When Trey Wingo hosted last year’s NFL draft, he wasn’t wearing any makeup. In fact, ESPN’s whole broadcast was what draftniks call “unpolished.” The pandemic forced the NFL to move the draft from Las Vegas, where prospects were set to appear on a floating red carpet in the fountains outside the Bellagio, to a studio in Connecticut, where Wingo was hanging with a floor manager. Roger Goodell was stuck in his basement. The rest of ESPN’s cast—including three NFL Network analysts whose own broadcast had been canceled—beamed in on remote feeds. Over the next three days, Wingo took in the emptiness of the studio. ESPN wanted to get through the draft “without it looking like a really bad Wayne’s World skit,” he told me last week.
The 2020 draft did have a public-access quality. But it turned out to be almost endearing. ESPN replaced shots of Goodell hugging prospects with shots of Bill Belichick’s dog. Kliff Kingsbury showed off his view of Camelback Mountain. Mike McCarthy sat way too close to the camera. A rival network executive said of the draft, “It was better.”
Anyone who watches sports studio shows (thank you for your service) has come to expect they’ll look glossy and expensive. Hosts sit on hangar-sized sets, backed by towering monitor walls, with lurid graphics in the “lower thirds.” Last April, by necessity, sports TV took off its makeup. Since the result was arguably better, it raised a question: What’s the point of polish?
The 2010s were the decade when the sports studio show got its glow-up. Wingo hosted the draft from Digital Center 2 (DC-2). That’s the complex ESPN opened in 2014 with 114 monitors adorning the SportsCenter studio and a price tag in excess of $178 million. ESPN, like every network that turns out studio shows, wanted guests to be on set to ensure a crisp look and easy banter.
“Every week at ESPN, they would fly in as many as 30, 40 analysts for all the different sports that were going on,” said Wingo. “Fly them into Bristol. Put them up in a hotel. Give them rental cars. Give them per diems. Back and forth, then fly them home, and somebody else comes in.”
Networks poured even more resources into the draft. “We certainly attack it more like a game production than like a studio-show production,” said Charlie Yook, the executive who oversees draft coverage at NFL Network. In 2019, ESPN and ABC boasted that their broadcasts included “an estimated 125,000 to 150,000 feet of fiber optic cable,” “1,000+ production elements,” and “25 ‘sense of place’ bumps with local Nashville artists.”
ESPN and NFL Network were locked in a competition to see who could place more remote cameras inside the teams’ war rooms and prospects’ homes. It was unthinkable to see Mel Kiper Jr. or Daniel Jeremiah do a pre-draft hit on a competing network. “People would be like, ‘Are you high?’” said Yook.
The glossiness of studio shows was a product of the era. When the cable bundle still seemed indomitable, networks had money to burn. A snazzier set might give your show a distinctive look, the thinking went, or act as an offering to a sports league you wanted to keep happy. Glossing up TV shows is also a go-to in the executive playbook. An executive who needs a “win” can propose a new set or a graphic makeover. It’s a lot easier than creating a hit show.
TV viewers care about hosts. They care what subjects those hosts talk about. There’s no evidence they care about sets or graphics. “TV people make TV shows for TV people more than they do for viewers,” one executive told me.
Another said: “Are you making these shows for your coworkers—meaning, the corner office? Or are you making these shows for the fans? Because when the fans watch shows, they never say to me, ‘Man, I love those lower thirds.’”
The 2020 draft was an accidental experiment in downsizing. ESPN and NFL Network didn’t dispatch camera crews to prospects’ houses. NFL Media sent iPhone production kits instead. The video quality wasn’t quite as high, but it sufficed.
“In the old days, we would all sit in a control room,” said Seth Markman, the ESPN executive in charge of NFL studio shows. “I remember distinctly when directors would say, ‘We can’t use that camera—it doesn’t look good enough!’ I think those days are over.”
In a normal year, Wingo could see an analyst across the desk waving his hand when he wanted to talk about a prospect. But like recent editions of ESPN’s NFL Live, the network’s analysts were scattered across the country. “I had someone ask me after the draft, ‘Hey, what did Mel really think of this player?’” said Wingo, who left ESPN last year and will cover this year’s draft for Fox Sports. “And I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’ Normally, we’d have those conversations in commercial breaks and we’d kibitz a little bit. There was none of that.”
A careful viewer of last year’s draft could see the strains of a stripped-down production. On Day 1, Louis Riddick’s feed had a slight delay. Wingo had to make deliberate handoffs to his analysts, leaving little room for spontaneity. But ESPN offered the same information and takes about draftees that it always does. And though the 2020 draft arrived a few weeks after the nation went into lockdown, it was way better TV than this year’s Oscars.
The pandemic has sped up the de-glossing of studio shows. As executives see it, anyone who spent a year talking to relatives and coworkers on Zoom isn’t going to wonder why Kendrick Perkins looks a little fuzzy when he beams into The Jump. YouTube shows like Pat McAfee’s have shown that you can build a set that looks unique without having it look like it cost a fortune.
“And by the way, you can save a shitload of money,” said one executive. That, of course, is the primary draw. Networks lost ad revenue during the pandemic and will pay billions more to the NFL under the new rights deal. To save money, they can create more defined tiers between studio shows devoted to “jewel” properties like the NFL or NBA, which get lavish treatment, and everything else. Instead of insisting on in-person studio visits, they can live with remotes. Executives figure that process can save a few million dollars a year, easily. It’s the same thing they were trying to do by carving money out of talent contracts before the pandemic started.
On Thursday, the NFL draft will try to recover some of its pre-pandemic glory. The event will have a Lake Erie backdrop, a “vaccinated fan zone,” and a performance by Kings of Leon.
But look deeper and you’ll see signs of the networks’ thriftier future. In the spirit of comity and cost savings, ESPN and NFL Network have called off the draft camera wars. “It was sort of childish,” said Markman. This year, there will be a single feed from each war room or prospect’s home, and the networks will share it.
Last week, Mel Kiper Jr. and Daniel Jeremiah did hits on each other’s networks, a sign of armistice in the draft community. “It kind of feels Avenger-y,” said Yook.
Draft spectacle is increasingly being outsourced to teams. The Rams rented a Malibu beach house to serve as their war room. In a subtle but important change, viewers will see the name of the sponsoring mortgage company on a remote shot rather than in the studio.
A TV executive will probably celebrate the end of the pandemic by ordering a new monitor wall. But studio shows of the future will probably look more like the unpolished 2020 draft than this year’s version. As one executive said: “This narrative of, ‘Wow, we’ve learned so much during the pandemic’ is slightly absurd. A good producer should have known it already. Now you just have permission from the corner office to do it.”