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Going 'Inside The NFL' Huddle

Mount Laurel, N.J. --Tuesday was an especially busy night for Warren Sapp. The runner-up on ABC’s seventh season of Dancing with the Stars, his partner Kym Johnson, as well as winners Brooke Burke and Derek Houghton and third-place finishers Lance Bass and Lacey Schwimmer, hopped a red-eye charter from Los Angeles to New York for a Wednesday morning appearance on Good Morning America.

But after wrapping GMA, Sapp's day was just getting started. He and Johnson were headed to the home of NFL Films here, for the taping of another edition of Inside the NFL, now in its rookie season on Showtime, after a 31-year run on HBO.

GMA called and recognized there was a conflict,” said Inside the NFL producer Pete Radovich Jr. “I said I'd only allow it to happen if Warren and Kym could get here by 10 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. So after GMA, they'll be ushered to a heliport in Manhattan and down to us.”

Sapp's not the only one hustling to make the shoot. Radovich himself was only a day removed from a trip to Mexico, where he gathered material for an upcoming show feature on American football's longstanding popularity south of the border.

They would be joined by Sapp's fellow analyst Cris Collinsworth, who the next day would cover NFL Network's game between the Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles at nearby Lincoln Financial Field; host James Brown, fresh off his gig as ringmaster for CBS's pregame show, The NFL Today; and this week by NBC Football Night In America's Jerome Bettis, subbing for Phil Simms, who was in Detroit to call Black Rock's Thanksgiving Day game between the Tennessee Titans and the winless Lions. “D-town” would be the subject of a segment on the Nov. 26 Inside the NFL.

Huddle Up
It may not be exactly like a team practicing its two-minute offense, but it seems that way on Nov. 19 in Mount Laurel, as people begin to arrive before 9 a.m. An hour later there’s a production meeting, a walk-through of where the show’s going that week. Five to six hours after, the final segment is delivered to editors. At 6 p.m. or thereabouts, the show's feed is sent to Showtime as it becomes ready to air at 9 p.m.

Radovich said Inside the NFL is unlike most other studio shows, where participants meet the day before. But the production meeting isn’t the first time Radovich has discussed the week’s game plan. He speaks to his on-air team Monday and Tuesdays and sometimes as early as Sunday nights “to get a sense for what caught their attention and what they want to talk about.”

There’s a lot of back and forth.

“You get the call from Pete and you talk about this and that,” Simms told a reporter between takes on the set of Inside The NFL. “Then things change, so you need something else to draw from.”

Simms shared his practice strategy. “Basically, it comes down to talking to people. I always speak with a couple of coaches. I’m always doing a game, so there are two teams I’m knocking out that way every week. And then I watch all the rest of the games. So you have thoughts on all of them.”

For Sapp lately, Sundays have meant getting to NFL Network studios in Los Angeles for his NFLGameDay Morning gig, watching games and then two hours of camera blocking with Dancing With The Stars. “I listen to Phil and watch all the rest,” he laughed

View From the Audience

Ken Hershman, senior vice president and general manager, sports and event programming at Showtime Networks Inc. has also been happy with the early reads on Inside The NFL. “We’re very pleased things have gelled so quickly,” he said. “The level of professionalism and acumen is so high.”

Hershman had few doubts the show would be successful on-air and from a strategic perspective. Inside the NFL played well into Showtime’s push for more original series and bigger presence in sports, as its rival contracted there, punting on the show after its Super Bowl XLII coverage, following 31 years, the longest run of any cable show.

The bigger challenge, he said, was creating awareness that the series had changed locker rooms. To that end, there has been plenty of on-air promotion across Showtime multiplexes; consumer sweepstakes with big ticket giveaways for 2009; a ton of sports radio promotion with the talent; promo spots on CBS’s NFL telecasts; and sharing of show clips with online partners like AOL and ESPN.

As for the Nielsen returns, Hershman said the program has “certainly improved on its time period from a year ago,” but declined to be more specific. Inside the NFL airs 10 times weekly on Showtime and Showtime2.

The show’s been a hit among Comcast, Time Warner and other affiliates, who visit NFL Films for a tour of its sprawling facility and receive photos and autograph ops with the talent.

“We have a number of things planned around show that will be taped during Super Bowl week,” said Hershman

Showtime is also exploring advanced service applications. The network has had conversations with the NFL about offering the show as VOD programming, but said it would be a difficult proposition, with the league’s 24-hour “blackout” rules on either side of games (especially now with NFL Network’s Thursday night slate). “The NFL would let us do it, but it would be a lot of maintenance for operators having to take the content up and down,” he explained.

Ideas about a streamed version of the show, replete with NFL Films footage, have been tossed around. Thus far, the network’s Web site, www. has hosted analytic segments with the experts. Noting that NFL has a lot of media partners, Hershman believes some resolution will be reached before or shortly after this season ends.

Executing The Game Plan 
Radovich, a 10-time Emmy winner, including statuettes for his work on the Super Bowl, expects to enact more changes on-air before then. He anticipates second runs for special segments, Collinsworth's “King for a Day,” Simms' “Phil's Pet Peeves” and Sapp's “Ask Warren Anything.” The latter, airing on the Nov. 12 show, raised some eyebrows as Sapp called ESPN studio analyst and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers teammate “a bitch” for Keyshawn Johnson: Tackling Design, an upcoming A&E Network series.

“'Phil's Pet Peeves' was very well-received. Warren was unpredictable as a player and has been during his first season as a broadcaster. He told me he wanted to apologize and he did so on-air,” said Radovich. “I think we'll go back to all of them. It's the show's first season; it's still a work in progress.”

