Bill Richards and Spandan Daftary spent this past summer trying to figure out how to adapt to a new normal while facing plenty of uncertainty about exactly how their jobs would be impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
As the two producers of Fox’s NFL studio shows, they were tasked with navigating ever-changing protocols in Los Angeles and from the NFL, and piecing together how they could make their two shows, Fox NFL Kickoff and Fox NFL Sunday, happen within those parameters. For Richards, the EVP of Fox Sports Productions and producer for Fox NFL Sunday, his goal was simple: figure out how to make the show look as close to the same as it has for the previous 26 seasons.
“There were times in July that this box was going to be one guy, this box would be another guy, and we were going to be looking at what we’re looking at now [on Zoom],” Richards told Uproxx. “We fought hard against that and there’s a lot of hoops with protocols, there’s a ton, especially in L.A., and we’ve worked around them each week and tried to deliver the show people are used to.”
Beyond the logistical hurdles of getting clearance to have the crew and talent on set, the biggest challenge they faced was in feature stories and interviews. Aside from the modified desks to provide the necessary spacing for the hosts and analysts, once they got everyone on set on Sundays, it was business as usual, with conversation, analysis, and banter. The feature profiles and interviews with players that the shows build around, however, were a much different story.
The league’s protocols didn’t allow for anyone to be in the team facilities, which meant that instead of having Fox crews in two or three complexes each week, they’ve gone the entire season without being in a single one. Every interview had to happen over a video call and required a lot of collaboration with teams to try and keep the production value top-notch.
“I think like everybody else this technology has helped and there’s been a bunch of teams, many of them have really good video departments now, they’ve been willing to help out and shoot them a little better,” Richards said. “We went into the season with a few meetings about this, and what you’re looking at now is what we didn’t want to see. We didn’t want to see boxes and it be the same for Erin Andrews and Aaron Rodgers as it is for Jimmy from accounting and his boss.
“It’s just become a different way for us to do things, but some of them have been just as good if not better in a way,” he continued. “The way that Seattle helps us out with shooting, there was a Russell Wilson feature where it wouldn’t have been any better if they were in the same room.”
Daftary, the senior coordinating producer for Fox NFL Kickoff, echoed Richards’ points about the logistical hurdles of the remote interviews, crediting Fox’s production team with coming up with creative solutions to making them look as close to normal as possible. But Daftary also notes that within that challenge came some unique opportunity, as the normalization of video calls and teams and players growing more accustomed to those opened up some avenues for them to do more. For example, as the lead-in show, Kickoff can yield some additional interviews to build on a big story they’re featuring on Sunday.
On top of that, it opened up chances for Fox to better tap in to some of the connections their analysts have for unique features that normally they wouldn’t have considered, like having Michael Strahan interview Aaron Donald or Tony Gonzalez interview Travis Kelce.
“Because of schedules, it’s not always easy to get a Tony or a Strahan to a team facility, especially Strahan during the week,” Daftary said. “And this year, we’ve had a couple of Strahan features that we wouldn’t have gotten in previous years, quite frankly. And I think of Tony and Travis because of their relationship, and they were able to sit down and have, really, as good of a conversation as they would’ve had in person and quite frankly I don’t know if that could’ve happened last year. Because we’ve been always in the mindset of we want them in the same room, and if we looked and Tony’s schedule didn’t work out we would’ve sent somebody else. But the Tony-Travis connection is a special one.”
Charissa Thompson, who hosts Fox NFL Kickoff as well as doing interviews and features, also tried to look at some of the changes as an opportunity. She noted that it provided more access to players and teams because it was as easy as setting up a video interview rather than having to travel from city to city, crediting the creative production team at Fox for coming up with ways to make each interview look unique.
Thompson saw the remote interviews as a challenge to continue honing her craft as an interviewer and an opportunity to get better at that aspect of the job. Not being in the same room and not having the opportunity for as much small talk before can make it more difficult to create the same comfortability during the interview, and for Thompson, this provided an opportunity to test her skills.
“I found it to be a great opportunity for my own interview style to try and just still create a comfortable environment when interviewing the athlete,” Thompson told Uproxx over the phone. “My approach has always been, be whoever you are when the camera is not rolling, because there’s no worse thing to do when you’re interviewing someone than being like, ‘OK, we’re ready to start.’ That person all of a sudden is a different person than they were just a couple minutes before when you were being loose and light. So Fox has always done a great job of piecing it together where you don’t even know when the interview started. So I like to think that that is the same even in the same of Zoom versus in person. I guess just for me, the new layout of it provided an opportunity to continue working on my interview style, which has always been casual and laid back and try to bring out the best in these guys.”
