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How ESPN’s Creative Services Team Cleverly Maintains Social Distance Safety On Studio Show Sets

No need to adjust the display settings on your screens - supersized desks are the new normal for 2020

A number of ESPN shows have recently introduced rather large studio desks, including College GameDay, NFL Countdown programs, and First Take. This is the handiwork of ESPN’s Creative Services team, which has spent the past few weeks and months ensuring that all ESPN studios have anchor desks that now meet proper social distancing standards due to COVID-19.

“We started looking at our existing sets – basically taking out a tape measure and determining, can two people sit six feet apart shoulder to shoulder?,” said Noubar Stone, ESPN senior creative director.

In most cases, existing studios – like the main SportsCenter studio in Bristol – worked just fine, but there were situations where ESPN needed to make adjustments. This included College GameDay’s Saturday road show set and the new rooftop Seaport studios in New York City for Sunday NFL Countdown and Monday Night Countdown.

Sunday NFL Countdown at the South Street Seaport studio in New York. (ESPN)

”As we’ve gotten back to events happening, it’s incumbent that we have to recognize the necessity of maintaining social distancing,” said Stone. “We also have to recognize that we have jobs to do in covering the events. This is a way in my small area that we’ve adapted.”

At 22 feet long, College GameDay’s new curved desk is by far ESPN’s largest – enough to accommodate host Rece Davis and multiple analysts. Creative Services and coordinating director Lorenzo Lamadrid had extensions built to match the existing GameDay set.

ESPN College GameDay desk on location at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. (ESPN)

“It looks like one piece, but it’s modular,” added Stone. “We essentially added multiple extension pieces, which was less challenging than coming up with a completely new studio like we did for NFL.”

Once the decision was made this summer to move both NFL Countdown shows to New York, Creative Services went to work creating a brand new studio on the roof of the South Street Seaport.

“What would normally be a six-month project was done in six weeks. I can’t think of anything in my 30-plus years with the company that’s come together that big, that quickly,” added Stone, a 32-year ESPN veteran who has worked on the X Games, FIFA World Cups, network launches, and more.

The new desk (12 feet wide by 11 feet deep) is now the centerpiece of both Countdown shows and can accommodate at least five people socially-distanced. With a circular design and wood-carved middle highlighting the show title, it also resembles the new NFL Live desk in studio W in Bristol.

Monday Night Countdown at the South Street Seaport studio in New York. (ESPN)

The previous NFL Live desk only had room for two people socially-distanced, but there was a need to have space for four. The new desk is versatile – and expandable – and will be used in a variety of ways. Production can shoot in the round with four people, or more conventionally with three. Eventually, eight people can fit around the desk in the future for NFL Draft, free agency and other specials that feature larger roundtable discussions.

First Take debuted its new desk on Monday, a cost-effective overlay on top of the existing desk that allows Stephen A. Smith, Max Kellerman and Molly Qerim Rose to be six-feet apart. Creative director Dan Cunningham headed up that project, and ESPN’s upcoming coverage of the Masters will employ a similar overlay approach for the outside set at Augusta National.

First Take at the South Street Seaport studio in New York. (ESPN)

Other recent Creative Services projects have included the Washington, D.C. studio that is now home to SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt, ESPN’s on-site presence at the PGA Championship and US Open, and even a DTCI studio in London.

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