30th year of Notre Dame on NBC a unique but thrilling challenge to broadcast

13 Comments

On the morning of Notre Dame’s instant-classic against Clemson, NBC producer Rob Hyland ended his crew’s pregame Microsoft Teams meeting with rehearsals of two unexpected scenarios: overtime and an Irish win.

Late that night, both scenarios came true.

“I think some of the people in the truck thought I was crazy,” Hyland said. “But you plan for it, and hopefully someday you get a game that lives up to your expectations. That one certainly did.”

When Hyland discusses this unusual season, he starts there, with 10,000 fans piling onto the field after a game that had been circled on his calendar for years. In a few ways, that Clemson broadcast encapsulated the 2020 year, the most-watched game of the season to date interrupted by a news cut-in to air live acceptance speeches from President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. 

Midway through the second quarter, Hyland instructed play-by-play commentator Mike Tirico to toss the broadcast to the NBC News team, which took over the channel while the game continued on USA Network. Hyland was able to wait until Harris was about to speak instead of setting a specific time to change the feed, allowing the broadcast to remain with the game for as long as possible. NBC returned to Tirico at Notre Dame Stadium exactly 30 minutes later.

“We’ve had news cut-ins before, but not in a game between two of the top-ranked teams in the country,” Hyland said. “That was unusual.”

The Clemson game was unquestionably memorable, but so was the entire season, the 30th year of “Notre Dame on NBC.” Many aspects of the broadcast were rethought and adjusted, from travel plans to interview setups to contingency plans in the case of positive COVID-19 tests.

Hyland, director Pierre Moossa and their production team worked from NBC headquarters in Stamford, Conn. — more than 700 miles away from the members of the crew in South Bend. 

“I would leave to go to the office to go to our truck, which normally had been at Notre Dame in years past,” Hyland said. “It was in our loading dock in Stamford, Connecticut.

“There were parts and pieces that felt similar, but a lot of the rhythm of the week and the preparations were very different.”

The on-air team still traveled to South Bend but missed out on some of the staples of their game weeks: attending practices, meeting with head coach Brian Kelly and chatting with players.

In the early stages of planning, there were discussions of having the on-air talent also work remotely from Stamford, but the positives of limiting travel were outweighed by the benefit of having the broadcasters in the stadium.

“Our television cameras don’t capture everything that you capture watching a game from your own eyes,” Hyland said. “I felt pretty strongly that to keep the integrity of our broadcasts at the level that we had achieved in the past, Mike and Tony [Dungy] and Kathryn [Tappen] needed to be on site.”

Dungy, the in-game analyst, was able to travel to every game, but Tirico and Tappen missed one and two games, respectively, due to other NBC commitments. Tirico was absent for the South Florida game while broadcasting the U.S. Open, and Tappen missed the first two games to host NHL coverage until the Stanley Cup Finals finished.

Their stand-ins for those September games (Paul Burmeister for Tirico and Jac Collinsworth for Tappen) would have also stepped in if Tirico or Tappen had hypothetically tested positive or been contact traced for COVID-19 during the season. And, hypothetically, if Dungy had been compromised, former analyst Doug Flutie would have resumed his former role until Dungy could return.

“Luckily, that plan was never forced into action, and everyone has been safe,” Hyland said. “But yeah, there were definitely conversations involved at every level, and it happened in other positions on Notre Dame football.

“A few of our key engineers were compromised during the season and they had to be replaced. It never touched the on-air aspect of Notre Dame football, but COVID definitely affected the behind-the-scenes component to our productions.”

Another altered component was the extent of field access for sideline reporter Kathryn Tappen, who couldn’t walk behind the teams’ benches and had to conduct interviews from a distance.

“It’s definitely different interviewing somebody six feet away,” Tappen said. “If you have an audio issue, you can’t hear him. That would never happen if you’re standing right next to him.”

Tappen also lacked many of her usual pregame interactions with interview subjects, many of whom she knows well after seven seasons on the broadcast team. This year, she also missed out on her normal banter before interviews, particularly with Kelly.

“There are a lot of games where he’ll say something totally sarcastic to me right before we do the interview,” she said. “If he’s really relaxed, or if he’s in the mood to banter, he’ll banter a little bit before the interview, which is awesome.”

In the past, that pre-interview banter has led to Tappen reframing her questions or asking something different as a result of Kelly’s comment.

“I look forward to the day it goes back to the way it was because I really enjoy the human-to-human conversation before and after a game,” she said. 

While Hyland is also excited for a return to normalcy, two images from the 2020 season will linger with him.

The first is the scene following the Clemson game, “an indelible image in [Hyland’s] sports television production career.”

And the second?

“I think my other lasting impression of the 2020 Notre Dame football season will be an image of Brian Kelly on a Zoom meeting call,” he said.

“Those are two things I’ll never forget.”

A junior at Notre Dame studying Film & Television with a Journalism minor, Caroline Pineda has assisted the “ND on NBC” broadcasts from the sideline since 2019 and is bringing some much-needed quality writing to “Inside the Irish” this season, as well.