Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Fox's final Super Bowl prep includes high school teams

A practice run with a pair of high school teams Thursday will determine, in part, how Super Bowl LI looks Sunday on TV.

Three days before kickoff Fox plans to conduct the annual network run-through for the big game using two Houston area high school teams as stand-ins for the Falcons and Patriots. With players practicing pregame introductions, entering the stadium and some other situations, the network gets a sense of what certain camera angles will look like for viewers.

Think of it as "blocking" for any staged production. While game action is not staged, preparation for what could happen can only lead to a better production.

For the Fox team -- which might the best of any covering the NFL -- a little more preparation can only enhance a season's worth of work.

Every part of the Fox team contributes to its success. From the producer-director combination of Richie Zyontz and Rich Russo to the core on-air duo (Joe Buck, Troy Aikman), a strong supporting cast (rules analyst Mike Pereira is unrivaled in his role) and dozens of camera operators and production personnel, the network has a good plan for how it wants to approach its NFL coverage.

"We focus on visual storytelling, and we've worked together so long that we have a good sense of each other. Sometimes the guys in the booth might start with a story and we follow their lead. Sometimes it's the other way," said Russo, who will be directing his third Super Bowl. He's worked 14 games since making his debut as a broadcast associate with CBS in 1986. He's directed the international broadcast of the Super Bowl six times.

For a normal NFL game Fox uses about a dozen cameras. On Sunday, there will be more than four times that number. Counting small cameras focused on the game clock and embedded in end zone pylons, Fox will have more than 90 cameras in the stadium.

Russo likes close-up reaction shots, often in slow motion if it’s a player who made a mistake, to help tell stories for viewers. He also likes traditional angles for game action. So, high-sideline shots making viewers feel like they have the best seat in the house will be appropriately common.

"You want to give the viewer the best seat in the house," said Russo, who has earned 10 Emmy Awards for his work. Each week before a game he crafts a detailed camera plan that he shares with camera operators. It outlines which cameras focus on which players in specific down-and-distance situations. It also offers numerous if-then options based on game situation -- meaning the TV team enters the game with a storytelling approach specific to the teams involved and players on the field.

While video games have influenced how football games look on TV, especially with camera angles, Russo said the Super Bowl broadcast will use Skycam shots live on some kickoffs and for replays. “We’ve talked about that a lot,” Russo said. “Those shots can be interesting but for game action people expect the sideline shots.”

Russo knows the biggest expectation some viewers bring to this year's game, too. As a result, he promises not to miss it -- if it happens. If the Patriots win, he'll make sure viewers see all of the Lombardi Trophy presentation. The tension between NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the Patriots organization in the wake of the “deflategate” controversy means it could produce compelling interaction.

“I promise I will stay on them and won’t go anywhere else. I know that's a moment people are curious about if New England wins,” Russo said.

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