Behind the scenes of NBC Sports' English Premier League soccer debut
Jonathan Tannenwald is Philly.com's soccer beat writer and the lead contributor to our soccer blog. He was invited to observe NBC Sports' first day of broadcasting English Premier League soccer, and to write a behind-the-scenes account of what happened. Here is his first-person report.
STAMFORD, Conn. - Though their sport has a reputation for being well-heeled, soccer fans in America have a masochistic streak in them.
On your average Saturday, most of the country revels in sleeping late after a long work week. Devotees of the world's game think nothing of waking up before sunrise to watch their teams.
No competition on Earth inspires that kind of loyalty better than the English Premier League. In cities and suburbs across the country, you'll find fans of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and more. This past weekend, they got to revel in the start of the 2013-14 season.
They also got to witness the start of a new era in how the Premier League is presented to Americans. NBC Sports began its three-year, $250 million broadcast deal with a tripleheader on Saturday, showing two games on the NBC Sports Network and one on NBC over the air.
To mark the occasion, the NBC Sports Group - a subsidiary of Philadelphia-based Comcast - invited members of the soccer media to its headquarters in Connecticut. Those who attended got an all-access view of the inner workings of Saturday's broadcasts.
Here's how the day unfolded.
NBC's staff started their work well before dawn. I arrived at around 6:15 a.m. Even though it was a weekend morning, the building was a hive of activity.
The pregame show was set to start at 7:00 a.m. A few minutes before air time, the handful of reporters on hand were ushered in to the main control room. It was three rows deep with desks and computers, and it was packed to the walls. There was a small army of producers, assistants and other observers on hand.
At the front of room was a six-screen wall of televisions, stacked in two rows of three. Most of the monitors were divided into smaller screens, with as many as 20 feeds on one box.
I heard NBC's lead producers for soccer broadcasts, Pierre Moossa and Shaw Brown, giving orders on assembling the starting lineup graphics. They weren't loud, but they were very direct.
Throughout my time in the control room, an assistant producer called out countdowns to various key moments. The interval was once a minute for a while, but now we were in the final seconds. At that point, Moossa took over counting.
At 20 seconds, Moossa slipped in a few words of encouragement: "Everybody have a good show."
Right on the zero, there was a half-second of breath. The familiar NBCSN music and graphics came up, and a voice announced to the nation: "Welcome to the opening weekend of the Barclays Premier League on the NBC Sports Network - NBCSN."
The new era had officially dawned.
NBC's broadcast opened with a British-accented video montage about the passion of Premier League fans. In the background, a chorus hummed "When the Saints Go Marching In." A few seconds later, the hums turned to words, and we heard Tottenham Hotspur's variation on the theme.
Then came NBC's theme music and opening graphics. Moossa counted down again, this time calling for host Rebecca Lowe's microphone to be turned live - "opened," in TV lingo - at the right time.
In the control room, two monitors were front and center with full-screen displays. One had the TV broadcast that you saw at home. The other had a camera focused on Lowe. She was looking down at a teleprompter, reading cues as you saw shots of Liverpool and Stoke City players.
Moossa counted down again, this time to when Lowe should look up at the camera for the live shot. After that happens, all you saw at home is Lowe talking to analysts Robbie Mustoe and Robbie Earle. I saw and heard Moossa calling the shots on what camera Lowe and her colleagues should look at - and which cameramen should be ready for their moment.
At 7:06, Moossa asked if the lineup graphics were ready. The answer comes back: "not yet."
NBC brought up a taped hit from a pitch-side reporter at Anfield. He was holding a Peacock-emblazoned microphone, but I noticed his jacket first. It had the logos of the Premier League and IMG, the company which produces the Premier League's world feed.
During a later commercial break, the lineup graphics were finally finished. Brown - who also produces NBC's MLS games - helped the graphics editors make sure the lineup names are right, and that the formations were correct.
That is not as easy as you might think. It's hard enough for a MLS game, but Premier League managers often keep their cards even closer to their vests. And they're thousands of miles across the Atlantic. The Internet helps make up for that, but only so much.
As I watched Earle analyze the Luis Suárez situation at Liverpool, my mind flashed back to Earle and Mustoe's work with their last employer. They were color analysts for ESPN International, which broadcasts worldwide but is produced in Bristol, Conn. You might have caught the feed on cruise ships in the Caribbean, or in parts of the Pacific Rim.
Earle and Mustoe were two of the many public faces of ESPN International before they moved to NBC. They did most of their work out of the spotlight, calling games off monitors and hosting shows from small studios. Now they have a giant space at NBC Sports Group's glistening, modern headquarters.
