Thursday, May 26, 2022

CBS Sports and Nickelodeon Deliver Most-Watched NFL Wild Card Game in Seven Years


49ers-Cowboys Averaged 41.496 Million Viewers Across Both Networks, Peaking with More Than 50 Million Viewers for Game’s Conclusion

Paramount+ Scores Its Most-Streamed Non-Super Bowl NFL Weekend Ever; 49ers-Cowboys Is Its Most-Streamed Non-Super Bowl Game of All Time

01.19.2022 - CBS Sports and Nickelodeon’s presentation of the 49ers’ victory over the Cowboys on Sunday, Jan. 16 (4:40-8:02 PM, ET) scored as the most-watched NFL Wild Card game on any network in seven years (Detroit-Dallas, 1/4/15, 42.320), averaging 41.496 million viewers across both networks and up +35% versus last year’s comparable game.

The audience peaked with more than 50 million viewers (50.229) for the game’s conclusion.

Paramount+ registered its most-streamed non-Super Bowl NFL weekend ever and 49ers-Cowboys scored as its most-streamed non-Super Bowl game of all time. Super Wild Card Weekend delivered double-digit year-over-year growth in total streams, streaming minutes and unique viewers from last year’s Super Wild Card games.

The NFL Wild Card Game on Nickelodeon, a simulcast featuring enhanced original on-field graphics, advanced augmented reality including an AR blimp that flew throughout the stadium, and gallons of green slime - both virtual and physical - was watched by 1,333,000 viewers.


After recording its most-watched regular season in six years, THE NFL ON CBS continued its strong viewership into the postseason as the 41.496 million viewers for 49ers-Cowboys marked CBS’ most-watched Wild Card game in 10 years (Pittsburgh-Denver, 1/8/12, 42.371) and ranks as the Network’s second-most watched Wild Card game on record (since 1988).

The game is the most-watched television program on any network since Super Bowl LV on CBS and THE NFL ON CBS has delivered the only two programs with more than 40 million viewers during that span (49ers-Cowboys, 41.496 million viewers and Raiders-Cowboys on Thanksgiving, 40.802 million viewers).


The Bills’ 30-point victory over the Patriots in primetime on Saturday, Jan. 15 (8:16-11:04 PM, ET) averaged 26.373 million viewers, a +23% increase over last year’s comparable Saturday night game.

* * *

Update (5/26) - Nate Burleson (CBS | CBS Sports Network | Nickelodeon | NFL Network) won the Outstanding Personality/Studio Analyst award at the 2022 Sports Emmys for his work on Nickelodeon's 2022 NFL Wild Card Game on Nickelodeon "SlimeCast"!

Update (3/4) - Nickelodeon's 2022 NFL Wild Card Game on Nickelodeon "SlimeCast" has been nominated for the "Outstanding Fan Engagement" award in the 2022 SportTechie Awards!

From Variety:

Inside the ManningCast: How ESPN and Two Football Brothers Are Transforming Sports TV

By Brian Steinberg

ESPN executives have been trying since 2018 to convince Peyton Manning to join the in-studio broadcast team for their flagship “Monday Night Football.” Now they may be happier that he turned down those overtures.

That’s because the retired NFL quarterback has gained traction with an alternate “Monday Night Football” telecast for ESPN2 that he began hosting with his younger brother, Eli, another former all-star QB, in September. The stakes couldn’t be higher for ESPN, the NFL or the TV business — even though the decidedly low-tech broadcast, which quickly came to be known as “ManningCast,” feels like a cross between hanging out in a sports bar and a glorified Zoom session.

The brothers have held forth for 10 Monday nights during the 2021 NFL season, offering live banter and crosstalk alongside the same feed of the game being broadcast on ESPN and sometimes ABC. Football fans who want traditional play-by-play game coverage can tune in to “Monday Night Football” regulars Steve Levy, Brian Griese, Louis Riddick and Lisa Salters on the mothership ESPN. Those who want to hear two Super Bowl MVP quarterbacks chop it up with the occasional athlete or celebrity guest can sit back and relax with the ManningCast.

