The Media Column: How NESN is dealing with the unknowns

By WEEI 93.7

Rick Jaffe is honest when remembering his initial reaction during those mid-March days of pandemic-induced chaos.

"I thought we were in big trouble," said the New England Sports Network's vice president of programming and production.

It was understandable.

NESN's bread and butter -- the Bruins and Red Sox -- had been vanquished right when both were set to hit their strides. There would be no sports, but there would still be the need for something. But what? Jaffe had experienced a lot over his professional career, working at FOX Sports after serving as an editor for high-profile newspapers in Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles. But like virtually everyone in all professions, he hadn't been dealt with this kind of hand.

"You don’t have Red Sox and Bruins, which is a lot of our programming so you have to be creative," Jaffe said. "With people not coming into the office not only did we create some shows but we also started doing 'NESN After Hours' remotely (it is now back in-studio) and we created a new show with TC (Tom Caron) for a while and we had to do everything from home. The talent was at home. The guests would Zoom in. The producers were at home. The director was at home. The editors were at home. That took us a little while to get used to."

It has now been three months of adjusting. Lessons learned and ideas uncovered. Some things worked, others didn't.

The airing of classic games, for instance, proved to be a godsend, particularly when participants of those contests agreed to get involved via social media. Players tweeting while these things were going proved to be a game-changer.

"We got fan reaction. We have people calling in, writing in. Asking us on social media to re-air old World Series (games), old playoff games things like that," Jaffe said. "The rating was always higher when we had a player on the Twitter takeover.

"I definitely think that might be something we continue to do during games. There might be some specific games where we get a former player to be involved if the Red Sox are playing or the Bruins are playing to give commentary during the game, even if it’s just for an hour."

Through all of the satisfaction that has been filling these hours of programming, there are also the realities that reside in the not-so-distant future.

"I think there are adjustments coming that we don’t even know about yet," Jaffe notes.

Both the Bruins and Red Sox may be ready to re-introduce themselves in the coming months but under dramatically different circumstances from when NESN last broadcasted their games.

The calls have been nonstop between the networks and the leagues, trying to formulate exactly how these no-crowd games might be shown to the sports-starved world. 

"The NHL was really on top of it right from the start. All the regions would be on the call. All the nationals would be on the call. All the scenarios," Jaffe said. "‘When we come back we’re thinking of this. What do you guys think?’ And we would throw out suggestions and they would listen. I think what you see on the air when the NHL comes back is a collection of what all of us talked about during this process. We’re now having similar discussions with Major League Baseball.

"One week they tried it with no crowd noise, which was horrible. The next week they tried it with some crowd noise, at a low murmur but it wasn’t bad. At least it added something to do it. I believe both of the leagues rather that than have everybody trying to do it differently. I think the leagues are going to be in charge of what the background noise is going to be. I get it. You don’t want to turn on one game and hear nothing and you turn on the next one and you hear fans. They want a uniform look across the board whenever their games are on."

The initial plan for the NHL, which will be playing in just a few select hub cities, is to use one feed with the local broadcasters calling the game from the studios back in their respective cities, where the producers will also be working. Each region will have a dedicated feed -- with likely three games taking place at each venue, each day -- but it won't be their people delivering it. There will be a reliance on nine cameras, which should be enough for the likes of Jack Edwards and Andy Brickley to offer similar analysis than if they were at the venues.

Major League Baseball would be a bit different.

The home teams will be producing the games for both clubs' broadcast, with the home broadcasters the only ones on site. And if there is a national network involved, it will be the local entity -- such as NESN -- who will still be supplying the feed

Sideline reporters? That's to be determined with how many opportunities there will be to mic up players, umpires, and referees on a daily basis.

"We’re going to have to make several adjustments when we first get back," Jaffe said. "I think people will be so happy to see sports again that people will adjust to it pretty quickly.

"There are going to be things we don’t know about yet and we’re going to have to make adjustments on the fly. But we’re hoping to add some new things also that will help make the broadcast more interesting."

Through it all, Jaffe - like many managers overseeing these sports-free, sports-based entities - looks back with admiration for what has been done for a stretch there was no playbook.

"People rise to the occasion," he said. "We have some really good people. People rise to the occasion when confronted with things you have overcome. We weren’t totally ready for a pandemic to be able to edit from home so we had to work through some things. We were set up for talent doing shows from home. So we had to cameras for them. Some light kits and audio set-up for their houses. Everybody made the best of it. It’s not the same but we did the best we could and I am proud of everybody."

Note: Rob Bradford appears on NESN as a part-time contributor.