Tuesday, May 30 2023

By Richie Zyontz
FOX NFL Lead Producer

Editor’s Note: Richie Zyontz has been an NFL producer for FOX since 1994 and the lead producer for the last 20 seasons. He has more than 40 years of experience covering the league and has produced six Super Bowls. Throughout the 2022 NFL season, he will provide an inside look as FOX’s new No. 1 NFL team makes its journey toward Super Bowl LVII.

One small step for the calendar, one giant step for NFL teams and their broadcast networks. The playoffs have arrived and the real fun began with a Wild Card matchup between the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings.

Many aspects of preparation remain the same for production crews. There are rosters to study, video to watch, articles to read, coaches and players to meet with. Business as usual.

So what really changes when covering a postseason game?

Is there a discernible difference between how a playoff game is televised compared to one in the regular season?

The short answer: kind of. There are often more cameras, resulting in additional replay angles. Visually, it should be noticeable if the producer and director do their jobs well. And best of all, we no longer need to show the NFC playoff picture graphic. The only teams In the Hunt are the ones who haven’t lost playoff games! The field is set.

Another tweak revolves around commentary. The game reigns supreme. Stories that were relevant during the regular season take a backseat to documenting the action on the field. Don’t get me wrong — the chemistry in the broadcast booth still matters. But the back and forth should be more focused and game-driven with less idle banter. The guiding principle should be “less is more.”

Here’s the conundrum, and it rang true after listening to Giants head coach Brian Daboll during our video chat. His message to his players this week was “you gotta be you” — the logic being that he can’t fundamentally change players just because they’re involved in a playoff game. What was imperative to Daboll was that his players maintain focus and control their emotions.

Kevin Burkhardt and Greg Olsen during Sunday’s broadcast of the Giants-Vikings game.

I think this sentiment also applies to our approach. Broadcast teams establish a rhythm and a personality during the course of an 18-week regular season. Why change now? Everyone understands the magnitude of covering post-season games

With that in mind, our production meeting began with that gentle reminder. The last thing we’d want would be for Kevin Burkhardt and Greg Olsen to think a different strategy was suddenly required.  They have been terrific all season, calling good games and bad with equal focus and energy.

This was Greg’s first playoff telecast. His natural enthusiasm jumps through the screen and his ability to communicate and explain the game in cogent terms has been eye-opening. He was a very accomplished player; a three-time Pro Bowler who played in over 200 total games, among them a Super Bowl. But his TV career is still in its embryonic stage. 

So the same reminders applied to not only Greg, but the entire crew: be patient, don’t overtalk, let the pictures tell the story, allow the viewers to enjoy the game.

If there were one aspect of a football game during which a broadcast crew could get tripped up, it would be the instant recognition and application of the rules. Believe me, I’ve been there. The edict from the bosses at every network was to know the rules. That’s easier said than done, especially as the game became faster and more complicated.

At every summertime network seminar, the NFL’s head of officiating spent an hour going through the rules for a roomful of announcers, producers and directors. It was mostly a dry presentation with a short film more befitting a hostage video than a group of TV people.

That all changed when Mike Pereira took over as the czar of officiating in 2001. His visits to our yearly meeting became an event. A little more skilled in the performative arts of discussing the rules than his predecessors, Mike brought life to a dry topic. These skills led to a decision that changed the way sports are covered on TV. So impressed was our boss, David Hill, with Pereira’s yearly appearances that he offered him an on-air job in 2010.  No longer would announcers hem and haw their way through controversial situations. We had an expert in place — and that idea was soon copied by every NFL broadcast partner. Along with the constant score and clock on the screen, the addition of a rules expert is arguably the most significant FOX Sports TV innovation.

But there’s only one Pereira.

For the last six years, Mike has traveled with the crew on all our nationally televised games. Along with his trusty assistant, former NFL replay official Roger Ruth, Mike is positioned in a front corner of our broadcast booth, within eyeshot and earshot of Greg and Kevin. It’s the earshot part that is groundbreaking. Through some nifty work by our audio staff, Pereira has the ability to speak into their headsets directly. Sometimes it’s just to confirm what they’ve said regarding a play or a call, sometimes to offer a suggestion.

Mike Pereira and Roger Ruth watch Sunday’s Giants-Vikings game.

When deemed significant, Kevin can bring him into the discussion as if we had a three-man booth. 

Mike is honest and direct. He doesn’t hold back from criticizing the game officials. And he also doesn’t hesitate to disagree with his broadcast partners. Several times yesterday, Pereira and Olsen had differing opinions on penalty calls and non-calls.

Disagreement is good — it makes for a better telecast.

Minnesota is one of the loudest venues in the league and the Viking fans again almost blew the roof off the place. But I was really proud of Kevin and Greg for not trying to fight the noise. Announcers are paid to talk, but often the most effective parts of a broadcast involve no commentary at all.

I found myself praising them throughout the game for doing and saying nothing.

It seems odd but it isn’t. Silence is often golden .

Monday night, our crew will sit back and listen to our old pals Joe and Troy call the Dallas-Tampa game. The winner will head out to play the 49ers next Sunday, and we will be there to cover it.

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