Just as importantly, they're front and center in terms of the company's programming priorities. The network of Notre Dame, the NFL and the Olympics has put the Premier League on that level.
So, back to the broadcast. Even though he was sitting in Stamford, Moossa had access to a myriad of camera angles at Anfield. He picked a close-up view of the famed Spion Kop stand. It showed rain pouring down, and some early-arriving fans huddled under the cantilevered roof.
Lowe brought the show in from a commercial break and read a promo for NBC's NFL broadcasts on the opening weekend of that season. Were you surprised? I bet you weren't. The Premier League may be a big deal, but America's football still wears the ultimate crown.
Then Lowe turned to the rain. "It's an English summer," she quipped.
The conversation turned to Arsenal's lack of summer spending - a subject as depressing to Gunners fans as a slate-gray downpour in August. Mustoe and Earle let fly at manager Arsène Wenger for his repeated failures in the transfer market, and the fans I know on Twitter loudly agreed.
In a commercial break at around 7:30, the final touches were put on the lineup graphics. Moossa, Brown and Mustoe made sure the formation was absolutely right. They know that if anything was off, fans would light them up for not truly knowing the game. The lineups would not go on TV until all parties were satisfied.
I took a moment to check Twitter. Granting that I live and work in the American soccer bubble, there was a lot of chatter from early risers. Just about all of it strongly praised NBC's production.
When the lineup graphics were finally set, I hear Moossa ask, "Can I trust them?" The answer came quickly from a few rows back: "Yes."
Liverpool, the home team, was first up. Then Moossa called for the transition to Stoke. It looked seamless to you, but it took a lot of moves in Stamford.
You may remember that last year, I spent a day in the ESPN soccer production truck when they came to PPL Park for a Union-Red Bulls game.
In my story on that day, I emphasized the graphic production side of things, and how every little thing is designed and programmed. It's the same with NBC, as it is with every TV network.
If you don't think about what you're seeing, the production crew has done its job well. But I promise you that once you see the crew work in person, it changes the way you watch a game forever.
I looked up at the clock over the TVs. It was 7:39 and 22 seconds, to be precise: almost time for the players to take the field. NBC came back from the commercial break with a live shot of Steven Gerrard in the tunnel at Anfield. Lowe, to her credit, went silent for a good 10 seconds during the shot.
Now came NBC's first big test. Liverpool fans' traditional pregame singing of "You'll Never Walk Alone" is one of the great traditions in English soccer. Would Lowe and her colleagues stay quiet during it, or talk over the spectacle?
As the players took the field, Lowe went silent again. The broadcast feed switched to an aerial shot of Anfield.
Moossa knew when "You'll Never Walk Alone" was coming. He watched the cameras focused on fans, and kept an eye on information coming from the stadium. When the moment arrived, Moossa and Lowe were ready.
"Let's listen to the tune that is Liverpool," Lowe said. Then she got out of the way.
Moossa kept reinforcing the point throughout the song. He told his crew to "push the nats" - shorthand for natural sound.
Lowe waited until a full second had passed after the last note, then came back on air to hand off to world feed announcers Alan Parry and Efan Ekoku. Moossa gave the order to bring up their audio feed, and the Premier League season was underway.
The test was passed, and with flying colors.
At that point, I left the control room for a nearby screening room where I would watch the morning's games.
Once I got settled, I decided to test the online stream of the game. Thinking that a good house guest doesn't horde bandwidth unannounced, I tried to be discreet. It turned out that everyone in the room was doing the same thing.
I turned first to my phone, an Android device. I opened the NBC Sports Live Extra app and tapped on the live game feed. The app froze before the login for my pay-TV provider loaded.
I had heard from readers that the Android app has had some issues, so I wasn't surprised. I realized that my phone had a bunch of apps running simultaneously, so I closed them all and tried again. The app froze again, and I gave up.
Next, I opened the Live Extra website on my laptop. That worked easily, from page load time to the provider authentication process. Within seconds I was watching Stoke's Peter Crouch on two screens at once.
In the 11th minute, Liverpool's Daniel Sturridge scored what appeared to be the first goal of the season - but it was ruled out for offside. As I wasn't in the control room anymore, I didn't know how Moossa and his crew reacted. But since the game broadcast is produced by the world feed, all the NBC folks really had to worry about was the scoreboard graphic.
If you've watched MLS or NHL games on NBC in the past, you've seen the scoreboard in the middle of your screen. For EPL broadcasts, it's on the left. I'm guessing that's because the world feed scoreboard sits there, so NBC's graphic covers it. I'll be interested to see if they move the MLS scoreboard to that area, to keep continuity across their soccer properties.
