SVG Sit-Down: Fox Sports’ Brad Zager on NFL Production Innovation, Fox Sports ‘Vault,’ Virtual-Fan Tech
NFL and college football, even MLB make a busy season after COVID lockdown
Last weekend was a busy one for Fox Sports: the 2020 NFL season kicked off, college football was under way, and there was MLB action to boot. It was also a weekend of innovation, new safety protocols, and, most important, busy production crews creating TV across the country. Brad Zager, executive producer/executive VP/head of production and operations, Fox Sports, took some time out of his schedule to discuss the efforts with SVG Editorial Director Ken Kerschbaumer.What was your reaction to the week?
I was really just so proud of the entire team. In addition to NFL, it was also the first week of college football, and we also had baseball going. Ot takes so many people to get through a weekend like that. And everybody was embracing and understanding how different this world we’re all walking back into [for the NFL] is from when we finished the Super Bowl in Miami.
I literally just got off the phone with our Lead NFL Game Director Richard Russo, and we were walking through the weekend. Everyone knew that the most important thing was giving viewers football when they expect it on Sunday afternoons and Saturdays.
Also, there’s no playbook right now. We are all in this together, and we’re all figuring it out. We knew going into Week 1 that we were going to learn things and that it may be a little bit different going into Week 2.
What was the feedback from the crews?
When people got onsite, you would hear how things were going pretty well. And then we started to settle in, and, when we started to see all the games go off on Saturday, we saw we were going to achieve our goal and the viewers wouldn’t know everything that was going on behind the scenes to make the productions happen. The viewers don’t care about our testing and protocols or what the announcers have to go through. They just want to watch their favorite teams. That was our goal, and I think we accomplished it.
You mentioned the Super Bowl earlier. During that game, you tried out some new things as a trial run for use this season.
Yes. A lot of them we were really happy with. There was the new Fox Box, and we also got to break that in during the few weeks of the XFL we had before the pandemic.
We went into creating that trying to use the same footprint but showing more pertinent information. And that started with the quarterbacks, who are the stars of this league. They are the players everyone is talking about all week long, and they are the ones that everyone is focused on on Sunday. So we decided to show the quarterback’s stats up there the entire game in a way that is not intrusive.
As for new toys, what else is on your list?
We used virtual fans on the Bears–Lions game in Detroit, and it worked out really well. Now that we’ve got one game down, we’re talking internally about what our next steps are. We know it works; it’s just a matter of figuring out how we can we execute it across more games. We have a good proof of concept on an NFL game. Unfortunately, the virtual fans were as disappointed as I was, being a Lions fan, so I should have prepared the virtual fans for how the game was going to end.
We’ve been focusing on high-speed cameras the past few years and making sure all of the crews are equipped to be able to show the emotion of the game and use it for storytelling. We’re really proud that, no matter what game you watch, you are going to see high-speed cameras across the board.
We also had PylonCam on the Bucs–Saints game, and that has become more standardized for our A broadcast. Switching to college, we had a new truck from Game Creek Video, Gridiron, that brings our college-football truck to a new level.
You also have empty stadiums, which opens up new ways to use the SkyCam with your talent, who are located in the first six rows of the stands.
Yes, they call it the moat. There’s no playbook for the use of the SkyCam, so each of the crews did things differently. And every stadium brings its own challenges. So that will be one of the things the crews will spend some time talking about on Friday and Saturday to make sure that, when they get to Sunday, they know how they’re going to shoot it and where the sideline reporter can go. I thought it was nice that no two shows look exactly alike.
What did you think of the audio effects?
Based on our MLB and MLS coverage and all the other sports leading up to the NFL, we know that it does help make the game feel more normal and gives the viewers a better experience. I do think we’ve proved that enhanced audio is the way to go during this time.
I also give NFL Films all the credit in the world for the [fan-audio] system they’ve created and had ready to use on Week 1. These are things that don’t have finish lines so we will continue to learn together with NFL Films and work together collaboratively to figure out the best way to move forward.
Let’s talk a bit about college football. How is Fox approaching the college side?
I thought the crew did a great job, and people are just happy to be able to turn on the TV on Saturdays and see college football. We have some really big games, like OU–Texas next month, that will be focal points for the entire season.
We feel we have a great group and most-relevant crew on Big Noon Kickoff when it comes to how close they have been to the game and how recently they played or coached than anybody else. We’ll continue to enjoy watching them break down not only the upcoming game but all of college football through the season.
Do you have people working on college football and NFL games at Fox Sports in Pico?
Yes, we created a world that we are calling “The Vault” that can be connected to any of our trucks on college football or NFL. We have multiple positions for EVS operators, Fox Box operators, and Vizrt operators. We have a plan and map of how each show will tie into The Vault. The great part is, nobody could tell if something was coming from the truck or The Vault. We have about 25 positions across all of the shows, and Kevin Callahan and Darrell More did an amazing job of setting up in a short amount of time.
We also had people working at home for NASCAR, and we’ll continue to do that after the football season. We have such an amazing operations and tactical group with Mike Davies [SVP, technical and field operations, Fox Sports] leading the charge along with Mike Wilken [SVP, systems and technology], Gina Porretti [SVP, studio operations] on the studio side, Dustin Myers [SVP, production operations] on the postproduction side. All four of them are such great leaders in their area of the operation and working together as it all blends with connectivity. They focus on giving us the ability to set up something like The Vault and connect it to the remotes. It sets us up for the future, and that is what we’ve done here: set ourselves up for the future by not just trying to piecemeal and get ourselves on the air but build something out so we can keep moving forward.