FOOTBALL

NBC audibles into a revised approach with its SkyCam for future Notre Dame telecasts

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

In its infancy, the NBC partnership with Notre Dame football once featured an announcing team of Charlie Jones, Todd Christensen, John Dockery and … a second sideline reporter, O.J. Simpson.

That configuration didn’t endure — or particularly age well, looking back. The hope by the current generation of NBC Sports execs is that NBC’s SkyCam innovation, used as the primary play-by-play camera for the 2019 home opener with New Mexico on Sept. 14, will fare better.

Eventually.

Maybe even embraced.

Two weeks ago, based on Rob Hyland’s deluged Twitter mentions and email inbox, it was barely tolerated, if that.

Hyland, NBC’s coordinating producer for Notre Dame football as well as some of the network’s other high-profile properties, listened. And that’s why you’ll see a philosophical shift Saturday during home game No. 2 when No. 18 Virginia (4-0) clashes with the 10th-ranked Irish (2-1) at 3:30 p.m. EDT.

But NBC isn’t abandoning the SkyCam concept — a suspended camera 40 feet from the field with zoom capabilities and that moves when the line of scrimmage moves. Instead the network is trying to find that perfect balance between innovation and the viewers’ comfort zone.

“If it doesn’t make the viewer experience better, it’s not really an innovation, right?” Hyland posed in a phone interview earlier this week.

But pushback doesn’t make it the technology equivalent of Crazy Train, either.

So what will viewers see going forward? It depends on the week — and the weather.

“I think it’s supposed to rain on Saturday. You may see even less of the camera if facing conditions caused by the rain would impair the lens,” Hyland said.

Hyland

For Bowling Green on Oct. 5, the camera won’t be used at all, a decision made six months ago. Then it will be back in varying degrees for the USC night game on Oct. 12 and the three November home games — Virginia Tech (Nov. 2), Navy (Nov. 16) and Boston College (Nov. 23).

“It was an opportunity for us to really take some risks,” Hyland said of the constant use of the SkyCam in the New Mexico game. “It was a 66-14 football game. We’re still committed to it, but I think we’re going to use it more situation-based.

“So I think you’ll see the camera more specifically between the 35s and probably unlikely on a third down-and-long ever. When it’s not being used for play by play, it will be an additional angle that’s used in replay.

“I’m telling you that I’m confident that we’re going to get to a much better place with it. I’m not saying that we failed (Sept. 14). I’m saying we probably used it a little bit too much.”

NBC first used the Skycam as a primary play-by-play camera last April for Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on NBC Sports Network. The next trial was an NFL preseason game last month between the Steelers and Titans.

The rebuke of the first trial was closer to a shrug, perhaps more of a reflection of viewership numbers than an actual muted response. In the next instance, there were compliments from NFL coaches about it, per Hyland, mixed in with the level of disapproval he’d normally expect from anything new.

But the New Mexico game response was swift, copious and downright mean.

“I think they were right in a couple of situations,” Hyland said. “There were a few situations where I said in the control room at the time, to our director, ‘Not the best look for this play.’

“Listen, was I expecting sort of the vitriol? Probably not to the level I received. But you know what? I’ve got pretty thick skin. I’ve been doing this for 22 years, and I’ve said this a thousand times and I’ll say it ’til I’m out of breath, ‘We’re trying to do it to better serve the Notre Dame fan.’

“This is not some TV gimmick, and I think there are times that it is significantly better than a camera 150 feet away from the action and 80 feet in the air. There are times when it’s probably not better. And we’ve identified those times. And I think that’s where we are with this.”

The ND-NBC marriage itself, like SkyCam, was way out of the box — actually way more so.

In August of 1991, Notre Dame withdrew from the College Football Association, a 66-school bloc of colleges that Irish administration helped found 14 years earlier when those schools became dissatisfied with the way the NCAA negotiated television rights.

The CFA had an agreement lined up with ABC, but Notre Dame shook up the college football world by striking its own five-year deal with NBC on Aug. 25 of that year. The most recent renewal of that deal takes ND and NBC through the 2025 season.

The CFA, incidentally, died off in 1997.

Current Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick and his support staff met with Hyland and other NBC officials in April for a couple of days to evaluate and navigate the direction of the partnership.

“The biggest takeaway was Jack said that he really wanted to encourage us to innovate, to try new things,” Hyland said. “To be not a test lab, but a chance for this partnership to grow in ways that television partnerships have not yet.

“And that involved innovations from a technology standpoint and the viewer’s experience. This (SkyCam) is one of the takeaways that came out of the meeting.”

Another one is something NBC has planned with NBCSN for the Boston College game, the 2019 home finale.

“There will be a second screen experience on NBCSN of the Boston College game with a truly Notre Dame-centric broadcast,” Hyland said. “It will be Paul Burmeister’s and Ryan Harris’ (radio) call, with our video — the NBC video, but then there will be some alums in the Notre Dame studio within the stadium.

“When we go to commercial on NBC, they will not go to commercial. It will sort of be a conversation with Notre Dame alums talking about the game — an alum embedded in the crowd, in the student section, taking you to places within the stadium you maybe haven’t been to.”

And perhaps by then, SkyCam will have a role in the telecast that doesn’t coax a tsunami of complaints.

“I’ve wanted to use a camera that traveled with the line of scrimmage for about five years now,” Hyland said. “And I think the potential for what this camera can and will be is still out there as something that will improve the viewers’ experience.”

Here is the so-far unpopular SkyCam angle NBC used liberally on Sept. 14 for its telecast of Notre Dame’s football home opener with New Mexico.