Up until the end of June, NBC had every intention of televising whatever college football team Notre Dame was going to play Sept. 19 at Notre Dame Stadium.
If there was going to be a football season, that is. Which a little over a month later seemed more like an improbability than something to circle on the calendar.
Intermittently this summer, the opponent was aligning to be Western Michigan.
How the 2:30 p.m. EDT matchup Saturday between the seventh-ranked Irish (1-0) and schedule substitute South Florida (1-0) ended up on USA Network started with golf. It also involved competing network FOX and its commitment to televising NFL games and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic.
Included in the convoluted chain of events was a cooperative transfer of rights to the U.S. Open from FOX to NBC on June 29.
The bottom line is the viewer shouldn’t notice much difference between an NBC production and the one scheduled Saturday on one of NBC Universal’s family of networks, other than the reduced number of television households it will reach.
One other noticeable change, play-by-play voice Mike Tirico will take a one-game hiatus to host NBC’s coverage of the rescheduled U.S. Open Golf tournament at Winged Foot, originally set for June 18-21 and on FOX.
Paul Burmeister will slide over from the radio booth to take Tirico’s place, and will team up with analyst Tony Dungy and sideline reporter Jac Collinsworth.
“I don’t think the show will look any different than if it was a true NBC production,” said Rob Hyland, NBC’s coordinating producer for Notre Dame football as well as some of the network’s other high-profile properties.
NBC wouldn’t mind if the ratings numbers were similar to that of the Irish-Duke game last Saturday in ND’s season opener.
On a weekend of admittedly limited college football viewing inventory, Notre Dame’s 27-13 victory over visiting Duke was by far the most watched college game of the 2020 season to date with a rating of 2.4. That translates to 4.371 million viewers.
An afternoon game between Florida State and Georgia Tech on ABC was second with 3.52 million viewers, and the ABC primetime matchup between No. 1 Clemson and Wake Forest drew 3.46 million.
“On paper, the Notre Dame-Duke game was by far the best matchup, and I think there was a curiosity factor too,” Hyland said. “Seeing Notre Dame compete in a conference (ACC) for the first time, the fact that they were taking the field for the first time amid COVID, and that there were more than 10,000 people in the stadium, I think there was curiosity in terms of how this would all shake out.
“I was really impressed by the student body that attended the game. I felt there was a distinct energy in the stadium that I wasn’t expecting. Perhaps that was a mixture of the band playing. Perhaps there was some artificial crowd noise pumped in every once in a while.
“But the game felt much more alive than I anticipated. I really thought that the lack of the other 70,000 fans was going to be a huge miss. But I think the Notre Dame student body really stepped up and helped to provide energy. I expect that this weekend and beyond.”
NBC pulled off the telecast with a significantly reduced crew. Hyland and his production team were stationed in a trailer in Stamford, Conn., instead of outside the stadium, but without compromising the number of cameras or angles.
NBC tiers those resources depending on the attractiveness of the opponent. They’ll max out, for instance, when No. 1 Clemson visits on Nov. 7. The USF game will have a slightly smaller commitment than the Duke game, the latter of which Hyland said was comparable to the 2019 ND-Virginia game.
One benevolent wrinkle is that Fighting Irish Media this weekend is allowing part of Hyland's production team to use its state-of-the-art control room inside Notre Dame Stadium.
“Notre Dame is such a great partner,” Hyland said. “It’s hard to believe it’s been 30 years.”
The switch to Dungy
Former NFL head coach Tony Dungy replacing Doug Flutie in the booth this season as NBC’s lead analyst was hardly a reach, given Dungy’s longtime passion for ND football.
Hyland and Tirico knew.
Hyland works every Sunday with Dungy and Tirico on NBC’s Football Night in America pregame show.
“Every Sunday that I come in with Mike Tirico from South Bend, Tony’s got 10 questions lined up about the Notre Dame game,” Hyland said. “He watches every Notre Dame game, because he’s a fan of college football.
“So we thought it’d be a great fit to get him with Mike in the booth, and to get him involved with a product that he really loves. And I think it’s going to be a great booth and a great listen.”
Flutie, the in-game analyst since replacing Mike Mayock in that role in 2015, is now in a reduced and recurring studio role.
Dungy also has familiarity with the USF program, including the fact his son, Eric, finished his college career there as a grad transfer wide receiver. Eric Dungy, a career backup, spent his first four seasons at Oregon.
Robinson on deck?
The hope and plan when NBC Sports hired former Notre Dame wide receiver Corey Robinson in January was to have a role for him in NBC’s coverage of Notre Dame football, among other duties.
That’s still the thinking post-pandemic, if not before.
“The pandemic has made headcount and travel a real challenge for every production, including Notre Dame,” Hyland said. “We’re trying to get through the month of September and then kind of re-evaluate the strategy for Corey as well.”