That lack of face time wasn’t just a challenge for interviews, but for the production staff as well during the week, because they weren’t on the Fox lot in their offices. That meant more calls and texts between them than usual, but they missed the spontaneous conversation that they felt led to some of the best ideas.
“The part that for me that I miss the most is Bill and I when we’re in the offices is we’re right across the hall from each other, doors are open, and it’s that free flow of ideas, whether from Bill to myself or the rest of the production staff that can come up,” Daftary said. “We hang for a little bit and come up with stuff, now it’s a little more structured. To Bill’s point, on the text chains, even with the production staff, it’s like, ‘Hey, what about this idea and this idea,’ but I feel like if I had one thing that’s been a gut punch for 2020 it’s been the open door policy of, ‘Hey, come in and let’s throw some stuff against the wall and see what we like.'”
“Cause we’ll sit on the couch in the office and just talk. You don’t get on Zooms unless you have at least a little bit of an agenda,” Richards added. “So it’s never just, ‘Ah, what do you think of this.’ So the pop-ins to the office, I agree with him completely. Spoon and I talk on the phone more than we used to but I think it’s missed a little bit and I worry that a couple great ideas never made it to light.”
The communication has shifted to texts and calls, trying to keep everyone involved and in the loop as much as possible, but that shift in communication doesn’t stop on Sundays. Fox NFL Sunday host Curt Menefee is in constant contact with Richards, going over what the show will look like and bouncing ideas off of each other, but notes that even during the show, the protocols keep the number of staff allowed on set way down and requires even more effort to have the show run as usual with the same pipeline of information available to the guys at the desk.
“The in-person staff has always been a lot larger than it was allowed to be this year due to COVID protocols,” Menefee said. “So we were working with a lot fewer camera people, a lot fewer audio people, fewer research people in the building. They were all still working, but from home. So you have a Zoom call in the morning to discuss research that you need or during gameday I’m texting with people, Bill’s texting with people to find stats and get information. That’s a challenge that, as long as it comes off flawlessly, people at home have no idea, but it’s a little bit different than when you’re in studio and you can go, ‘Hey [Mike] Berger, how many first downs does this team have?’ Now it’s got to be a text and all these different sorts of things.
“So I think those kinds of things have, again, hopefully been things people at home haven’t noticed, but that’s a big, big thing for the guy who’s in charge to work with fewer bodies there. Or to have different ways of communicating with each other when it’s live TV and everything is spur of the moment. So I think Bill’s done yeoman’s work with that.”
For everyone involved, the lessons of this season will be things they can learn from in the future, with some opportunities and ideas that came to light that they believe they can build on moving forward. Recognizing the ability to do quality interviews and features without necessarily having to fly talent out to various team facilities will open up some more interesting combinations, particularly for someone like Strahan, who can’t leave New York during the week due to his other television commitments. Instead, Fox can send a producer and their own camera equipment so they can shoot it on both ends and continue upping the quality.
As the season nears its close with two more weeks of shows for Fox, starting with this Saturday’s Divisional round action where Fox NFL Kickoff will air at 2:30 p.m. ET and Fox NFL Sunday airs at 3:30 p.m. ET before Rams-Packers, Richards and Daftary look back on a season filled with uncertainty and feel proud of how the crew was able to make both shows happen. There were plenty hurdles and changes, with things like stand up segments for halftime and postgame were moved outside, but for the most part, Sunday afternoons on Fox looked and felt an awful lot like they always have.
“I’m just super proud of the fact that the issues behind the scenes haven’t made it to the viewer,” Richards said of the season. “It really, it’s a lot, there’s a lot of people working hard, there’s close calls, but at the end of the day – before the first week I told the guys, everything’s the same to you. Except for when you look out the person behind the camera has a mask, but to the viewer, I want to have the same show. They get that, they want the same thing. I think the production staff and the talent have done a really good job of not ignoring it, but not letting it make the show too compromised.”
“I second everything and your point that in watching the shows it doesn’t seem too different,” Daftary followed up. “That’s always been the goal for Bill and myself and everyone at Fox was, it’s the NFL, it’s our biggest property, let’s make sure it feels as 2019 as we can. And I think it’s a credit to a lot of creative people on our production staff that say, alright, how do we go interview Dak Prescott and not make it feel like the Zoom we’re talking about. There’s really, really creative people who took that challenge and keep upping the bar every week. I’m tremendously proud of all of those people.”