Monday Night Football Feturns in 720p HDTV...Finally!

"Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day! Monday Night Football's in HD, everything's going my way. . ." (With apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein.)

OK, those lyrics might seem a bit over the top, but the simple fact is that no HDTV program has been more anticipated than the return of Monday Night Football to the wide screen this fall. Ever since ABC's brief flirt with HD telecasts of MNF in 1999 (and the Super Bowl XXXIV Rams/Titans game), those few football fans who watched the HD version have been like drug addicts on withdrawal.

That inaugural season, made possible by a brand-spankin' new HD 720p (the "p" stands for progressive scan) mobile production truck built by Panasonic, gave football a whole new dimension. We saw more of the field and more detail on the field. We heard the games in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. We were treated to new HD graphics. And, in general, we just loved the new look.

But it only lasted one season. The truck, which had ostensibly been built for the ABC Network, wound up instead in the hands of an independent production company. ABC went back to carrying the games in plain-vanilla 4:3 480i. Panasonic moved on to other projects, including sponsorships of HD broadcasts on CBS.

In the meantime, all of us football fans were left out in the cold. Would MNF ever come back in 720p? What would it take to get ABC to build a new truck of their own? Could another sponsor be persuaded to step up to the plate? Would mankind survive?

Rumors spread constantly on Internet forums that "this season would see the return of MNF in HD" or "a deal is imminent to sponsor MNF in HD." They all turned out to be just that: rumors. We sat through the 2000, 2001, and 2002 seasons watching gray pillars on the sides of the standard-definition broadcasts.

A ray of hope appeared in late 2002. Rumblings that ABC would carry Super Bowl XXXVII proved themselves out when the network made a dramatic announcement in November: The Super Bowl would indeed be carried in 720p HDTV with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. (Hooray!) And so would the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals. (Whoopee!) And the NBA Finals. (Yowza!) And ESPN would launch an HD network in April. (Sweet!) Oh, and by the way, Monday Night Football would return in September 2003 in HD, thank you very much. (Sounds of bodies hitting the floor, as viewers collapsed in disbelief.)

The Whole Nine Yards
Monday Night Football has a unique distinction in that it has been ABC's highest-rated prime-time show the past few years, attracting more viewers than NYPD Blue, The Practice, The Drew Carey Show, and other ABC stalwarts. So ABC had more than a passing interest in restoring the show to its former HD glory.

That meant that new production trucks had to be built. In particular, the 720p HDTV production format requires a lot of gear that isn't as commonly found as 1080i broadcast equipment. (1080i is the format used by CBS, NBC, HDNet, and others.) One immediate solution was to take some older mobile trucks and completely upgrade them. This was a tricky job prior to the Super Bowl, but ABC managed to get everything up and running using a total of five all-digital production trucks and more than 50 cameras. The "new" ESPN/ABC trucks also provided coverage of the Stanley Cup and NBA Finals, not to mention the Oscars earlier this year.

For the inaugural MNF game, which was actually on Thursday, September 4, and featured the New York Jets and Washington Redskins, the key was National Mobile Television's HD4 production truck. This rig requires a 70- by 24-foot space and is loaded for bear. It comes equipped with over 20 Philips (Thomson) multiformat cameras that can be set up for either 720p or 1080i, an HDTV production video switcher with 90 inputs, numerous digital video tape recorders, and hard-drive-based special-effects units.

Working with one truck to produce both SD and HD versions of the program was a new twist for the ABC crew. In fact, the approach was to favor the 4:3 standard-def broadcast to make sure that the majority of users caught all of the action and let the rest of the frame fill out accordingly.

"We frame each shot for 4:3, and, for now, we don't monitor the HD version all that closely," says ABC's MNF director Drew Esocoff. "However, having the widescreen frame available means our camera operators can be a bit more creative with camera moves and composition. We do try to keep the announcers' booth as visually clean as possible—it gets pretty crowded up there with Al and John, plus several spotters and crew people."

Esocoff also uses the truck's HD monitor to set up some shots in advance, as it provides a much wider, more-comprehensive view of the field. "I will glance at the HD reference monitor from time to time to see where the players are setting up, such as in a two-deep zone, nickel coverage, that sort of thing," he recounts.