I can see the headline now: Fog rolls in new view for football broadcasting.
If only it were that easy.
Like many of you, I had a blast watching more than half of Sunday Night Football via NBC's "SkyCam" view, one made necessary by the descent of fog that blocked traditional camera angles. It felt like I was playing Madden. I saw routes develop from the quarterback's point of view. I noticed holes develop in the trenches. As the New England Patriots rolled to a numbing 23-7 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, the camera's proximity provided an in-person feel that we don't usually get from the conventional sideline shot.
It seemed as though NBC had stumbled into something wonderful and new and perhaps paradigm-shifting. Suddenly, it was worth asking: Amid an NFL ratings drop, why not broadcast entire games from that view? If nothing else, SkyCam would connect with younger fans who grew up with and might actually expect the "Madden perspective."
I reached out to NBC on the point, and soon learned that logistics trump our imaginations, at least for now -- as often occurs in the world of technology. In a statement provided via email, SNF executive producer Fred Gaudelli said that "we've long talked about using SkyCam more in the live play-by-play coverage of the game," but that "some of the system's limitations" have stymied those efforts.
From the top, it's important to realize that Sunday night marked the first time NBC had installed two SkyCams for a regular-season game. One came from a camera positioned between 12-40 feet above the field. The second hovered 40-80 feet above the action to provide the "bird's eye," wide-angle view. Had only one SkyCam been available, the production and the views we saw would have been much more limited.
Gaudelli noted three key limitations to the SkyCam view that discourage its widespread use. The first two are pretty straightforward.
"For one," Gaudelli said, "the ball is always moving away from the camera. Two, there are some geographical limitations to its fly zone."
I can understand both points. It's incumbent on the broadcaster to keep sight of the ball. A video game is going to be better at providing a consistently zoomed perspective than anything in the real world. And because the cameras are suspended over the field, they might not be able to move toward and cover every possible angle of a football play.
The third limitation, Gaudelli said, is that two people operate the SkyCam system. Sunday night, it was coordinated by a pilot (Cody Taylor) who was responsible for where and how the cameras flew. There was also a camera operator (Ed Martino) who controlled the pan, title and zoom.
Taken together, Gaudelli said, "these obstacles keep us from using [SkyCam] as a main and constant viewing angle."
There is no doubt that viewers packed social media with praise and hope Sunday night. Former NFL quarterback Sage Rosenfels, for example, called it the "future viewing angle of NFL and college football."
Even if by accident, many of us thought we were getting a smarter and more intimate view of the proceedings. Part of the allure, if we're being honest with ourselves, was the mere novelty of something different after a lifetime of sideline views.
But it's premature and probably wishful thinking to hope that it will effect a substantive change on what we see from football broadcasting in the immediate future. (At least when there is no fog, of course.) From the perspective of a broadcaster, who is responsible for executing the complicated logistics of live television with no script, it's not as easy as flipping a switch.
As Gaudelli noted, NBC already was aware of SkyCam’s potential value. I suspect the reaction to Sunday night’s game will spur further discussion.
ESPN, for example, has used SkyCam feeds as an alternative view for its college football offerings both on broadcast and digital channels. Perhaps it could be a cool “optional angle” that NFL viewers can choose when we reach the day -- coming sooner than you think -- that broadcasters stream multiple viewpoints over the internet. But unless the limitations of an overhead camera can be ironed out, it’s difficult to imagine it as more than a supplemental angle.