How Fox Brings NFL “Bummage” to TV Screens—Even During the Super Bowl
The frame flashed on the televisions for only a few seconds, but it was difficult to forget it. In the first quarter of this year’s NFC Championship, Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Haason Reddick hit San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy in the arm, batted the ball, and ended Purdy’s day as a functional passer.
Fox showed two replays of the hit, and then a heartbreaking image: a close-up of Purdy’s face. The video plays in slow motion. Purdy blinked his eyes and exhaledas if he knew his team’s hellish day was just beginning.
On television, the frame with the unfortunate footballer has a name: bummazh. Bummage is a term that has been used in broadcasting for years, but in the age of 4K TVs, it has a strange power. The shot looks old-fashioned and cinematic, like Jack Lambert looking across the scrimmage line at NFL Films.
Bummage appears on virtually every show produced by the leading Fox team in the NFL. During the NFC title game, spectators saw chewing gum shoot out of Eagles coach Nick Sirianni’s mouth in slow motion when his team failed to catch the ball before the game time expired. Jimmy Ward, a 49ers quarterback, put his hands on both sides of his helmet after taking a penalty that saved the Eagles touchdown.
Chewing gum from Sirianni.pic.twitter.com/AI9NfTepRv
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) January 29, 2023
In the first round of the playoffs, Fox captured a close-up of Darius Slayton, the Giants wide receiver, hanging his head after he made a pass that could have helped them beat the Vikings. Later, when Kirk Cousins’ checkdown allowed Slayton off the hook, Cousins was shown to endure, well, a more personal form of agony. He looked like he forgot to reply to an email at work.
Last month, during a Cowboys-49ers divisional game, I was sitting in a Fox truck outside Levi’s Stadium when the team took their pick of the bait. Dak Prescott set up an interception – unsuccessful.
Richie Ziontz, a Fox producer, scanned a row of monitors. to his left. He shouted like an Air Force pilot:
And then Green!
Each term corresponds to a channel that shows replays that Zyontz can use in the broadcast. Rich Russo, director, repeated Zionz’s words, and Colby Bourgeois, technical director, enlarged the images. A few seconds later, 45 million viewers saw the bummer: close-up Prescott looks stunned.
NFL games have a funny place in American pop culture. They are watched by more people than any other live TV program. However, their artistic qualities remain largely unexplored. Audiences get angry at the announcers or nod at a well-chosen tune. Meanwhile, Ziontz and Russo select hundreds of frames—they call them “pictures”—that bathe the audience like a subliminal art form.
Bummage is just one type of image. But it’s really interesting. This is a TV camera trying to look inside the player’s helmet and personalize the impersonal game. Bummage is at the center of the debate about how the networks cover pro football. It even explains a bit what makes Zyontz, the man who will produce the Super Bowl, unique.
For a guy who will manage an audience of 100 million on Sunday, Ziontz hardly fits the bill of a famous showrunner. A skinny, quiet man, Ziontz has been a lead producer on NFL Fox since 2002. Sunday’s game will be his seventh Super Bowl as lead producer. However, Zionz is allergic to high-profile statements. Unlike some producers, he does not cultivate an atmosphere of mysticism. “When you’re photographing the team, where is Richie?” said Matt Millen, who worked with him as an announcer for Fox and CBS. He is hiding behind.
Born in New York City in 1957, Ziontz grew up as a die-hard sports fan. He was on the upper deck of Madison Square Garden when Willis Reed limped to the floor before Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. Ziontz took a job as a security guard for CBS in 1979 and later joined John Madden’s NFL team. He learned the finer points of football coverage from Madden. When the team’s attention was distracted during a game, Madden joked, “Just give me three hours.”
Zyontz, as the producer that almost everyone calls “Z”, has a number of responsibilities. He coaches announcers when they need it. He makes sure Fox shows have instructions on how to win Terry Bradshaw’s money. In the truck, he maintains a zen-like presence. “I think his resting heart rate is 61 beats per minute, and he stays that way the whole time it’s hell on the field,” Fox announcer Kevin Burkhardt said.
During games, Zionz and Russo have different tasks. Russo selects footage from live performances, while Zionz selects reruns and watches the rest of the broadcast.