Fans are hooked. On Wednesday, ESPN and its corporate parent, Disney announced an expanded deal with the Mannings, who will create concepts similar to the ManningCast for UFC, college football and golf broadcasts under Peyton Manning’s Omaha Productions. Media companies see the format as one of the creative steps that networks and streamers must take to squeeze profits out of increasingly sky-high sports rights. The leagues think they’ve hit upon a new way to get younger fans to watch their games. And media executives across the industry are scrambling to duplicate ESPN’s feat — and not just in sports. “It could be any big event,” says Tom Young, co-head of sports broadcasting at CAA. “The dog show. The spelling bee.” Maybe even “American Idol” or the Oscars? “You could certainly see the same dynamics in those programs,” says Burke Magnus, ESPN’s president of programming and original content.

The Mannings have captured, on average, 13% of the total audience for ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” during the regular season, according to Octagon, a sports-marketing firm owned by Interpublic Group, and 10.6% including the Wild Card game that was also broadcast on ABC. “There’s some real engagement there,” says Daniel Cohen, Octagon’s senior vice president of global media rights consulting. “If you can break a 10% number, then this is valuable” to the cable and satellite companies that distribute ESPN and the marketers who want to advertise on it.

To be sure, it’s not clear yet whether such concepts — some executives call them “alternacasts” or “megacasts” — are luring thousands of new viewers or just keeping fans engaged and tuning in longer through sampling. “Some of it is incremental, and some of it is bouncing back and forth,” acknowledges Magnus, noting that ESPN researchers continue to analyze this season’s audience data. But executives believe the new formats serve as “an audience expansion tool, without question, for us and the leagues who are in the business of growing more fans.”

Everyone can agree, however, that the Mannings are doing more than just giving sports nuts something to talk about at the bar. This is an era when all kinds of TV viewership are under pressure, as consumers move from sitting around their TV set at a specific time to calling up whatever it is they want to watch with a few clicks of the remote and a subscription to one of a few dozen streaming services. “I think the networks are realizing that a core fan may certainly want to watch the game, but this gives the network an opportunity to bring in a different kind of fan who is interested in a different kind of experience,” says Matthew Kramer, co-head of sports broadcast at CAA. “The future of watching sports will in some way, shape or form include a ‘megacast’ model.”

Despite all the attention, the brothers don’t go in for anything fancy, in either setup or presentation. They talk over each other. They barely acknowledge when the show must stop for a commercial break. Guests like Dwayne Johnson get to talk about their love of football, tequila investments and upcoming movie projects — and even a T-Rex skull replica on display in the background — without the slightest pressure to dig deeper. When the Mannings signed off after a Wild Card game not too long ago, they did so without the faintest whiff of TV-hosting skills. “Bye!” yelled Peyton. Neither of them told viewers to stay tuned to watch late-night ESPN mainstay Scott Van Pelt on “SportsCenter.”

“That’s part of the secret sauce,” says Magnus. “It’s very casual. It’s very informal,” and besides, no one is on the Mannings’ case to sound like polished sports analysts. “I think fans are fine with that. If you want the high-end platinum production experience, you can go over to ESPN and see what’s up on ‘Monday Night Football.’”

After a typical weekend during football season, viewers have spent many hours with NFL games by the time Monday night comes around, says Magnus. The Mannings “help drum up more people having an interest to watch a Monday night game who probably wouldn’t want to watch otherwise.” The brothers, whose show is produced through Peyton Manning’s Omaha Prods., have largely kept silent about the success of the ManningCast, despite its popularity. Through ESPN, they both declined to comment.

