7 Chaotic Hours Behind The Scenes At NFL RedZone

Dec 14, 2014
Originally published on December 15, 2014 1:17 pm

Today, like every Sunday in the fall, millions of Americans are tuning in to watch some of the country's most popular sport: football.

And for several million of them, your regular ol' football game isn't fast-paced enough: They're tuning in to NFL RedZone.

NFL RedZone is the frenetic channel run by the NFL Network that, for seven hours straight, switches between football games in an endeavor to show every single score of as many as 12 simultaneous games.

That means switching between games up to three times a minute — or, even crazier, if multiple teams seem poised to score, showing them all on-screen simultaneously.

Pre-Game Preparation

On Dec. 7, at 7:15 a.m. Pacific time, the sun has just risen over the NFL Network offices in Culver City, Calif. Inside, everyone looks a little sleepy with their hoodies and coffee — except Scott Hanson, the host of the show. He is boyish and blond, with a smile that's basically a dentist's dream.

"I woke up at about 5 a.m.," he tells me, "and I stayed up last night till, I don't know, 11 or maybe close to midnight, just finishing up research."

Indeed, he is holding a stack of papers about an inch high, packed with rosters, statistics, streaks and records. His energy lasts unabated all day.

"Nine games will kick off at 1 o'clock Eastern," he says, pointing to his schedule. "Four more games will kick off at the 4 o'clock Eastern hour. We show every touchdown from every game. No commercials. It is a roller coaster ride."

There is no doubt whatsoever that Hanson loves this job.

"If sitting at home in your living room is 'the best seat in the house,' I guess I have the best seat in the galaxy," he says.

By 8 a.m., Hanson and the RedZone crew have shuffled into a conference room. At this morning meeting, the lead producer, Brian Nettles, runs through each matchup. The group talks out potential storylines: players to watch, narratives to highlight.

On this Sunday, the New York Jets are playing the Minnesota Vikings. Hanson notes there are no serious playoff implications here; the Vikings are 5-7, while the Jets are just 2-10. But that doesn't mean there's nothing interesting to say about the game.

"The Jets have attempted 45 passes that have gone 20 yards [or more] in the air," Hanson says to the crew. "They have six completions on those 45 attempts — and eight interceptions. So the other team has caught it more than they have when they throw it 20 yards in the air or more."

Throughout the meeting, Hanson quizzes his staff on football trivia, peppering them with questions about who holds what record, who had how many plays — for this game, he asks who the quarterbacks were the last time the Vikings beat the Jets. (Answer: Fran Tarkenton and Joe Namath.)

Quiet In The Studio ...

Hanson has had this job since the channel's inception just over five years ago. The NFL Network had acquired the rights to the RedZone game-switching format from DirecTV, whose Red Zone Channel was a few years old at the time.

When Hanson was preparing for his audition, he watched a few tapes of DirecTV's version. His friend and occasional colleague Andrew Siciliano hosts that show.

"I called him up," Hanson says, "and I asked him the embarrassing first question that everybody asks me: 'When do you get a bathroom break during the seven hours?' "

(It's the question everyone asked me, too, when I told them I was working on this story.)

It turns out that the answer is that you probably don't get one. Hanson has to keep to a schedule the morning before a show. He stops eating at a certain time, and stops drinking before another.

Then, most crucial: The stage manager offers a delicate reminder when there's only five minutes left until the start of the broadcast — letting him know that now's his last chance.

The studio is painted a vivid, bright green. There's a silver NFL podium in the middle, but otherwise, everything else is computer-generated for the broadcast — even the floor.

The stage manager warns that we're 20 seconds away from the broadcast. Everyone grows silent. There's no noise except Scott, his stage manager and the air conditioner.

"Coming to V.O.," she says. "Five, four ... "

And with that, they're off. Hanson reads a two-minute intro that is the only scripted portion of the show, then moves out from behind the podium. Within seconds, nine games are live. Barely a minute goes by before the first touchdown of the day — a pick-six in Minnesota.

They weren't showing it live, which means a producer will have to roll back the replay, prepare a transition effect, and get everything timed just right — and it's still only 16 seconds until the touchdown is played on RedZone.

... Chaos Inside The Control Room

Just two soundproof doors away from the silent studio is the noisy, chaotic control room. Nettles, the lead producer, shouts out directions that are more or less incomprehensible depending on how much football you watch.

"Standby with this flag — we're gonna update Megatron's touchdown," Nettles yells. "Standby game three, update yellow."

The live games are on numbered feeds. The four replay banks are named after colors: steel, bronze, yellow and green.

It's very dark, with most of the light coming from the dozens and dozens of monitors. On the main wall, I count at least 59, and that doesn't include the computers.

Up front next to Nettles is a director, who takes the instructions from Nettles and gives the precise cues. Beside and behind them are at least seven other producers, all keeping an eye on the games, watching the replays, looking up statistics, double-checking the rules. The place is brimming with activity: Nettles calling out shots, the director cuing the engineer, Hanson chattering back, the producers yelling when someone has scored a touchdown or made a big play.

If you think that sounds like a lot to balance, you're right. And sometimes, things come crashing down.

About an hour into this day's broadcast, a replay starts rewinding, live on the air. Everyone in the studio cries out as they scramble to fix it.

It doesn't take long. Just a few seconds later, a replay from the Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts is cued up, and Hanson is announcing away as if nothing happened.

Given the craziness of the control room — the nine games they're juggling, the constant switching back and forth — the fact that I only saw one mistake might be the most impressive thing of all.

Seven exhausting hours later, there's just one thing left to do: compile their signature, 10-minute-long montage of all the day's touchdowns, one after another.

