NFL Draft Networks Face Web Of Challenges For TV’s Primetime Return

    • ESPN and NFL Network will have to weave hundreds of remote video feeds into one coherent telecast for 2020 NFL Draft.
    • With U.S. death toll from coronavirus over 40,000, look for more subdued tone in this year's NFL Draft coverage.

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Seth Markman has overseen ESPN’s coverage from the Super Bowl, World Series, MLB All-Star Game, and ‘Monday Night Football.’ But the vice president of production has never tackled anything as difficult as televising this year’s NFL Draft.

“This is the most complicated event I’ve personally been involved in,” said the 27-year ESPN veteran.

Mark Quenzel, his opposite number at NFL Network, has worked Olympics and Super Bowls. But “nothing even comes close,” he said, to the logistical challenge of melding hundreds of remote video feeds from coaches, general managers, announcers, players, and parents into a coherent national broadcast later this week.

But the show must go on – especially since there are no live sports to watch.

The 2020 NFL Draft will be shown on ESPN, sister Disney broadcast network ABC and the league’s own NFL Network from April 23 to 25th.

The stakes are high. This year’s NFL Draft will be the first live televised sporting event since the coronavirus pandemic virtually shut down sports. Given the technological hurdles created by the pandemic, this year’s telecast will look, sound, and feel different than anything before.

In a normal year, ESPN and NFL Network typically offer their own distinct coverage and announce teams from the draft’s host city. But given the myriad logistical hurdles mandated by quarantines, the two networks are joining forces to offer a single TV presentation of rounds 1 through 7 over the course of three days.

Similar to last year, ABC will offer its own distinct primetime coverage for the first two days of the draft, then simulcast ESPN/NFL Network’s coverage for the third.

Rather than broadcasting from Las Vegas, the three networks will produce most of the coverage from ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn. They’ll be connected directly to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell as he announces the picks from his basement in Bronxville, N.Y.

ESPN’s Trey Wingo will anchor all three days of coverage, with Suzy Kolber handling remote interviews in a separate studio. But look for ESPN and NFL Network to mix and match its respective on-air talents, including Mel Kiper Jr., Daniel Jeremiah, Louis Riddick, Adam Schefter, Josina Anderson, Sal Paolantonio, Rich Eisen, Michael Irvin, and Kurt Warner, into one integrated telecast. Most will contribute remotely via their home studios.

Ditto for dozens of NFL coaches and GM’s, and 58 draft prospects, who’ll join the coverage via WiFi.

ABC’s team including Kirk Herbstreit, Todd McShay, Rece Davis, Maria Taylor, and Jesse Palmer will also broadcast from Bristol.

The league and the TV networks are still trying to figure out what Goodell’s setup will look like from his home, according to Quenzel. They’re still not sure if the Commissioner will be standing or sitting, or what the set will ultimately look like.

As for the hundreds of other remote connections, ESPN and NFL Network are hoping for the best – and preparing for the worst.

Similar to ESPN’s coverage of the NBA H-O-R-S-E competition, glitches, blurry images, and other technical difficulties are inevitable. The networks are installing backups upon backups. But nobody can predict what will happen until Thursday night.

The NFL will hold a “trial run” sometime this week to make sure clubs in remote offices can communicate picks and make trades, according to ProFootballTalk.

Because of social distancing requirements,  the number of producers, directors, and tech personnel in the Bristol control room will be slashed in half. While on-air talent won’t wear masks, all behind-the-scenes personnel are required to wear masks – and sit at least six feet apart – to comply with workplace safety rules.

“It’s tricky on a lot of levels. You’re talking about producers wearing masks trying to communicate with the talent and everything that’s going on in this broadcast,” Markman said. “It’s not ideal. But we believe it’s the safest environment.”

ESPN is not looking for “heroes,” he added. The network has sent the word out: If you’re not feeling well, stay home.

In recent years, the NFL Draft has become a celebration of football, with concerts, big-name celebrities, and street festivals.

Given the economic and social climate in the U.S. amid the pandemic, ESPN and NFL Network are taking pains to make sure their combined coverage features a more subdued tone.

“Clearly, it’s about drafting players – but even more clearly, it’s about setting the tone,” said Quenzel. “That we understand there’s something much larger going on in the world. How do we set that tone first thing Thursday? And how do we maintain it during the three days of the Draft? We’re working very hard with Seth and his team to make sure we’re accomplishing that.”

There’s one vital element to Draft coverage that Markman and Quenzel admit they can’t replicate: the fans.

The sight and sound of rabid football fans cheering and booing draft picks and Goodell have long given the Draft its atmosphere and character.

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ESPN and NFL Network are examining ways to incorporate some fan-submitted videos into the telecast. But it won’t be the same. The good news for Goodell? The fans can’t boo him in his Bronxville basement.

“We know we can do a great job analyzing the players, telling you where they fit into their teams, debating whether it’s a good or bad pick,” said Markman. “But the energy and the fans? That’s something we’ll never be able to replicate.”