Published 5: 01 PM EDT Mar 27, 2020
These are unprecedented times at NFL Network.
As it has with so many aspects of domestic and global life, the coronavirus pandemic has been a major disruption to the league’s broadcast arm, which hasn’t provided live television programming for the past week.
It’s been quite an adjustment considering the network typically airs at least six hours’ worth of live shows daily in the offseason, a figure that balloons in the throes of free agency, which began in earnest March 16.
But NFL Network, which launched in 2003 and is based in suburban Los Angeles, decided to cancel its flagship nightly news program, “NFL Total Access,” last Friday for the first time in its history.
“Last week was odd, it was different,” network anchor Andrew Siciliano told USA TODAY Sports. “Obviously, none of us had ever gone through anything like that, hopefully none of us have to go through something like that again – where the World is grinding to a halt, but our football World was moving forward.”
The network has been slowly advancing the ball again this week.
With the help of in-home cameras, smartphones and earbuds, Siciliano has been hosting an abbreviated version of “Total Access” in conjunction with remote analysts like Tom Pelissero, Mike Garafolo and even former league MVP Kurt Warner.
The shows haven’t been live, requiring some post-production in the current format, or even announced as bona fide programming in cable schedules or on NFL.com. Nevertheless, a 6-minute version of “Total Access” aired Monday, followed by a 27-minute episode Tuesday, when Tom Brady had his introductory conference call with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Cam Newton was released by the Carolina Panthers.
“We’re gonna get better at it every day,” said Siciliano. “The network is still very much up and running.
“Look, everyone’s got to adapt, and it doesn’t just go for us – it goes for anyone else working at home in whatever business they’re in on their laptop.”
“Total Access” continued with 10-minute shows Wednesday and Thursday and will return in half-hour installments next week in its usual 7 p.m. ET time slot.
“I’m grateful that we can stay at home and put some kind of product on the television,” added Siciliano. “The people that have to go out there and stock our grocery shelves, and the doctors, and everyone in the medical field who are doing their best on the front lines – those are the people who can’t stay at home.
“I’m the last one who’s going to try to tell you about how hard it is to work at home.”
It’s been a constantly evolving process, one that’s necessitated constant adaptation even as the news surrounding coronavirus has brought a cascading series of events.
NFLN has been dealing with the moving target since its “Free Agency Frenzy” coverage commenced Sunday, March 15, one day before available players could begin talking to new teams and negotiating contracts.
The following day, “Total Access” anchor Lindsay Rhodes told USA TODAY Sports she was having to do her own hair and make-up, getting coaching from on-site stylists, who wore masks and didn’t touch any of the products.
“It was a bizarre week, us – like the rest of the country – kind of trying to figure out what’s appropriate, what’s not appropriate, how to make our way through it,” she said.
Hand sanitizer and Clorox disinfecting wipes were ubiquitous, stages deep cleaned after every show.
“Plans evolved, due to COVID-19, day by day and hour by hour,” senior coordinating producer Michael Konner told USA TODAY Sports, though noted it was decided early not to deploy reporters to NFL cities to cover updates on Brady and other players.
By Wednesday, March 18, Rhodes said the studios and offices were virtually empty even as live programming continued with stage crews reduced by more than 80%. She was alone on the set, working with a skeleton production crew. On-air analysts were beamed in from different locations inside and outside the NFLN complex.
“Free agency has a very breaking news vibe,” she said, making it conducive to the bare-bones production, devoid of the usual assortment of graphics and information displayed on the studio’s massive video wall.
Social distancing and a safe environment were constant priorities.
“Content was taking a backseat to keeping everybody safe,” said Konner, noting staffers worked hard to triple the recommended minimum social distancing guideline of 6 feet of separation – especially difficult to achieve in the cramped quarters of the control room, where producers and directors operate.
By March 19, California Gov. Gavin Newsom had ordered the state’s 40 million residents to stay home. NFL Network paused live programming the following day, opting to air the best games from 2019, classic Super Bowls and many of its Emmy-nominated documentaries.
Still, no regrets even after a week when many wondered if the league was erring by moving forward with free agency while many Americans were getting sick, losing jobs and watching their portfolios tank.
“We weren’t saving the World, but I got texts from GMs and from agents and from family and from friends all saying, ‘Thank you for being on, we need to watch something different,'” said Siciliano, who said finding the right tone during broadcasts focused on multi-million dollar contracts was a challenge and freely acknowledged his mind would drift while he was on air as the latest COVID-19 news hit his laptop.
“In retrospect, I’m glad we did it – certainly glad we did it,” he said, lauding the behind-the-scenes crew at a time when many people just wanted to be home with their families.
“But there were some anxious moments.”
Rhodes got similar feedback, calling it a “welcome diversion” personally and professionally.
“I think people want a break from the constant press conferences about the virus and the updates,” she said, saying she was often looking for the latest virus information to educate herself.
“There’s so much real World stuff to take in right now that’s anxiety-riddled for everybody, that I think that the fact there’s a little bit of news coming out of the toy department of life is welcomed.”
The NFLN toy department will re-open next week, though the obstacles of working remotely will remain even as the talent and producers have to get more creative while packaging the content now that free agency has largely petered out with the draft still nearly a month away.
“We’re fortunate in the sense that there is news now that we can report on that breaks away from all the true news of the day in COVID-19,” said Konner.
“We can give them a half-hour of NFL content, (and) I think there’s an audience that thirsts for it throughout the day.”
Even if it’s going to be Siciliano or Rhodes and their colleagues in a quad box talking football.
“If it’s gonna look like the Brady Bunch at home, so be it,” said Siciliano. “That’s the safest way to do it.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis
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