CBS, NFL Network Ready To Take Thursday Night Football to Next Level

Tomorrow, CBS Sports and the NFL Network begin a new one-year partnership to produce what both hope will become the hottest property in primetime football: Thursday Night Football. During the next eight weeks, the broadcast will be seen on CBS stations across the country before the games shift to the NFL Network for the final eight.

The concept of Thursday Night Football is nothing new; the NFL Network has been broadcasting games since 2008. But the collaboration between CBS and the NFL Network is taking not only the game production but also the pregame and postgame production to a whole new level.

“From a planning perspective, this is as complex and difficult a startup as I have been around,” says Ken Aagaard, EVP, engineering, operations, and production services, CBS Sports. “It isn’t really a startup, as we took over the NFL Network’s existing contracts with Game Creek Video. So, for us, it is a chance to work with some great engineering people and put our resources together.”

Since the package was announced in February, CBS and NFL Network hit the ground running, working on an extremely tight timeline to develop mutually beneficial workflows and a truly co-branded production.

Working with other networks is nothing new for CBS Sports. They have an on-going relationship with Turner Sports for March Madness and also work closely with ESPN on the Masters golf tournament.

Bringing different cultures is always interesting, Aagaard notes, adding, “We tried to pick and choose the best from each side.”

At a press event last month, CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus said that, from an equipment standpoint, the commitment makes the show as big as any other event on CBS, outside of the Super Bowl.

“I’m not a believer in, you just put out as many cameras as you can and hope it goes well, but it is definitely as much equipment as we have [for a sports production] at CBS other than the Super Bowl,” he said. “So, every week, in our mind, Thursday Night Football is an AFC Championship or Super Bowl broadcast, and it is going to look the same in week 12 and 13 as it does in week one.”

At the center of the supersized production are more than 300 people as well as three HD production units from Game Creek Video. Pride will handling the pregame coverage; Glory, game coverage. Riverhawk will also be on hand to handle production from the CBS Sports set inside the stadiums.

Pregame coverage will begin on the NFL Network at 6 p.m. ET every Thursday night before CBS comes on-air with a pregame simulcast beginning at 7:30 p.m.

“We have a lot of firepower as it relates to the pre- and post-game coverage,” says Aagaard, “and that is pretty exciting for everybody.”

Jack Morton designed a lot of the set pieces, and Filmwerks and the Solomon Group were also involved in building out and designing sets.

The game production itself will include new toys, such as a 4K camera suspended between the bench and the sidelines and moving up and down the sideline to capture 4K replays that can offer HD-quality zoom images.

PJ Bennett, formerly of Actioncam, has formed a company called Supercam and came to CBS with an idea for installing a two-point cable system along the sideline with a 4K camera running parallel to the line of scrimmage.

“It gives us a pretty unique look, and producer Lance Barrow and director Mike Arnold will try to use it as much as possible,” says Aagaard. “The idea is to follow the play and then zoom in on the point they want to show with higher resolution.” The camera people are also being told to keep motion to a minimum and to simply frame the shot.

Two 4K cameras mounted on Fletcher robotic systems will be shooting along the sideline, and all the 4K cameras will be fed to EVS replay servers, which will extract the HD-resolution zoom.

Also new is Grass Valley’s 6X super-slow-motion camera system. “It has a lot of unique playback possibilities,” says Aagaard. “From an operation standpoint, it works just like a regular camera.”

Another step to bringing playoff-level coverage to every game is to provide sideline reporters for regular-season games, according to McManus — not only for the Thursday-night game but for all CBS NFL broadcasts. “It’s a change of philosophy and a change for the better,” he explained.

Along with all the changes onsite is a big change offsite: the use of Signiant file-transfer technology.

“One of the cool things is, by partnering with the NFL, we can get footage from NFL Films in Mt. Laurel, NJ, the NFL Network in Culver City, CA, or CBS Sports in New York,” says Aagaard. “So, if anything happens, we can immediately get related material and move video around.”

McManus reiterated that one goal is to ensure that all the coverage, whether during the first eight weeks or the last, maintains a consistent level of quality.

“Our top talent and production team will be doing all the games,” he said. “It really is about as seamless and integrated as you can imagine.”