A few minutes after 8:00, I started getting tweets from readers back in Philadelphia who couldn't find the Extra Time feeds on Xfinity On Demand. Comcast had told me they were expected to show up Saturday morning before kickoff.
I loaded my Slingbox app to see if I could get a connection to home. That worked, so I opened up the On Demand system. I scrolled down to the second screen of options, and selected "Sports and Fitness." There was supposed to be a "Premier League" section there - and there it was, right at the top. But as of 8:17 a.m., there weren't any games.
Midway through the first half, Moossa walked into the screening room. I complimented him on how he treated the pregame ceremonies, especially the silence during "You'll Never Walk Alone."
He thanked me, and told me that emphasizing the game's natural sound was one of his aims all along. So he kept an eye out for the right times to keep everyone quiet, starting with when the teams lined up in the tunnel.
"It's the right thing to do," he said. "It takes you where you want to be - you don't need to hear people chatting when you can hear the real thing."
Considering how much of American sports television is centered around talking, not action, that was very refreshing to hear.
Miller arrived in the screening room late in the first half. He knows me pretty well at this point, given how many times I've interviewed him in the past. As you know, many of those interviews have been about NBC's broadcast deal with Major League Soccer.
He pointed out that the last commercial before the EPL pregame show was for Saturday night's Red Bulls-Union game. I laughed, and gave him the due credit. Miller responded by saying that MLS "will get an enormous amount of love" on EPL broadcasts, "as they should."
We spent the next few minutes talking about differences in how MLS and the Premier League schedule kickoff times - and how badly NBC wants MLS to adopt flexible scheduling for its broadcasts.
That might affect gate receipts, but it would get better games at better times on national television. That would boost ratings, which would help MLS get a more lucrative rights deal.
(Get the idea yet?)
Meanwhile, I still had half an eye on my Slingbox. It was 9:30, and the Premier League Extra Time games still weren't showing in Xfinity On Demand yet. One of the games was Sunderland-Fulham, and Jozy Altidore was in Sunderland's starting lineup. U.S. national team fans on Twitter were getting nervous.
The feeds finally went live at 9:50 a.m., and everyone calmed down. But the peace didn't last long. We soon found out that if you launch a game after kickoff, it's not live - your feed starts at kickoff, and can't be fast-forwarded to real time. That's a major problem for the nation's largest cable TV provider.
I mentioned to Miller that I as hearing a lot of complaints from fans on Twitter. He reads Twitter a lot too, and he saw the complaints as well. He wasn't happy at all, and at one point he left the room to make some phone calls.
I asked Miller for a comment on the record about the relationship between NBC's programming side and Comcast's cable distribution side. Here was his answer:
It really isn't [connected]. It will be five years from now, but they [Xfinity] are treated just like DirecTV, Dish, Time Warner and everybody else. We have to go through the same things. We have to pitch them and sell them on doing this, and stuff like that.
We operate as two completely separate entities when it comes to that side of the house. There is separate management, separate protocols, you name it.
In fact, I would say that because everyone here is so concerned about [interference], we bend even a little bit further just to make sure that there's no question about it.
Miller's point was that the greater Comcast-NBC empire is more a group of parts than one large operation. There's a clear separation between the programming and distribution sides of the company.
There's certainly pressure on Xfinity to deliver what NBC wants, and Miller's annoyance was real. There were actions behind the words. Still, how Xfinity delivers Extra Time isn't truly his decision to make.
(A few hours later, a Comcast representative reached out to me via Twitter and offered to have a longer conversation offline. I accepted, and I'll report back after we talk.)
After the Liverpool-Stoke game ended, I got a tour of the NBC Sports building. It has space for 750 employees, with 450 to 500 coming through the doors on any given day.
First up was Studio 2, the space where NBC's NHL broadcasts are based. I got to stand next to the fancy telestrator that's shaped like a hockey rink. It was pretty cool to see in person, even when it's turned off. We also saw smaller studios, including one for the Golf Channel that has a fake tee box and green.
Then came the central control room, which is a sports geek's heaven. Every feed of every channel you could think of comes through there. The room was full of monitors, cables and server racks.
I scanned the screens just as teams were coming out for the 10:00 a.m. kickoffs. I noticed one camera aimed toward the stands at Sunderland. It caught a fan in a Phillies hat, because of course it did. I wondered what he thinks of Charlie Manuel's dismissal.
I got back to the screening room about eight minutes after kickoff. Karma being what it is, Arsenal had already scored, and I missed the goal.
