned right now.”