Look for changes in NFL draft telecasts amid coronavirus

The NFL draft will be televised this week, as it has been for the past 40 years, but in a very different way.

Televising the draft on three networks amid the social-distancing guidelines of the coronavirus pandemic will be “the most complicated event that I personally have been involved in,” said ESPN vice president of production Seth Markman, a 27-year veteran of the network. “I just don’t know what I can compare it to. It’s certainly unique.”

The telecasts, originally scheduled to air from Las Vegas with 500,000 fans at draft-related events, instead will originate from ESPN’s Bristol, Conn., studios with no fans in attendance.

» MORE: How to watch, stream 2020 NFL Draft

The broadcasts’ hosts and a few commentators will be in the studios, but most of the analysts and reporters will join from their homes. Production crews will be smaller than usual. Control rooms will be more spread out, with staffers at least six feet apart. All workers not appearing on air will wear masks.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will announce the picks from his Westchester County, N.Y., home. General managers and coaches will work alone in their homes, all equipped with TV cameras, rather than in “war rooms” at teams’ headquarters. Fifty-eight draft prospects, including Georgia’s Andrew Thomas, D’Andre Swift and Jake Fromm, will be available for on-air appearances via WiFi signals, assuming they’ve been able to successfully install the camera kits sent to them by the NFL.

In all, ESPN expects to receive about 180 feeds from various locations around the country, funneled through video call centers.

“Very challenging circumstances in the midst of COVID-19," Markman said, “yet we  have a great opportunity here to bring fans across the country a little bit of hope, a little bit of joy, maybe a bit of an escape from what we’re all experiencing day to day.”

The draft’s first round will begin at 8 p.m. Thursday with a joint broadcast on ESPN and NFL Network, which normally produce competing telecasts, and a separate broadcast on Channel 2 Action News. The second and third rounds will be carried on the same three networks Friday, beginning at 7 p.m., again with a collaborative ESPN/NFL Network broadcast and a separate ABC presentation on Channel 2 Action News. The fourth through seventh rounds will be televised Saturday, beginning at noon, with the same broadcast on all three networks.

“I’ve been involved in Super Bowls, NBA Finals, Olympics and you-name-it,” said Mark Quenzel, now NFL Network’s senior vice president of programming and production. “There is nothing that even comes close to this (in complexity).”

Trey Wingo will host all three days of coverage on ESPN and NFL Network from Bristol, where he’ll be joined by ESPN colleague Suzy Kolber, who will conduct remote interviews. Rece Davis, Jesse Palmer and Maria Taylor will host ABC’s coverage of the first two days, also from ESPN’s studios. (ABC, like ESPN, is owned by the Walt Disney Company.)

Among the army of analysts contributing from remote locations will be ESPN’s Mel Kiper and NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah, who are expected to appear together via split screens at times.

The plan is for the separate ABC telecasts to be differentiated by a focus on storytelling and draft picks’ journeys to the NFL.

The draft typically draws a large TV audience — an average of 6.1 million viewers last year — and could command even more attention this time with games shut down by the coronavirus.

“Realistically … we don’t have the competition we may normally have, whether it be NBA playoffs or other sports (such as) baseball,” Markman said. “I think there’s more eyeballs and more anticipation, but I wouldn’t even hazard a guess right now (about ratings.)”

Viewers probably should expect technology glitches here and there, either on the networks’ part or the NFL’s.

“I think (viewers will be) appreciative that we’re trying to do our best to create some normalcy, even though we can’t, and also that we are being as safe as possible,” Markman said. “I think everybody understands it’s an extraordinary situation and that what they see is not what they’re used to or what we’ll hopefully go back to at some point.”

One conspicuous difference from past drafts: There will be no fans on site to express approval or, often, disapproval when Goodell announces teams’ selections.

“It is not lost on us that the fans are usually a big part of the draft experience on site,” Quenzel said. “Clearly, we can’t replicate that. But we are looking at a bunch of measures to figure out how we can bring fans into the equation.”

Among other ideas, videos sent in by fans might be incorporated into the telecasts.

In some ways, the networks don’t want to try to replicate past draft telecasts. They want “the tone” to reflect these serious times and plan to include tributes to first-responders, health-care providers and other essential workers, as well as do some fund-raising for COVID-19 relief efforts.

“Clearly, it is about drafting players, but even more clearly it is about setting the tone that there is something much larger than us going on in the world,” Quenzel said.

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