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Behind the Scenes of the Most Spectacular Show On TV

On the possession that followed the Lions’ touchdown, the Chiefs stalled, punting with 5:07 left. “They have a chance to take the game right now,” Collinsworth said. But it wasn’t to be. After one first down, the Lions came up short on their next three plays, and Campbell rolled the dice again, trying a fourth-down pass that was batted away at the line of scrimmage. Tirico said, “The Lions hand the ball to the league M.V.P. at the 45-yard line with 2:29 to go.” The Chiefs had a chance to steal a win, needing perhaps 20 yards to move into field goal range.

And then drama turned to farce, as Mahomes’s receivers let him down and penalties pushed the Chiefs backward. A dropped pass. A completion nullified by a holding penalty. Another pass, another drop. A near-interception. A fourth-and-20 that became fourth-and-25 when Jawaan Taylor was flagged for a false start. In the control room, the sequence rolled out in a blizzard of quick cuts, Skycam close-ups and split-screens, as Hyland and Esocoff blurted commands with rising urgency: “Gimme dejection on Mahomes.” “Field to right tackle, 4K.” “5 left, 11 right! … Preview effects. Take effects.” For the professionals in the A-Unit, it was merely a heightened version of what they had been doing for hours. To an untutored lurker, the whole thing seemed like … a frickin’ ballet, or some less dainty choreography, a headlong dance of astounding precision.

On fourth-and-25, the Chiefs went for it again. Mahomes took the snap, rolled left and launched a throw that arced across the line to gain, reaching the fingertips of the receiver Skyy Moore, who couldn’t clasp it. Detroit was getting the ball back. NBC went to commercial with its “final act,” a slow-motion montage of jubilant Lions and doleful Chiefs. Esocoff said, “Good stuff, guys” and, for the first time since the half began, rose and stretched. Just over two minutes later, Detroit converted a third-and-two for a first down. Barring a catastrophic fumble, the Chiefs weren’t getting the ball back. On the air, Tirico said: “The Detroit Lions are right there.” In the truck, Hyland’s pronouncement was less circumspect. “Game over,” he said.

One measure of the success of “Sunday Night Football” is how “Sunday Night Football”-ish the competing broadcasts are looking. If you tune into “Monday Night Football” or the big Sunday late-afternoon games on CBS and Fox, the rhythms and aesthetics of the broadcasts show a clear debt to “S.N.F.” For the “S.N.F.” team, Hyland says, the challenge is to “continue to distinguish our presentation from all others.” He and Gaudelli had talked about this, he said later. “There’s really not a lot that separates the A-level shows anymore. Everyone is trying to do the exact same show.” Competitors are certainly throwing money at the problem. In addition to the billions they pay the N.F.L. for rights, the networks in recent years have shelled out huge sums to re-sign top broadcast-booth talent and lure glamorous new announcers. In May 2022, Fox Sports announced that it had landed Tom Brady as the lead analyst for its N.F.L. broadcasts, in a deal said to be the most lucrative in television sports history, a reported $375 million for 10 years.

The broadcasters engaged in this arms race are, arguably, fighting the last war. The generations that have come of age with social media may not attach the same mystique, or FOMO, to a live event unfolding in real time. Why bother watching the whole game when you can catch quick-hitting highlights on an app? A trend of disaggregation and downsizing can be seen across fan culture and sports media. Fantasy football and prop betting view games through a splintered lens, prizing individual stats and discrete in-game events over wins and losses. There are alternative telecasts like ESPN’s “ManningCast” starring Peyton and Eli, which refigures “Monday Night Football” as a chatty hang with the bros, and the NFL Network’s “RedZone,” whose whip-around coverage offers viewers multiple games at once in split-screen formats.