Wishing for a White Super Bowl
FOX Sports announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman are the front men for Super Bowl XLVIII. Thus, they will draw your ire and praise, both privately and via social media, because you will see and hear them most during the four-hour broadcast. But the two FOX Sports staffers most in control of how you view this Sunday’s Super Bowl will be sitting in a production truck together at MetLife Stadium about 100 yards away from the field. You would not recognize Richie Zyontz and Rich Russo if they walked passed you on the street, but as the producer and director of Super Bowl XLVIII, Zyontz and Russo will make hundreds of decisions during the game that directly impact your viewing pleasure.
Prior to working for FOX, Russo and Zyontz were part of the NFL group at CBS Sports and trained under the famed production team of Bob Stenner and Sandy Grossman, who spent years as the producer and director for Pat Summerall and John Madden. What will Russo and Zyontz consider a successful Super Bowl broadcast? "By making sure the key moments are covered well, there’s balance, there’s room to breath for both the announcers and the audience, the replays are crisp, we captured all the emotion, and we don’t pick up the newspaper on Monday and say How did that slip by," said Zyontz, who as the producer makes all decisions on replays during a broadcast.
Russo said FOX will have 50 cameras for the game (more than double what they'd use in the regular season), with 35 or so tied specifically to game action. New cameras have been added down the sidelines, both goal lines and end lines. One of the major challenges for this particular broadcast will be the speed at which Denver’s offense plays. There is less time for replays and analysis between plays given the pace with which Peyton Manning and company operate.
The weather on Sunday will clearly be part of the storyline for Super Bowl XLVIII, and Russo makes no secret about what he wants as a game director: "If there is some snow during the course of Sunday, especially in the second half, I think that would be great," Russo said. "Obviously, we can't control that. But the pictures would jump at you."
Russo said the FOX Sports production crew arrived at East Rutherford last week, and it's a crew used to working in frigid temperatures. The same goes for the sideline reporters—Pam Oliver and Erin Andrews—who are charged with talking to each team’s kickers prior to a weather game to get some intel on the wind. FOX Sports management also has special production plans for the weather at MetLife Stadium.
"CBS was raked over the coals pretty good last year and in some cases it was warranted, but there were also factors that did not help them in getting information out. We’d like to think we have a plan, but when stuff like that happens you never quite know."
"We thought that wind could be a major factor in this game and in this stadium, so we worked with the same people that did the wind forecasting and wind graphic overlays for the America’s Cup sailing tournament, and we’re going to have some of those same weather graphics in the stadium," FOX Sports president Eric Shanks said. "We’re going to try to show people the wind if it’s a story. We’re checking out some infrared cameras to see body temperature or ball temperature or any story that an infrared camera would be able to show. Imagine on a touchdown, aside from regular cameras showing you if a foot was in or out, you actually have a glowing footprint after the player moves on with the footprint staying behind to show if he’s in or out."
You’ve probably read about the possibility of the game being moved to Saturday or Monday in the event of inclement weather. Zyonz said every Super Bowl he has been a part of has had a series of emergency plans, and that’s now at play even more following the power blackout at the Superdome in New Orleans last year—and the slow response by CBS Sports to get information to viewers.
"Our bosses have had discussions with us and with FOX News for these eventualities," Zyontz said. "CBS was raked over the coals pretty good last year and in some cases it was warranted, but there were also factors that did not help them in getting information out. We’d like to think we have a plan, but when stuff like that happens you never quite know. But we are definitely aware of what might happen."
Both Russo and Zyontz stressed one thing FOX learned from CBS’s experience last year is to make sure they have access to a league official if something major happens. The network said there will be an NFL representative sitting with Shanks and FOX Sports executive producer John Entz inside FOX’s compound during the game. "There will be direct communication between us and the league should something like last year happen," said a Fox Sports spokesperson.
Another facet that will help Russo and Zyontz is the information they receive from the teams prior to the game. Both have an interesting perspective on NFL coaches and players, because the game director and producer are always part of the pregame production meetings that teams have with broadcasters in the days leading up to the game. For a Super Bowl production meeting, FOX generally asks for the head coach, both coordinators, the quarterback and usually two other players. Sideline reporters might also ask for additional people separate from the core group. Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman will be one of the players provided by Seattle, and both Zyontz and Russo say they always identify the emotional players on each team and will pass that knowledge along to their camera people so they do not jump off shots at the end of plays. But Zyontz said Sherman’s week in the white-hot spotlight will not impact the broadcast in any meaningful way. "In terms of pictures, his talking and having a brash interview after the game doesn’t really change anything," said Zyontz, who made the call to cut short the Andrews interview with Sherman at the end of the NFC Championship.
How forthcoming are both coaches? Zyontz said he and Russo have a longstanding relationship with Denver coach John Fox that goes back to Fox’s being a defensive coordinator for the Giants. "He does not necessarily reveal a whole lot, but he is certainly pleasant to sit down with," Zyontz said. The crew does not know Seattle coach Pete Carroll as well but described him as more revealing. "We don’t see him as often, but our experiences so far have been tremendous," Zyontz said. "He is honest, thoughtful, and forthcoming. Pretty much the guy you see on the sideline."
This is Zyontz’s 10th Super Bowl overall and fourth as the lead producer of the game (XXXIV, XLII and XLV were his others). Russo has worked 12 Super Bowls and this will be his second (along with XLV) as the game director. The Super Bowl represents a homecoming for both men. Zyontz, who now lives in Virginia, grew up on East 20th Street in Manhattan and talks with the rat-a-tat-tat of a native New Yorker. Russo grew up in Massapequa Park, Long Island and today lives in Holmdel, New Jersey, a little less than an hour’s drive from MetLife Stadium. Next Sunday morning they’ll ride together from a hotel in Manhattan to the game, and it will no doubt feel unlike any previous broadcast.
"We have done dozens and dozens of games at that stadium and the previous stadium, and have taken that drive through the Lincoln Tunnel hundreds of times," said Zyontz. "But this one will be special for us."