By Steve Sampsell, Penn State
Fox Sports director Rich Russo knew two years ago that his network would televise Super Bowl XLV, and as director for the network’s No. 1 NFL broadcast team it would be “his” telecast.
Still, that telecast of what annually ranks as the most-watched TV program in the United States snuck up on the 1984 Penn State graduate over the past six or seven months.
“We got started in preseason and then during the regular season you’re so focused on the game you’re doing and your routine that the season just moves along,” said Russo, who earned a degree in speech communications and played varsity lacrosse for the Nittany Lions. “We met regularly during the season about the Super Bowl, but it did come quickly. It seemed like the next thing I knew we were here in Dallas getting ready for the game — and it was just days away.”
On Sunday, Russo will serve as the director for the Super Bowl. He will decide what some 150 million viewers in the United States will see on each and every play.
“It’s exciting, and I’m just hoping to get a couple good nights of sleep this week,” Russo said. “There’s a special energy for the Super Bowl, but once things begin we just have to focus on broadcasting another football game.”
Russo, a 10-time Emmy Award winner for his work in sports broadcasting, has worked with Fox Sports since 1994. Before that, he worked for CBS Sports.
His stellar resume includes roles as lead director for three BCS national championship games and dozens of major sporting events, including the Olympics, the NBA Finals and the Daytona 500.
For the past six years, he directed the international feed of the Super Bowl that goes to 234 countries and territories, including U.S. armed forces stationed around the world.
Still, Russo insists he alone does not drive the broadcast Sunday.
He said the production team works together and supports the direction taken by play-by-play man Joe Buck and color commentator Troy Aikman. By kickoff, after meetings throughout the week with producer Richie Zyontz, coaches and players from both teams, and the entire production crew, Russo anticipates a smooth broadcast.
His particular production team has prepared months, even years, for the broadcast of the game between the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“We have professionals, really experienced and talented people, everywhere on our team,” Russo said. “They know what they’re doing, so that makes my job easier.”
Technology helps as well. While the broadcast of a regular-season NFL game might utilize 15 cameras, Russo has more than 40 cameras providing pictures Sunday.
Like any good leader, though, Russo knows it’s all about his people. They, like him, will begin work sometime before midday Sunday. They’ll complete their assignments nearly 11 hours later when the game ends.
“We have additional cameras, but it’s all about the people,” he said. “Fans talk about the two good teams in the Super Bowl. But we have three teams here, and I think ours will do a great job.”
Rich Russo’s Five Keys to Broadcasting the Super Bowl
— 1: The director has a favorite team — and it’s not the Packers or Steelers. Fox has 340 production people, using 42 cameras, for the game broadcast. “Every single person in that group matters and plays a role in us producing a good broadcast,” he said. “What they do, working together, really brings a game to life for viewers.”
— 2: It’s still a football game. Last year’s Super Bowl drew more than 153 million viewers of all interest levels. Still, Russo believes a good broadcast relies on the game being a game — not a show. “We’ll take the same approach we do for all our games during the regular season, focusing on the action on the field,” Russo says. “There will be shots of the coaches and coordinators, even people in the stands, but what matters most is the action. And we pride ourselves on the subtleties, capturing the emotions of the players and getting the right close ups that tell a story.”
— 3: Serve casual fans and football purists alike. With viewing parties, a heightened interest about the commercials and simply the Super Bowl’s overwhelming cultural impact, many non-football fans will be watching Sunday. In Russo’s eyes, that does not change what he and his production team do. “There will be opportunities for people to be entertained, and I hope they are,” he said. “But our focus will be the game.”
— 4: A broadcast is like playing the game. “Our team puts in hours and hours of preparation so they’re able to react, immediately, to what happens,” Russo said. “Is it a two-receiver set? A five-receiver set? What are a team’s tendencies? In terms of directing, I do equate it to playing — being able to adapt or react to what happens as soon as it happens. And we’re all competitive. We want to produce the best broadcast possible.”
— 5: No fumbles by Fox. “I’m one of those guys that thinks I’ve never had a perfect telecast. I’m always nitpicking about something,” Russo said. “We want to get it perfect for the viewer. You’re always worried about things you can’t control or other unknowns, but it’s an exciting opportunity and we’re prepared to do our best. When you’ve had a good game, and got all the shots, it feels really good.”