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Behind the Scenes at MNF, Part II: The Puppeteers

I was fortunate enough to be invited to spend the day with ESPN as the Monday Night Football train came rolling into Philadelphia this week. Throughout the day, we'll take a look at one of the largest traveling shows in sports for the biggest program in cable television history (well, the cast of High School Musical was unavailable, so we're stuck with football). It's quite a production.

In part one, we looked at the personalities on the show. In part two, we look at the guys behind the guys.

truck_8294.jpg(All photos by Dan Levy)

The stars of Monday Night Football aren't the players on the field. Each week, players are interchangeable. Helmet colors change. Numbers change. Incompletions and interceptions and cutback runs and wildcats change. But the one thing that remains constant to the viewer is who is giving you the information. So often we focus on the two, or in the case of Monday Night Football, three men in the booth. What we fail to realize -- or in my case just didn't know -- is exactly how many people it takes to broadcast a football game at this level.

ESPN may be no different in its preparation than CBS, Fox or NBC, but having the opportunity to sit in on the production meetings with the former, I can speak solely to the fact that the World Wide Leader's football machine is indeed well oiled. The commentators, sideline reporters and producers spend several days in town, interviewing members of each team and gathering background information for their game plan.

When Monday rolls around, the meetings start early, with a closed-door meeting (translation: I wasn't allowed in) with the talent to set the underlying themes for the telecast. Following that meeting, the production crew of more than 25 staffers convenes to go over the production of the show.

Nothing is left to chance. Nothing. There is a graphic, a statistic and a camera angle prepared for every possible situation. And that's because Jay Rothman, the producer of Monday Night Football, makes sure of it.

Rothman entered the production meeting somewhat unassumingly, donning a ball cap, sweatshirt and wind pants. He just as soon looked like he was setting up the table and chairs as running the meeting. But when he came in, the room took notice. It was time to get to work. He's earned the respect of the room, working his way up at ESPN and ABC from an associate producer to where he is today. The production seems incredibly organized, and that's a tribute to Rothman and director Chip Dean.

The early morning production meeting is all business, going over news and notes that will be discussed and displayed during the telecast (more on those coming soon). But it's not without its yuks, from taking a few light-hearted shots at some of the highlights to making fun of Jaws in an old Eagles uniform. At one point during a graphics presentation, Kornheiser found an error on one of the notes, to which Rothman quipped, "Thanks, Statboy." After a laugh from the table, including Kornheiser, he continued by asking, in the way that Tony asks actual Statboy Tony Reali, "What did we get wrong, Kornheiser?"

There are light moments, but the meeting is as organized as any I've seen. Everything is measured. And it has to be. There's too much at stake for ESPN, and for Rothman.

"This is a big deal. It's always a big deal, really, because what's at stake. What you know that you have to represent on each Monday night, in this case. And there's so much on the line.
"We don't really buy into the whole deal of pressure. We know what we do well. We know how hard we work. We know how prepared we are. And the easy part, truthfully, is executing the show. The easy part is the three hours on the air. The difficult part is every waking moment leading up to those three hours."

replay_8296.jpgFollowing the morning meeting, the production crew meets again to shore up whatever changes were discussed and make certain everything is accounted for before heading over to the stadium. Producers, camera operators, replay and graphics people all show up in the early afternoon to set their packages and rehearse for the start of live TV show at 8:30 pm.

A few hours before game time, Dean conducts another production meeting with the camera operators and replay technicians. More than 50 people (FIFTY!) go over everything that was discussed in the early morning meeting, including specific details about players, coaches, storylines and even potential crowd reaction to Donovan McNabb if he were to struggle. Everything is mapped out in advance. The game just falls onto their coordinates.

graphics_8138.jpgRothman calls the production "organized chaos" and says:

"I'm sort of like the puppeteer. But I guess I just sort of have a sense of what's right in that given moment. And sometimes we miss. Because it's not an edited show, we can't get it back. But it's really just going with your gut -- going with your gut with what's right, or what's most right, at the current time."

With Rothman and Dean at the helm, it seems their gut, on the production side, is most right most of the time.

Next we will take a look the specific themes for the game, and how they translate on the telecast. To listen to full interviews with Jay Rothman, albeit with suspect audio (sorry about that), visit part three of On the DL's 100th Episode Extravaganza.

By Dan Levy  |  December 18, 2008; 12:37 PM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Behind the Scenes at MNF, Part I: The Personalities | Next: Behind the Scenes at MNF, Part III: The Game

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