This is what makes Zyontz’s work interesting. He has a very clear idea of how the game should look and sound. But much of his work is reactive. Ask him what he plans to do on the third down and he’ll say, “Tell me what’s going to happen first.”
Zionz’s great skill lies in the ability to keep several hypothetical artistic images in his head at the same time: one if the receiver catches the pass, another if the receiver misses it, and the third if the ball is intercepted by the cornerback. Artie Kempner, director of Fox, called Zionz “the best chess player in sports production”. After Prescott’s interception against the 49ers, Ziontz exclaimed, “Wow, who expected that?” He’s already ordered four repeats.
Ziontz became interested in close-ups in slow motion in 1984. As a CBS staffer, he helped prepare the screensavers for the NBA Finals, which included the Celtics and Lakers that year. Ziontz pulled close-ups of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird from the tapes. And when he slowed down the footage, he found it took on an interesting quality. They helped the audience feel what it was like to be on the floor with Magic and Larry.
When CBS lost the rights to the NFL in 1994, Ziontz moved to Fox. Eight years later, he became the lead producer for Fox in the NFL. And With many additional cameras at his disposal, he began filming during games, capturing the player’s face immediately after the game. “It’s all about emotion,” said Fred Gaudelli, a producer at Amazon. Thursday Night Football. “We all strive for this in our games. But no one does it better than them.”
In the past decade, the increasing sophistication of high-speed cameras has made it even easier to find close-ups. Now, you see the scam in other sports as well. When Christian Pulisic missed a point-blank shot against the Netherlands at the World Cup, he showed it in slow motion with his mouth open.
Zionz and his team are especially fond of close-ups. There are many photos of happy football players on them. But, as Russo explained in a pre-game meeting with his cameramen, “the best image is usually the negative image.” And not obvious.
The best close-ups come from when their cameras take the players by surprise. During a Minnesota-New York wildcard game, the team caught a marvelous hit by Giants guard Dexter Lawrence after being pinned by a Viking linesman. Lawrence winked. He knew he couldn’t be blocked.
Dexter Lawrence with a “you can’t block me” wink. pic.twitter.com/HbenAIUpSw
— 5 Foot Nothin, 100 and Nothin (@5FootNothinPod) January 15, 2023
A good joke can turn an instant replay into a story. When Purdy was injured in the NFC title game, Niners fourth quarterback Josh Johnson came to the rescue. Johnson lost late in the second quarter. The Eagles returned the ball and scored a touchdown four games later.
Zionz shouted out the sequence three repetitions. The first was Johnson’s fumble. Second was the Eagles running back, Boston Scott racing into the end zone. Then came the mistake: a close-up of Johnson being consoled on the touchline.
“I always feel like this is a little addition to the mini-story we just told in 10 seconds,” Ziontz said. “What happened? Who did it? It’s an exclamation point, a picture that tells a story.”
It takes at least three people to get on American TV screens. First, it must be removed by the operator. Fox rider hunters typically have cameras positioned 7 to 8 feet high — high enough that they can see over players’ heads and low enough to look inside their helmets. “Head and shoulders – anyone can do it,” said Mario Zecca, Fox’s side camera operator. “I want to get into the grill and see what’s going on.”
I met Zekka at Levi’s the day before the Cowboys-49ers game. He rides a trolley that travels up and down the touchline during games. And for a while, it annoyed him that Ziontz didn’t use more of his action shots. Ziontz then explained that people at home tend to remember intense, emotional pictures—pictures they see again in Sports Complex basic moments. Zekka started looking for these photos out of a sense of pride. “I always seem to pick the defender if he gets burned or the guy who took a penalty on a drive,” he said. Zekka was the one who found Prescott’s face after the interception.
Later, I met Zekka’s colleague Andy Mitchell, who wore an Eagles cap. Mitchell uses a low camera in the end zone and he believes the best shot can be found in the defenders’ faces. “Attack is business,” he said. “Protection is emotional.”
Zekka and Mitchell are expected to point their cameras at certain points on the field depending on the game situation. (Zekka, for example, watches the line of scrimmage when the ball…