NBC will attempt an experiment Thursday night that falls nothing short of historic: A paradigm shift in how the NFL is covered on television.
The network will use its SkyCam angle to broadcast most of a game between the Tennessee Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers, hoping to build off widespread praise it received for pivoting when fog blocked conventional cameras during an Oct. 22 game at Gillette Stadium.
The angle provides a more intimate view of the action, and mimics the quarterback perspective that Madden video game players typically experience, but is narrow and does not always capture the entire field. After spending three weeks refining the logistics, NBC is ready to roll it out for an entire broadcast amid a crossroads in the industry. As NFL ratings drop and viewing inches toward the digital space, now seems like a good time to shake up an approach that hasn't changed much from the earliest days of football on television.
There have been occasional forays into SkyCam broadcasting, including by ESPN mostly on digital channels for college football and lacrosse, but Thursday night's game will be the first time it's being used in a planned over-the-air broadcast of the NFL -- still the crown jewel of U.S. sports properties.
"I think it's a worthy attempt," said Fred Gaudelli, NBC's executive producer of Sunday Night Football and Thursday Night Football. "Because, look, football essentially has been covered the same way from the first day it was covered. Yes, we've added cameras. We've added technology. We've added all those things. But the game itself has been covered a certain way, and I think this is a chance to slightly break away from that and give people a different production to evaluate and see if they like it or not."
NBC hasn't committed beyond Thursday night's game, and Gaudelli made clear that SkyCam's limited range will require some juggling with conventional sideline views. Perched about 15 feet above the field and a few feet behind the quarterback, SkyCam will provide the primary angle for most plays. NBC will add graphics to display the down and distance, to help viewers absorb the change in depth perception, and explicitly note yardage gains and losses. It will also return to the traditional perspective for all third downs and most plays inside the 15-yard line.
And because SkyCam's lens isn't wide enough to show the entire pre-snap formation, director Drew Esocoff will toggle between angles when possible to ensure that, say, Steelers receiver Antonio Brown doesn't run into view and make a catch from a place that the audience never saw him lined up from. One of the options is to use a second overhead camera, known as "HighCam," that provides a perspective similar to the All-22 view that coaches uses to study film.
Generally speaking, however, the audience will experience a perspective that defies broadcasting convention: For the most part, the ball will move away from the camera. Esocoff termed it "a matter of optics and geometry," while Gaudelli said the Titans and Steelers play a style that should maximize the view. Both rank among the NFL's top 12 in rushing attempts per game, and are active on defense at the line of scrimmage.
"One of the reasons we wanted to pick this game," Gaudelli said, "was that we felt like we had two teams where it would really be advantageous to see what's happening at the line of scrimmage, because of these offensive lines, because of the way these defenses like to blitz and all of those things. If we were doing the Kurt Warner Rams of 1999, that might not be the best way to see this because that was a wide-open team. The ball was going down the field. A lot of motion, a lot of shifting. ... So to me, a lot of it is situational."
On its own, a novel camera angle isn't likely to drive a massive number of new viewers to Thursday's game. But it's fair to ask if NBC would be in experiment mode if NFL ratings were steady or growing rather than down by 7.5 percent (through Week 6) compared to 2016. Gaudelli said that ratings are "cyclical" and insisted ratings did not motivate a closer look at SkyCam.
"We just felt like given what the reaction [to the Oct. 23 broadcast] was, we felt hey, this was a worthy experiment," he said. "And really, the ratings never factored into my mind. We picked a really good game. We have two teams coming in on four-game winning streaks. We should really try this and see if we can improve the coverage."
It's a smart play regardless, and raises another question: If the sideline angle is no longer sacred, where else might NFL broadcasters find new innovations?
If viewing shifts toward digital streaming, it's reasonable to imagine a day when an audience could choose from multiple angles online. NBC, in fact, has already done it -- via an online product known as Sunday Night Football Extra -- but it no longer holds digital rights to do it.
ESPN, meanwhile, has been providing SkyCam as an alternative digital option since 2004. Feedback for its college football SkyCam products has shown "an appetite for them," said Ed Placey, ESPN's senior coordinating producer for college football. But after seeing enough instances when SkyCam provides an inferior angle -- especially on downfield plays and on swing passes to the wide part of the field -- Placey came to view it as a secondary option.
"The initial reaction to SkyCam that we saw was, 'We'd love to see every play from SkyCam,'" Placey said. "But then you realize that the plays we would normally show from SkyCam are the ones that look great from SkyCam. But not every play looks great from it."
During the 2016 college football national championship, ESPN offered the SkyCam view as part of its Command Center broadcast. Approximately 288,000 viewers tuned in.
"It's a good experience if that's what you're looking for," Placey said. "As a second screen [online], it gets pretty consistent numbers. So it's not an audience that checked it out and is now slowly declining. We saw there was enough of an appetite to give the viewers that choice, but there are too many times when it has an inferior angle. We've understood that for years, and that's why for us it is a secondary option."
What other digital products could emerge? The NFL has been studying virtual reality options for several years. The National Hockey League expanded into this realm earlier this year, offering a 360-degree virtual reality package through Canada's Sportsnet for six games. Fans at home could wear viewfinders to experience the game through three 360-degree cameras and an infusion of the arena atmosphere. Again, the NFL would need to award virtual reality rights before any network could dive in.
So in the immediate future, SkyCam is what you're going to get as far as NFL broadcast experimentation and innovation. It probably won't play out as groundbreaking as some might hope, nor is it likely to be as disruptive as others might fear. Esocoff predicts it will be a "really fun changeup." Consider it a one-night glimpse into the long-term future of football broadcasting.