NFL wild-card games show potential for alternate broadcasts

Sports

Virtual slime cannons go off in the end zone after a touchdown during Nickelodeon’s kid-focused broadcast of the NFL wild-card playoff game between the Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints at the Superdome, Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021 in New Orleans. The positive reviews for Nickelodeon’s kids-focused broadcast of last Sunday’s NFL playoff game showed the potential of alternate broadcasts of sporting events. The success of that broadcast has led to many wondering what other sports it could expand to and when we might see it again in the NFL? (CBS/Viacom via AP)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Brian Robbins directed “Varsity Blues” and was the producer of “Coach Carter,” but both of those might have been eclipsed last Sunday with Nickelodeon’s successful kids-oriented broadcast of an NFL playoff game.

Even a couple days after last Sunday’s game, the president of Nickelodeon as well as everyone associated with the broadcast are still receiving accolades.

“I felt good going into the game about our ideas to make the day watchable for kids and families together. I felt good about the talent,” Robbins said. “The thing that surprised me was the enthusiasm from all over the planet about what a great thing it was. I think it was a breath of fresh air at the right time.”

The New Orleans Saints’ 21-9 victory over the Chicago Bears was the most-watched game of wild card weekend, averaging 30.65 million viewers. In an age when even debates about favorite foods draw debate, the 2 billion impressions on social media was overwhelmingly positive. Nickelodeon was Twitter’s No. 1 trending topic during the game, and #NickWildCard and Spongebob were in the top 10.

The Nickelodeon presentation not only provided a template on doing alternate broadcasts. It is also likely to usher in more additional broadcasts to the same event.

CBS and Nickelodeon weren’t the only ones to use multiple networks during Sunday’s playoff games. ESPN deployed its MegaCast treatment for an NFL postseason game for the first time and NBC used the Peacock streaming service that included a dedicated postgame show.

“I applaud everyone’s creativity,” CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said. “We’re all trying to reach and expand our audiences. You have to work hard to reach them and use as many platforms to accomplish that. There is a lot of competition whether it is news or sports.”

Tag Garson, the senior vice president of properties at Wasserman, has long been a proponent of alternate broadcasts going back to his days at ESPN because viewers, especially younger ones, continue to be more fragmented by the way they watch and consume various types of content.

“The NFL because of their reach allows for the different types of distribution we saw on Sunday,” he said. “In my view I think you are seeing the networks also looking to program the other channels with the content they have own. If you’re not paying additional rights fees to do that but give a different look, it provides a wider reach while giving channels programming.”

To prove Garson’s point, Nickelodeon averaged 2.06 million viewers during the game. That was the network’s most-watched program in nearly four years and a 245% increase in viewers compared to what aired in that spot last year.

What also made the Nickelodeon broadcast successful is that appealed to parents and kids. It introduced a younger age group to the basics of the game but also focused on the action happening on the field. Some alternate broadcasts have fallen short because the on-field action was often ignored.

McManus said a point of emphasis leading up to the game was making sure that covering the game remained the priority. The explanations of penalties from Iain Armitage of CBS’ “Young Sheldon” and virtual slime cannon animations for touchdowns added to the game instead of taking away from it.

“There is a certain integrity we needed to respect. We never wanted to cross the line,” McManus said. “I have received so many emails and texts that they just loved the experience of watching with their kids. It was fun and educational. It referenced other kids shows but never got to the point where it was pandering. Hopefully it created some new fans and made the viewing experience something they could enjoy.”

McManus and Robbins said nothing is off the table as far as what the next alternate presentation might be, but that nothing is imminent. With ESPN having the NBA, MLB and NFL rights, there is a possibility of a kids-oriented telecast with Disney down the road. The MegaCasts are often on all the ESPN networks as well as its app, but Sunday’s playoff game did have a watch party on Freeform.

With the CBS-Viacom merger, McManus pointed to possibly branching out to other networks. If it is with Nickelodeon again, he would have a willing partner with Robbins.

“A lot of people want to have conversations. I am a huge sports fan. I would do this all day,” Robbins said.

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