Running with the ball

Special to The Times

The busiest television production studio at the moment isn't in Hollywood or Burbank. It's not even in California.

Head instead to this town in exurban Philadelphia, where you'll find two new low-slung white buildings in a nondescript office park that only months ago was a nondescript South Jersey soybean field. But within its walls are facilities that will provide the television networks with more than 100 hours of original programming in the next two weeks.

Though certainly not dormant the rest of the year, this is its time in the forefront. It does not do sitcoms like Warner Bros., or kid programming like Disney, or news like CNN.

But in the lead-up to and aftermath of the Super Bowl, perennially television's most-watched event, no studio's wares are more prominent on television than those of NFL Films.

The grunts and groans and gasps and giggles that NFL Films provides will be on ABC, HBO, Fox, ESPN and ESPN2. You may also run across NFL Films footage in less obvious places, like the National Geographic Channel and the Weather Channel. And that doesn't count what you might find on Webcasts and the inevitable results of all this programming -- videotapes, DVDs and even commercials.

"I know we have the reputation as the best provider of sports film," says Steve Sabol, the company's president, whose father, Ed, founded NFL Films in 1962. "But I think we are among the best in film work anywhere. What we do is storytelling. It just so happens it is storytelling related to football."

Only this season, NFL Films moved into these two new buildings. Here, 60 producers and 230 other employees work on what Sabol says is the most modern digital equipment and studio space available. But they also work with what some would call an antiquated medium: film. Sabol believes it is the grainy images and malleable quality of film that make NFL Films productions stand apart.

As the Jan. 26 Super Bowl approaches, the NFL Films folks are both exhausted and getting a second wind.

"Along about December, people are really getting tired. The weekly shows have been going on since the preseason in August, so it's been a grind," says Jim Jordan, the company's producing supervisor. "But then the playoffs come and, frankly, everyone here is a fan so we all get up for it again."

NFL Films produces the highlight package for "Inside the NFL," HBO's Thursday night show hosted by Bob Costas. Fox's "Under the Helmet," its Saturday afternoon football show aimed at young adults, is produced on a set at NFL Films, as is "Edge NFL Matchup," ESPN's nuts-and-bolts football analysis show. Its football magazine show, "NFL Films Presents," hosted by Sabol, airs on ESPN and ESPN2 several times a week during the season.

And over the next two weeks there will be several more NFL productions on the tube. ABC will air an hourlong documentary, "The Road to the Super Bowl," at 10 a.m. Saturday. "Maxim NFL Beach Bash," an admittedly semi-sophomoric look at the game, will be on ESPN on Feb. 2 at 7 p.m. ESPN2 will carry "Campbell's Chunky NFL Ultimate Defender: Battle of the Big Men" that same day at 1 p.m. And NFL Films will be producing the international Super Bowl coverage, a sort of shadow broadcast with its own cameras and announcers geared toward foreign, and presumably less aficionado, audiences.

Despite the constant deadlines, all of this is done without the overt agita and angst found in Hollywood studios. There is nary a sport coat, tie or dress to be found in the NFL Films buildings -- jeans, college- or pro-logo sweatshirts, worn sneakers and low-key laughs seem to be the uniform of choice. Sabol says 42 of his employees have been with the company for more than 20 years. This, he says, brings a comfort and professionalism even to deadline work.

After the 'Voice of God'

Harry Kalas sits in a soundproof studio, headphones tight and mike at the ready. To his left and just behind him is John Weiss, who has just sped down the hall, his script for the Browns-Steelers "Inside the NFL" highlight segment just finished. Sabol and half a dozen producers and technicians watch the highlights on a big screen in the adjacent control room. Weiss lightly taps Kalas' shoulder when it is time to cut in phrases about Pittsburgh quarterback Tommy Maddox's throws or Coach Bill Cowher's scowls.

"Harry is so effortless, so professional. The sound is always right, perfect," Sabol says of Kalas, the Philadelphia Phillies broadcaster who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame last year and has been voicing for NFL Films since the 1980s.

