Rams. Chargers. COVID-19. How HBO’s ‘Hard Knocks’ is handling its toughest season yet
Zoom huddles. Nose swabs. Players running up and down the field in masks instead of helmets.
Welcome to the 15th season of HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” the Emmy-winning series that goes behind the scenes of NFL training camps before the regular season starts. The show had already prepared for a breakthrough season, embedding with two different squads — the Los Angeles Rams and the Los Angeles Chargers — instead of focusing on one team.
But when the pandemic struck, it brought upheaval not only to the NFL but to the “Hard Knocks” production team, which is determined to maintain the show’s trademark fly-on-the-wall character. For many months, it was unclear whether the NFL would even have a season. When a decision was made by league executives that a season would move forward, the HBO show had to quickly adapt in making preparations.
Some of those obstacles were evident in the season premiere last week, which featured more footage of players being tested for COVID-19 than tackling. The show also showed several Zoom discussions between coaches, players and media covering the teams.
The stringent protocols being undertaken by the NFL to ensure player safety have also been forced on the “Hard Knocks” crew, who are trying to do more while required to work with less. The second of five episodes airs Tuesday.
“It’s been double the trouble, double not the fun,” said Ken Rodgers, senior coordinating producer for the series. “It was already a challenging experience when we decided to do two teams. 2020 happened, and all the logistics required for ‘Hard Knocks’ were doubled, a whole other layer of the onion that we’ve never had to deal with. Then COVID-19 came along and the protocols were massive.”
Though the Rams and Chargers will share SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, the two teams run their training camps very differently. “Hard Knocks” was already preparing to have two content production plans, before being forced to develop two different pandemic plans.
Said Rodgers: “What would normally be two logistical plans turned into four logistical plans.”
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Only about 13 members of the production are allowed on the field with the players, about half the usual number of cameramen, audio personnel and directors. Camera operators must keep their distance, and more focus is being placed on robotic cameras recording interactions inside offices or meeting rooms.
Like the players, the “Hard Knocks” crew have to wear masks, undergo daily testing and wear ankle tracers to ensure they don’t get within six feet of a player or other team personnel. A camp safety officer oversees PPE (personal protective equipment) and temperature checks. Production staffers are living in hotels separated from families, and cannot gather in groups inside their rooms during the evenings.
The teams have their own “bubble,” and the “Hard Knocks” production follows suit. “We’re the bubble within the bubble,” Rodgers said.
“It’s certainly different,” said Tim Rumpff, who is the director of the show’s coverage of the Rams camp in Thousand Oaks. “The pandemic added another layer and made it more difficult. But on the other hand, having this new challenge gives us a new opportunity to be creative. From day one, we knew that safety would have to be the first priority.”
Shannon Furman, who is directing the show’s Chargers coverage at the team’s Costa Mesa facility, added, “We’re taking it one day at a time. We can’t get comfortable because as we all know the pandemic can change pretty quickly. We’re not getting too excited that things are going well, but we’re feeling pretty positive.”
Furman, who is in her third year as director, noted one key shift. “The Chargers have a lot of veteran star players who haven’t got a lot of coverage. They have great personalities so we can spend more time with them. It was also nice to spend more time with some of the rookie players.”
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The first episode showed distinct contrasts between the two camps. The Rams erected a massive outside tent where sessions can be held, instead of inside an office building.
Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn developed a rapport with his players as he disclosed how he had contracted COVID-19. Although he eventually recovered, he warned the squad, “There’s going to be chaos and change and it’s going to come every single day.” Rams head coach Sean McVay displayed a more energetic persona. Said Rumpff, who is in his third season as director: “Sean is all gung ho. He is football 24/7.”
Whether “Hard Knocks” viewers and others will be interested in a backstage look at a significantly impacted NFL season is yet to be determined, but early reports were not encouraging. Ratings for the first episode last week showed a dramatic drop from the viewership of last season’s premiere.
Only 273,000 viewers tuned in for the Rams-Chargers kickoff, which puts it among the smallest live audiences in the series’ long run, according to Sports Business Journal’s Austin Karp. The first installment of last season, which featured the Oakland Raiders, drew 705,000 viewers.
Helping to ease the transition is the familiarity between the league and “Hard Knocks,” which is produced by NFL Films. “Our relationship to them is very personable,” Rodgers said. “We’ve become part of the family.” During the first episode, players could be seen talking to and teasing crew members.
Rodgers said fans of the show will see a big difference in the second installment as the two camps get closer to the start of the season, which begins Sept. 10 with a face-off between the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs.
“It’s the ramp-up period,” he said. “Players are going faster and harder. In Episode 3, it’s starting to feel like ‘Hard Knocks’ again because they get to put on their pads, hit each other and, for lack of a better term, play football again, which they haven’t been able to do since the end of last season. They’re playing full-on football, which is what they’re for.”
He added, “They’re itching for some normalcy to return, and our crews are feeling the same thing.”
‘Hard Knocks: Los Angeles’
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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