When Taylor Swift shows up to an NFL game, what’s a TV broadcast to do? | ET REALITY


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Richie Zyontz got his foot into sports broadcasting in a way almost unheard of today: he took a full-time security job at CBS headquarters on West 52nd Street in New York in the late 1970s and eventually made it to the CBS Sports research department. He would be the first person to tell you that he is old school.

For five decades, Zyontz has produced professional football at the highest level, including the last 21 years as lead producer for Fox’s flagship NFL broadcast. He has served as lead television producer for seven Super Bowls, a task that perhaps about two dozen people on earth can say they have done it.

Between Zyontz and Fox’s senior NFL director, Rich Russo, they have been a part of 29 Super Bowls, including time at Fox and CBS Sports. Last year’s Super Bowl was Russo’s fifth as head director.

Zyontz produced John Madden for many years and texted the legendary broadcaster daily before his death. The two were so interconnected that Madden introduced Zyontz to his wife, June, in 1986 and was best man at Zyontz’s 1990 wedding, which took place at Madden’s former home.

“I’m grateful that John isn’t there to hear that we’re talking to a journalist about Taylor Swift because it wouldn’t have been easy for me,” Zyontz said, laughing.

But here we are. This site has done a lot of Taylor Swift this week. You may be sick of it and I can understand that. I’m not here to tell you that haters can’t hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. But as a column designed to give you a little insight into the intersection of the NFL and the media, I was curious how the people behind the scenes of Fox’s broadcast of the Kansas City Chiefs game against the Chicago Bears last week approached to a broadcast where one of the most famous people on the planet was at Arrowhead Stadium sitting in a suite next to the mother of one of the best tight ends in NFL history.

Zyontz said his Fox team had no official word from the NFL or the Chiefs that Swift would be present. They were aware of Travis Kelce and Swift’s connection because they live on planet Earth. During pregame warmups, reporters Erin Andrews and Tom Rinaldi independently learned that Swift was expected to attend the game. (Zyontz wrote a blog for the Fox Sports website after we spoke, that provides additional background here).

“In the pregame, Erin and (analyst) Greg Olsen were on the field and Greg called Kelce and asked him what was going on and he confirmed off the record that she would be there,” Zyontz said. “Until that moment we didn’t have anything firm. Just rumors. “No one from the league or the team notified us.”

A couple of hours before kickoff, Russo informed his camera operators about the possibility of Swift appearing because it’s an obvious shot for a broadcast crew in the same way that sports broadcasts almost always show well-known people at a game. Rinaldi’s daughter was monitoring social media and relaying updates to her father, who passed them to the production truck. Russo told his camera operators to pan around the corporate suites.

“I’m thinking she won’t be on the field during pregame, but I mean, what the hell do I really know?” Russo said, laughing. “The players left the field around 3pm local time and there was no sign of her. So before the game, she had certain cameras that were just looking in those respective suites.”

Russo said that about five minutes before the player introductions, one of his camera operators identified Swift in the back of Kelce’s suite. Andrews also recognized her from her vantage point.

Identifying where Swift was only part of the equation. Then came the real question of how a broadcast should navigate this. It would be editorial negligence not to show Swift at some point during the game. But at the same time, she doesn’t want the broadcast to become “Access Hollywood.”

“In a situation like this, the broadcast team, in this case (play-by-play announcer) Kevin (Burkhardt) and (Olsen), would follow our lead with the footage,” Zyontz said. “It was up to us to lead this through the day. Russo and I have been through this kind of thing before. Seeing celebrities in a game is nothing new to us, but it’s usually just to show them once. This celebrity had a great interest in the game. It required a little more restraint on our part. It’s probably not for us to judge whether we succeeded or not. But I think once the game got going and it was a terrible game, those circumstances maybe helped us because we didn’t really miss much. It was a terrible game, but it also had a sense of joy because the times we showed it to her, she was reacting. She didn’t show it to him freely throughout the day. When there was a photo, I think we showed it.”

The fact that the game was so spectacular (the final score was 41-10 and Fox pulled some of its audience from the game because it wasn’t competitive) made Swift, at least from my perspective, a character on the broadcast rather than of an exaggerated distraction. She gave Burkhardt and Olsen fun content in a game that was a chore to watch.

“Once the game starts, we’re there to cover it, but there’s that balance as to how often we show it and when we show it,” Russo said. “Kelce had seven catches and we’re not going to see a photo of Taylor Swift after every catch. Or if Kevin and Greg mention Taylor Swift, we’re not going to automatically jump to a Taylor Swift photo because then I think it looks like we’re really overreacting. Like Richie said, I think the fact that it was such a big explosion, especially in the second half, probably helped us in the sense that maybe we could show a little more than normal.”

Russo said he assigned a downfield camera operator, Andy Mitchell, to monitor the suite, anticipating the possibility that Kelce could catch a touchdown pass. The reason Russo chose that camera position was because Swift was looking in that direction from the suite.

“Lo and behold, he scored a touchdown, and it was an incredible sight,” Russo said. “That came with a little forethought. Sometimes when people are in suites, there can be glare, there can be sun, and the windows can be down. It’s not necessarily guaranteed that you’re going to get photos of those people based on the location of the suite in relation to the sun. So we were lucky that she was visible during the course of the game.

Zyontz and Russo found all of Swift’s material funny, especially her little piece.

“Listen, I have a daughter who is a huge Taylor Swift fan,” Russo said. “When I’m in the car driving with her, she plays Taylor Swift music all the time. So she was aware of what we were getting into. You don’t think about it during the course of the game, but obviously I know we’re talking about one of the biggest artists in the world right now.”

“I would say I was very surprised by the consequences,” Zyontz said. “I didn’t really understand the impact that this global icon means to people. This is like a fusion of different worlds, right? It’s not often you see grizzled, cigar-smoking Bears fans watching a football game along with an entire generation of young people just to see a cut of their hero. It caught me a little off guard. Hopefully this week we can get back to football.”

The Chiefs-Bears game reached 67 percent of the country (33 percent had the Dallas Cowboys vs. the Arizona Cardinals) in Fox’s late-afternoon window. The window averaged 24.322 million viewers, which far surpassed the next most-watched NFL game (Pittsburgh Steelers-Las Vegas Raiders on “Sunday Night Football,” which averaged 20.6 million viewers). . The game was down from the same Week 3 schedule last year, when 24.4 million watched Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady in a matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Amazon Prime Video is off to a great start with its “Thursday Night Football” package. The New York Giants-San Francisco 49ers game on Sept. 21 averaged 13.92 million viewers, while the Minnesota Vikings-Philadelphia Eagles game averaged 15.05 million the week before. Those two games are the two largest audiences for “Thursday Night Football” since the package moved to Amazon.

(Photo of a Kansas City Chiefs fan cheering during Sunday’s game: David Eulitt/Getty Images)

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