Still, Radovich wants to execute a familiar game plan.

“Viewers have grown accustomed to guys talking football,” he said. “To make big changes, it would be like 60 Minutes, if it went to another network, adding a lot of glitz and graphics. Inside the NFL stands out from other shows for its straight-ahead approach, among other reasons.”

The big one, of course, is NFL Films's distinctive style: its shooting of players during warm-ups and in the tunnel; mic-ing them for sound; and its signature low angle shots that showcase just how hard the contact is."

For instance, on NBC's Nov. 16 Sunday Night Football Terrell Owens caught a deep crossing pattern that set up the Dallas Cowboys' first score. Fans watching the game or the highlight viewed the play from a long, overhead perspective. For Showtime's series, NFL Films' crew was on the near sideline, capturing T.O. being thumped in a close-up as he ran into frame.

Radovich says most of Inside The NFL's game action comes from NFL Films. "Virtually everything is NFL Films. We only go to a network feed, if we miss something important," he said, pointing to Fox's Oct. 26 image of San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Singletary telling tight end Vernon Davis to head to the showers during a thrashing by the Seattle Seahawks as an example.    

Collinsworth is another constant: “The show is steeped in the history of the NFL,” said Hershman. “We really thought it was imperative to have Cris as a connection back.”

Said Collinsworth: “HBO was my first home in broadcasting. It wasn't a happy day when the show was dropped. However, Showtime was so excited about continuing the tradition of the show, it made me proud of the old and excited about the new.”

He views the current iteration as “the same show, with the same commitment to the truth and new guys to argue with it.”

Game On
On Nov. 19, there were plenty of discussions on and off the set. In the production meeting, the fist bumps and topics flowed: injured quarterback Tony Romo's return and his effect on the Dallas defense; beleaguered Eagles signal-caller Donovan McNabb not knowing an overtime game could end in a tie; and the New York Jets win over New England Patriots, a game Collinsworth called for NFL Network. A tangent brought the analysts to their collegiate pigskin pedigrees with Sapp (Miami) and Collinsworth (Florida) jokingly referring to Simms by the first part of his alma mater's name (Morehead State).

“The guys are happy to see each other and share what excited them from the NFL weekend. It's like guys in a sports bar; it could go on for hours,” said Radovich, who's charged with bringing everybody back on track.

On the set, that's Brown's job — not an easy one, because his teammates like to talk.

“They're really experienced at getting their points across. I'll watch the clock, they'll see my hands, or I'll cut them off,” he said from the set's main desk between filming segments. “I was a basketball player [at Harvard]. These guys were in the fraternity. People tune in to hear that little nugget these guys have. Viewers want to be part of the locker-room discussion.”

That's a dynamic Radovich and Brown encourage, particularly the back and forth between Simms and Collinsworth.

“The question came from a viewer addressed to Simms on-air. 'Seriously, what's up with you and Cris?'” Radovich recalls. “Really, it's just two guys who know their football. Phil said to me on a Monday early in the season: 'Tell Cris not to take things the wrong way.' And Cris told me to 'make sure that Phil knows I'm not upset.'”

For JB, the interplay and his role harkens to a prior gig.

“I knew how far [Terry] Bradshaw would go. I knew what could get Howie [Long] going,” said Brown of hosting Fox NFL Sunday. ”It trained me well for this. Cris knows enough that if he has to play the foil that makes for good TV.”

Defensive Edge
When everyone gathered in Mount Laurel for the Nov. 26, show Radovich had several things on his play chart. In addition to the "D-town" piece by CBS News chief investigative correspondent Armen Keteyian about the pitfalls of the winless Lions and Detroit's crashing auto industry, he wanted a segment about perennial AFC powers New England and Indianapolis remaining in the playoff hunt; more on McNabb's benching against Baltimore and his Philly future; and “New York-New York” and whether it was “destiny with a capital N.Y.” that the Jets and Giants would knock helmets in Super Bowl XLIII.

Naturally, Inside the NFL's dance card will also feature Johnson and Sapp.

In the corridor outside the studio that doubles as a cafeteria, Sapp, on Nov. 19, quickly dismisses a query about being tired from his cross-country two-a-days.

“When I get off the plane here, I don’t have two 350-pounders trying to smash my head,” he said, after flying in from L.A. that morning. “When I get to studio, they want me.”

As for Dancing, Sapp called it “unbelievably fun. This is the most vulnerable position I’ve been in my whole life. I’m athletically inclined, but this is something -- they got me wearing 2.5-inch heels -- I’ve never done and wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

For the record, he just wanted to survive the show's first cut.

On the Inside the NFL set, Sapp also appears well-equipped. Radovic and his on-air mates rave about his energy and the perspective he brings from the trenches.

“So many shows are dominated by offensive players, but to have a defensive player and a lineman, it gives us an edge. The more I watch, and come to know about the game, it's almost always decided there,” said Collinsworth.

“You know if it's goimg to be a pass or a run. The other players are sneaky, but linemen don't lie. They never go to a picnic that don't have no food,” Sapp said, with a pair of sandwiches on his plate.

And now, Inside the NFL 's main course will primarily feature pigskin. Unless someone else is ready to hoof it on the dancefloor.

Some staffers said Collinsworth, who has shimmied on air, would do it, but Simms and J.B. aren't inclined. Either way, Hershman's not sure ABC's primetime audiences are ready for their moves.

“I don't think we're going there. We had a dance-off, it wasn't pretty,” he said.