NBC’s broadcast of No. 7 Notre Dame’s home opener will look a bit different Saturday afternoon. As was the case in the spring’s Blue-Gold Game, as has been the case on select drives during three NFL broadcasts in the last month, and as will be the case for six Irish home games this fall, a sideline Skycam will serve as the primary play-by-play camera.
It will undoubtedly take most viewers some getting used to, but perhaps not as much as overreactions will indicate. Open minds will see the same perks to a more dynamic primary camera that led “Notre Dame on NBC” producer Rob Hyland to champion the idea in the first place.
“To me, you’re closer to the action,” Hyland said this week while waiting for confirmation the setup of the additional camera system had gone according to plan. “When the play comes to a conclusion, the ability to collapse and move dynamically with that action, you literally feel like you’re right there getting up from the tackle. …
“The ultimate goal is to bring the viewer closer to the action and to get them to the line of scrimmage. The only way to do that is through a camera that travels with the line of scrimmage.”
Between the 20s, the sideline Skycam will do just that, aligning with the line of scrimmage before the snap. Note, and note well: The camera will reach a static status before the ball is snapped. Swooping pre-snap movements ruined initial impressions of the view during the Blue-Gold Game not just for Irish fans, but for Hyland as well. That was a key lesson learned in that trial.
“Much less (pre-snap movement), if any at all,” Hyland said. “It’s going to be a stationary camera before the ball is snapped.”
Then why trot out this innovation? It’s all about getting closer to the action, both to give a better view before the snap and early in a play’s development, and as it comes to its conclusion.
To draw from lessons learned in talking over the idea with Hyland after the spring debut, a typical broadcast has three stationary cameras for play-by-play action: one at midfield and one near each 20-yard-line. The one of those three cameras in use is already at an angle before the snap for a play at, as an example, the 35-yard-line. That angle cuts out portions of view and nearly immediately routes are run off-screen, the camera focusing on the trenches out of necessity. If the quarterback attempts a pass of moderate length, either a sharp camera shift or an even harsher cut is necessary to follow the play.
Or, perhaps it is a 3rd-and-short, and the tackle is made near the line to gain. At that angle, the viewer does not have an accurate way to genuinely gauge if the first down was made or not. In this past weekend’s broadcast of “Sunday Night Football” featuring the Pittsburgh Steelers at the New England Patriots, Hyland noticed exactly such a play. The sideline Skycam offered “a perfect angle to see whether or not the runner made it to the yellow line and the first down.”
The stationary cameras cannot offer that, just as they cannot take a view that includes most of the passing routes as they are run. Those cameras will remain, though, to handle red-zone duties — a necessity due to a limit on the end-to-end mobility of the sideline kycam caused by the relatively lower heights of Notre Dame Stadium’s upper edges — as well as any plays on which Hyland or director Pierre Moossa feel the stationary camera is better equipped to handle the situation, a third-and-very long for example.
“We want to enhance the viewer’s experience and make Notre Dame’s broadcasts unique to better serve the Notre Dame audience,” Hyland said. “The second it doesn’t do that, this camera will not be used as a primary camera.
“… If we get into a down-and-distance or a specific situation that prevents us from doing our job, which is to document the sporting event we’re at, you’re not going to see us using this camera in a live capacity.”
Those limits were clear and apparent in April, some as a result of outside influences, literally. Strong winds prevented the intended sideline Skycam from being used; rather the traditional Skycam was pivoted to the wanted position, removing it from its usual spot and role. That deprived Hyland’s production truck Sfrom ever testing the new vantage point before the Blue-Gold Game began. Suffice it to say, the initial results were far from ideal.
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Yet, Notre Dame did not balk at the proposal to use the sideline Skycam as the primary view, per Hyland.
“Notre Dame really encourages innovation and letting us be risk-takers in television production,” Hyland said. “This is a calculated risk, and not a reckless risk, that will ultimately serve the viewer, the Notre Dame fan, better than we have ever before.”
Make no mistake, Hyland knows some viewers will insist they are served worse. He is fully aware of the resistance to change inherent to all, and arguably especially to the Irish fan base.
“There are people used to consuming football a certain way. Whether or not they are willing to accept a different perspective, people have to open their minds.”
No matter how much time this space takes arguing the merits of a more dynamic camera with a wider view of the field, some will keep their minds closed, at least initially. They aren’t even necessarily stubborn, as it is somewhat a natural reaction.
To them, Hyland simply asks for patience.
“There is great potential for this camera,” he said. “It’s just this is still a work in progress. There is not a big enough body of work to have gone through every scenario where we should have been a little tighter here, we should have collapsed for the runner at the end of this play.
“We’re going to get there and we’re not going to sacrifice the broadcast in getting there.”
That will take time, but if Hyland (and yours truly, to be honest) is right about the advantages to the sideline Skycam, Notre Dame certainly wants to be the showcase for it.
“Notre Dame said to us, they want to look different and feel different and sound different, and we fully embrace that.”