And that's the allure of RedZone: If you've been watching all day, you'd have seen all 64 of them already.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Today's an exciting day for pro football fans. There are only three weeks left in the regular season, but there are tons of teams still in contention for the playoffs. If that's not exciting enough for you, maybe try NFL RedZone. For the uninitiated, the red zone is that area inside the 20-yard line where scoring happens most often, and NFL RedZone is all about the scoring.

For seven hours straight, every football Sunday, they show you every single score from every single game as it happens, which sometimes involves multiple games on screen at the same time. Sound crazy? We sent our producer Becky Sullivan to spend a day behind the scenes and see just how chaotic it can be.

BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: It's 7:15 a.m. Pacific time at the NFL Network offices in Culver City, here in the Los Angeles area. The sun's just risen. It's a little chilly outside. Inside, everyone's looking sleepy, dressed in hoodies, holding coffee. That is everyone except Scott Hanson. Hanson is the host of the NFL RedZone - boyish, blond, a big smile full of pearly whites. Right now, he is the very picture of vitality.

SCOTT HANSON: Well, see, I woke up at about 5 a.m., and I stayed up last night until about - I don't know - 11 or maybe close to midnight.

SULLIVAN: His energy lasts, unabated, all day, and it has to. Hosting RedZone sounds exhausting.

HANSON: Nine games will kick off at one o'clock Eastern. Four more games will kick off in the four o'clock Eastern hour. We show every touchdown from every game - no commercials. It is a roller coaster ride.

SULLIVAN: The morning meeting starts at 8 a.m. Hanson has this huge stack of papers packed with rosters and statistics and streaks and records.

UNIDENTIFED MAN #1: Jets and Vikings.

SULLIVAN: One by one, the production team goes through each of the 13 games, talking out potential story lines - players to watch, narratives to highlight - that kind of thing.

HANSON: So the Jets have attempted 45 passes that have gone 20 yards in the air - you know, deep shots, basically. They have six completions on those 45 attempts and eight interceptions.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Oh.

(LAUGHTER)

HANSON: The other team has caught it more than they have when they throw it 20 yards in the air.

SULLIVAN: Hanson and the crew are practiced at this by now. The NFL Network started RedZone just over five years ago, modeled after a similar show in DirecTV that's only available to their subscribers. Both channels have millions of viewers. When Scott Hanson was in the audition process for this job, he watched a few tapes of DirecTV's version. He's friends with their host.

HANSON: And I watched it, and I called him up. And I asked the embarrassing first question that everybody asks me - is, when do you get a bathroom break during the seven hours? (Laughter)

SULLIVAN: The answer - well, sometimes you don't get one. So right before the show's about to go on air, he's giving a quick tour of the studio to some visitors when his stage manager interrupts him.

HANSON: Up here, we'll have the scores of all nine games.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Scott, five minutes. You want to do the...

HANSON: I need to excuse myself for a moment because I get my last bathroom break of the day right now. I'll be right back.

SULLIVAN: It's actually kind of a shock to walk into the studio. It's painted a vivid, bright green. There's a silver podium in the middle, and that's it. On air, the rest of studio is computer-generated, even the floor.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Twenty...

SULLIVAN: Except for Hanson and his stage manager, it's totally silent in here.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Come to V-O.

(SOUNDBITE OF COUGHING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Ten seconds...

SULLIVAN: And he's off.

HANSON: Four fingers in the air as the regular season hits its final quarter.

SULLIVAN: And RedZone is on the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "REDZONE")

HANSON: The end of the Steelers division title hopes.

SULLIVAN: Barely a minute goes by before the first touchdown of the day.

HANSON: Yep, pick six - first play of the game. Wow.

SULLIVAN: They weren't showing that game live, so the crew has to roll it back on a replay machine, get the transition effect ready, get the timing just right. And just 16 seconds later, it's on.

HANSON: Check out the first play from scrimmage in the Jets Vikings game.

SULLIVAN: And then it's back to silence in the studio. The chaos is the control room, just on the other side of two soundproof doors.

BRIAN NETTLES: We're going to update megatron's touchdown. Game three, update yellow.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Game three, no update.

SULLIVAN: As the producer Brian Nettles. He's making decisions about what to show these first few hours. It's very dark in here. The only light comes from the dozens - the dozens of TV monitors. There's one for each game, each replay, each graphic. I count 59, and that doesn't even include their computers.

NETTLES: OK, I need to get ready for 5-3 and then bring in Detroit.

SULLIVAN: The live games are on the numbered feeds. Then there are four replay banks named after colors - steal, bronze, yellow and green.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Roll yellow, effect blue.

SULLIVAN: There's a director, an engineer and seven other guys just keeping an eye on the games, the replays, looking up statistics, double-checking the rules. If that sounds like a lot of things to balance, it is, and sometimes it comes crashing down.

NETTLES: Game two, update three.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Let me see it again.

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: Whoa.

NETTLES: Going to green.

SULLIVAN: About an hour into the broadcast, one of the replay feeds started rewinding live on the air. But in a couple of seconds, they fixed it, and Scott Hanson doesn't bat an eyelash.

HANSON: I've got an update on the Browns and Colts game. Brian Hoyer on third and four, and...

SULLIVAN: And, you know, given the craziness of the control room, the nine games they're juggling, the constant switching, the fact that I only saw one mistake might be the most impressive thing of all. Seven exhausting hours later, there's just one thing left to do - make the signature 10-minute-long montage of all the days' touchdowns, one after another.

HANSON: And the catch is made by Benjamin for a Carolina touchdown - touchdown - touchdown.

SULLIVAN: And that's the allure of RedZone. If you'd been watching all day, you'd have seen all 64 of them already. Becky Sullivan, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.