What Kalas is not, though, is "The Voice of God." That was the nickname for the sonorous sounds of NFL Films' first all-purpose narrator, the late John Facenda. He had just been shunted aside for youth after a career as Philadelphia's most popular newscaster when the Sabols asked him to do the voice-over for a mid-1960s documentary, "They Call It Pro Football."

The terse and nearly overwrought writing, ambient sound and triumphal music were immeasurably enhanced by Facenda's almost operatic voice and perfect cadence. Grown men still well up in tears when, on one of the NFL Films classics that come on ESPN, they hear Facenda intone: "It starts with a whistle and ends with a gun."

The HBO show is the only regular one that is not completely done at NFL Films. But its NFL Films producer, Ross Ketover, says there have been few problems with the network.

"We have been pushing the envelope a little bit more, though," Ketover says. "Just like in anything with HBO, there is a little more leeway in language. We don't have to worry about bleeping. HBO did want a little bit faster pace this year, but they also asked us to do music videos. So we compromised. We put more sound from the sidelines and edited at a faster pace, but we left out the music videos. That's not what I felt we should do."

Yet down the hall, Pat Kelleher is extremely conscious of music videos. Kelleher has been honcho of the Fox "Under the Helmet" show since its inception in 1998. When Fox won the last NFL broadcasting contract, it also wanted a fast-paced, youth-oriented program.

"They want to mix pop music with pro football," Kelleher says. "Where the short segment on 'NFL Films Presents' might be four minutes, that is longer than our longest segment."

On "Under the Helmet," Minnesota Vikings Dante Culpepper and Randy Moss match against each other on video games, Packers' quarterback Brett Favre's teen daughter interviews Lance Bass of 'N Sync, and NFL stars show off home movies of their Pop Warner kiddie game days. Nelly, Creed and Ice Cube have come to Mount Laurel to perform to football footage for the show.

"NFL Films has long relied on slow motion, but we do fast-paced here," Kelleher says. "Young people want something different with their football -- it is more complete entertainment on 'Under the Helmet.' "

Greg Cosell, however, wants his football pure. In a warren of rooms near the breezeway between NFL Films' two buildings, the nephew of that other broadcasting Cosell flips tape of offensive line schemes back and forth. As the ESPN show's producer for 19 years, Cosell is obsessed with his tape watching.

"There is an incredible disconnect between people who analyze and don't watch tape and those who do, like us," he says. "It is apples and oranges, and we are the whole fruit salad."

"Matchup" is the geek's show on the sports geek network, ESPN. Other times, NFL Films repurposes its footage for geeky networks of other sorts.

There have been short documentaries for the History Channel, and before last year's Super Bowl, NFL Films did several pieces for A&E;'s biography series. The Weather Channel has used NFL Films segments on past cold-weather games, and the National Geographic Channel asked for NFL Films' help on a show about animal mascots.

"They wanted to see Rams ramming and Falcons flying," Sabol says. "Whatever. We were happy to be involved."

Certainly NFL Films will be heavily involved in the proposed NFL cable channel. No doubt vintage games will be plumbed for programming -- and many of them sit in NFL Films' concrete-lined, temperature-controlled vault. The company has been at every game since the mid-1960s and has added old films as they are found, the oldest recorded by Thomas Edison in the 19th century.

NFL Films, too, has been aggressive at using the Internet. At the NFL Films broadband site (, visitors can view international programming from NFL Blast, the company's outlet in 192 countries, or find out what is hot in fantasy football, or peek into archives of great tackles or even something on a specific player.

"We're always thinking of ideas for shows, specials, but it has to be the right thing with the right network," said Bob Ryan, NFL Films' vice president of program development. "But, yes, I think we try to work like one of those major studios. We have an expertise no one else can match, and we love to tell stories, and doing it from New Jersey is no different than from Hollywood."

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