NHL Puck Drop 2021: NBC Sports Will Be Onsite for Exclusive Games But Will Lean Heavily on RSNs, Stamford Broadcast Center  

Flexibility, COVID-free operations are important considerations in quick-turnaround prep

Tonight, NBC Sports Group embarks on what is expected to be one of the most challenging NHL campaigns in history, with a Wednesday Night Hockey triple-header. To safely produce roughly 100 regular-season games over the next four months, NBC will use a mix of full onsite productions and REMI operations that leverage RSN-produced clean feeds and are centralized at its Stamford, CT, broadcast center.

“To make this season work, we’re going to use multiple systems on how we produce games,” says NBC Sports Executive Producer Sam Flood. “In some cases, the entire group will be onsite, traditional broadcast. Other games we will call from back here in the building [in Stamford]. Other games we will have a truck onsite, the talent here [in Stamford]. We’re going to be moving things around, a lot of different structures and systems. We learned during the football season that things change at a moment’s notice, and we have to be ready and we’ve got to adjust. We’ve tested out the systems and are ready to go.”

Production Ops: Onsite for Exclusive Games, REMI for Others

To minimize travel and limit the number of people onsite, the league is limiting each game to one mobile unit and one production crew for regular-season games. That means that home-team RSNs will be the lone broadcaster onsite for most regular-season games and NBC’s production and operations crew will be the only onsite staff for exclusive national broadcasts.

“Travel is troubling now,” says Flood. “You have to be really careful about how many people you send on the road. The non-exclusive games, a lot of them, will be the regionals across all networks that will be supplying host feed. We’ll supplement that with a camera and some other elements. There will be a lot of games that way simply because we can’t get the folks out on the road to all these games. We have to be really smart about how we deploy our assets.”

NBC plans to have its own truck and crew onsite for all exclusive national broadcasts but will be positioned to adapt if circumstances call for it. This onsite model will resemble previous seasons but with enhanced safety protocols, reduced staff that is socially distanced, and a handful of operators in Stamford. Depending on the game, NBC could have up to three EVS operators plus graphics and scorebug ops in Stamford.

The majority of NBC’s non-exclusive games will leverage a clean feed provided by the home team’s RSN. NBC will take this host feed and have all production staff and operations located in Stamford. The NBC Sports production team will also have one unilateral camera at its disposal and take in five selected camera feeds from the RSN to help augment its telecast. Home RSNs will be responsible for providing this clean feed to away-team RSNs for use in their markets.

According to James Stuart, senior director, operations, NBC Sports Group, taking world feeds from the bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton last year gave his team the framework to be confident in taking host feeds from RSN and producing games from Stamford. However, NBC’s busy winter season of events and short lead-time prior to the season (the league announced the schedule on Dec. 20) made cementing operations plans for the NHL that much tougher.

“Getting our productions up and running has been an immense undertaking,” says Stuart. “Launching NHL while we are nearing the end of Sunday Night Football and in the midst of Premier League’s busiest part of the season is a testament to the engineering, operations, and production teams that are working pretty much around the clock to ensure success on all fronts.”

Commentator Setups: A Mix of Onsite, in Stamford, and Even At-Home

For the majority of games, home-team announcers will be in the arena, away-team RSN commenters will call the game off-tube (either in the home arena or in the RSN’s broadcast facility). When possible, NBC will travel announcers onsite for exclusive national broadcasts but will have announcers call games from Stamford (or, in some cases, from their respective homes) for the remaining games.

Says Stuart, “We learned during the playoffs last year, the two bubbles, how we could call off-tube, how we could do things differently. The lessons learned there were the reasons we were willing to have Mike Tirico call an important [NFL Wild Card] game on Saturday night from his home. We did the same thing with Doc Emrick calling a Stanley Cup game from his home.

“All season long,” he continues, “we’ve been looking at ways to keep our team out of harm’s way, keep them safe, keep them COVID-free. Until the vaccine is fully rolled out, we have to constantly be ready to adapt and adjust.”

Inside the Arenas: Exploring New Camera Positions, Embracing Artificial Crowd Noise

With camera complements varying from arena to arena, NBC will move some cameras lower to provide better angles for the broadcast. The average camera complement this year will be the same as in years past: five hard cameras, two handhelds, and two robos. But, with no fans in the stands, NBC hopes to establish new robo locations as the season progresses. It will also deploy more POV cameras due to restrictions on close contact with players and NHL staff. When announcers are onsite, lower commentary positions are now available, given the absence of fans.

On the audio side, NBC’s complement of on-ice microphone remains the same as in previous seasons, but, with no fans in the stands, the production team hopes to capture the same natural sounds and on-ice emotion as they did in the bubble last year. In addition, a profanity delay will be controlled in Stamford for NBC broadcasts.

Artificial crowd noise will be pumped into arenas from the local game-presentation groups at each club and will be heard via the nat sound in NBC’s broadcasts. NBC also has a track that can also be added to the broadcast when needed. The broadcaster has no plans to integrate any virtual fans, virtual signage, or other AR elements into its NHL broadcasts at this time.

Puck and Player Tracking Ready for Primetime

After its initial debut during the Stanley Cup Playoffs this year, the league’s player- and puck-tracking system has been installed in all 31 arenas for this season. NBC is working with the NHL to have more stats available through the tracking system. It will have full control on exclusive national games and will be able to supplement the clean feed with PPT features for games produced in Stamford.

“This year,” says Flood, “the one big add for the NHL, what the league is doing, is the player and puck tracking. We look forward to incorporating that into our telecasts. Steve Greenberg, one of our talented producers, is hard at work figuring out the best ways to take that information and amplify it and make sense of it to enhance our telecasts.”

Surviving the Season: NBC Ready To Weather the Challenges Ahead

Planning an entire season of NHL coverage in less than a month (because of the league’s delayed announcement on scheduling) was no easy task, and NBC Sports’ operations team knows it still has a long road ahead — with the pandemic still in full force.

“We are going to have to be flexible when obstacles arise, and we have positioned ourselves to meet those challenges,” says Stuart. “COVID-19 forces you to have a Plan B and Plan C, so we can keep our personnel safe while putting a quality product on the air.”

NBC Sports Group drops the puck on the 2021 NHL regular season tonight with a triple-header on NBCSN featuring Penguins-Flyers at 5:30 p.m. ET, Blackhawks-Lighting at 8:00 p.m., and Blues-Avalanche at 10:30 p.m.

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