For the next while, it was all about watching the games. I was lucky, because in the screening room I can watch all five games at once. Arsenal are a mess, giving up two goals and a red card after taking the early lead.
So I tried to bounce around some of the other monitors. Norwich-Everton looked fun, with four goals in 70 minutes. Sunderland was losing to Fulham, and West Ham was beating Cardiff City.
The more entertaining stuff was happening elsewhere in the room. Miller and his colleagues were following Twitter and other websites for fans' reactions to their coverage. Those who were able to watch are overwhelmingly positive. Those who were having issues accessing Extra Time weren't.
After the 10:00 games ended, the main TV in the screening room was changed to the main NBC network. NBC had a half-hour window of coverage of the IAAF World Track and Field Championships before kickoff of Swansea City-Manchester United. This was timed intentionally, because superstar Usain Bolt was running the 200 meters in that window.
There was a bit of soccer chatter during the track broadcast. Bolt, a renowned Manchester United fan, talked about his team's title hopes in a recorded interview. He even gave NBC a clip to use later coming out of a commercial break: "Stick around for Manchester United-Swansea, coming up next."
Bolt left the blocks at 12:12 p.m., and 19.66 seconds later he crossed the finish line. At 12:20, NBC track broadcaster Tom Hammond threw to Lowe for a quick pregame show. That segment was simulcast on NBCSN.
The first major technical snafu of the day came when Lowe tried to bring in the network's game commentary crew, Arlo White and Lee Dixon. As the players came out of the tunnel, viewers heard world feed broadcasters Steve Baynard and Stewart Robson instead.
NBC went to a quick commercial break to sort out the matter. When the broadcast came back, Lowe acknowledged the glitch and informed viewers of who they were hearing.
At 12:29, White's voice arrived with an apology for "gremlins in the system." He and Dixon were ready to go by kickoff, and at 12:30 the ball got rolling. But the gremlins had not all been shooed yet, as the sound seemed a half-second ahead of the picture.
In the 22nd minute of the game, you might have noticed a few seconds when it sounded like White's voice was echoing, and after that the sound quality improved. That was a sign of NBC's technicians trying to fix the sync issue. They didn't quite get there, but I could tell they were trying. By the end of the half, it seemed to be fixed.
In the 25th minute, the screen went dark for a second. That was on the world feed producers. All NBC does is provide a commentary crew - it doesn't produce the video, or even add any extra cameras.
At that point I stepped back and reminded myself that I was watching a live Premier League game on American network television. Yes, it's 2013, and people have high expectations. That's certainly the case for NBC's soccer crew, both in front of and behind the camera, and it should be. But nitpicking every bump in the road can make us lose sight of the bigger picture.
Around then, United got to doing its thing. The Red Devils scored two goals in quick succession, and all but killed the game. The only other notable thing that happened was when Wayne Rooney came on as a substitute in the 61st minute. Arlo White went quite as Rooney entered the field, saying "we'll leave it to the crowd at the Liberty Stadium" to provide reaction.
Here was more proof of NBC's desire to be authentic to the sport. If that continues, I suspect fans' reactions will continue to be positive.
At halftime, Miller spoke at length with me and other reporters who had come up for the day.
Swansea-United ended at 2:23 p.m. After a commercial break, Lowe and the studio crew had around four minutes to wrap up that game and the rest of the day's action. We saw a goal from each of the six games that had taken place earlier in the morning, plus Robin van Persie's brilliant opener for the Red Devils.
When that was done, there was still enough time for a Man of the Match honor and a focus on Wayne Rooney - and a quick promo of Red Bulls-Union. Not bad at all for four minutes.
Once the broadcast finished, I spent a few minutes talking to Moossa about his day's work.
Then I finally got to go to the soccer studio. It's the same space where the MLS Breakaway show originates from, as well as Formula 1 and other sports. You can see photos at the top of the post. It's a pretty impressive place, with lots of slick furnishing and big video screens. One of them is a 103-inch touch-screen monitor that can be used for tactical analysis.
While there, I talked with studio host Rebecca Lowe and analysts Robbie Mustoe and Robbie Earle.
Once the interviews were done, it was finally time to go. After all, I had a soccer game to actually attend in person that night.
So what was my verdict on the morning?
I came away quite impressed, just like many television viewers did. As Miller noted in the interview linked to above, there are certain sporting events you can broadcast with a half-measure, but NBC was committed to not doing so for this. The presentation lived up to the hype, and to NBC's high standards.
For years, skeptical observers called soccer America's "sport of the future." On Saturday, the world's game took another big step towards being America's sport of the present.