Some of football’s biggest supporters back the maneuver. A new generation of customers doesn’t like to be tied down to a single product or piece of media, points out Andy Goeler, vice president of marketing for Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Bud Light, which is using the Super Bowl to introduce a zero-carb version of its well-known brew as well as a line of soda-flavored Bud Light seltzers. “The landscape requires you to be out there in more niche things to be able to continue to connect with consumers,” he says.

The leagues are pushing for it too. “We actually challenged our partners in the spring of 2020,” when adding new Wild Card games to the season, says Hans Schroeder, chief operating officer of NFL Media. “We felt there was an opportunity to do more, particularly for certain parts of our fan base.” As viewers grow accustomed to streaming live sports telecasts and watching games in new venues, he adds, leagues need to be mindful of “avid and casual fans who watch a game through a different experience” from a traditional TV broadcast. When Major League Baseball was in talks to renew its rights deals with ESPN and Turner last year, creating new ways of showing games “was a major part of the conversations,” says Noah Garden, MLB’s chief revenue officer. “It’s front and center for all of us.”

But the success of the ManningCast has programmers questioning whether it was lightning in a bottle or whether it’s a format that can be applied to other conceits. Can ESPN — or anyone else — launch a ManningCast-like program that becomes just as popular? Or even expand the idea?

Networks have been experimenting with new spins on traditional sports telecasts for some time. There have been “kidscasts” on ESPN, where teens talk about the action at the Little League World Series. The MLB Network last year employed former New York Yankees pitcher C.C. Sabathia to lead a “Clubhouse Edition” that had him trade anecdotes about the game with other former players; there have been statcasts with on-air graphics for fans who want to nerd out on things like pitches per plate appearance. NBC Sports has offered “Hot Pass” coverage of NASCAR races that allow viewers to see things from the perspective of several top drivers. There was a “MarvelCast” of an NBA game on ESPN2 that turned a contest between the Golden State Warriors and the New Orleans Pelicans into a battle that featured a different scoring system and superhero avatars.

Nickelodeon for two seasons has dispatched a trio to call its own broadcast of a CBS Sports feed of an NFL Wild Card game for kids: This year, sportscasters Nate Burleson and Noah Eagle talked with Nickelodeon actor Gabrielle Nevaeh Green about broccoli, among other things, and Nickelodeon producers created an augmented-reality slime monster that rose from the field on several occasions.

“We definitely felt the pressure to take it up a notch,” says Brian Robbins, president and CEO of Nickelodeon and Paramount Pictures. The NFL believes the Nickelodeon work has boosted the number of kids and families watching the CBS Sports’ Wild Card game coverage, according to the NFL’s Schroeder — even if they just tuned in to the more traditional broadcast.

But the ManningCast is opening eyes about the potential of such programming. ESPN is putting enough firepower behind the concept to turn it from a clever one-off to a sustainable format that fans can expect to see semiregularly. The Mannings are under contract with ESPN for two more years, says Magnus, who thinks there’s more that can be done to up the ante on the alternate telecast. “Is that replicable?” asks Patrick Crakes, a former Fox Sports executive who now works as a media consultant. “Or have we just seen the mountain?”

• • •

With former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo lending pizazz to CBS Sports’ NFL broadcasts after joining in 2017, ESPN executives were eager to upgrade their “MNF” booth, particularly with contract talks for the next slew of NFL rights in the offing. Peyton Manning, a Super Bowl champ for the Indianapolis Colts and the Denver Broncos who had authority and appeal, seemed like a great idea. The trouble? Time and travel commitments were too much for the grid-iron champ.

“For a variety of reasons, mostly personal for him, it became a bridge too far,” explains Magnus. “He has young kids. He wanted to be around as a father — all the stuff that anyone could appreciate in terms of why he might not want to spend 18 to 19 weeks in a stadium calling games. So the conversation eventually morphed into doing something that could have, in a way, the same kind of effect that having him in a booth would achieve.”

The ManningCast is relatively easy to produce. Brother Eli, retired from the New York Giants, usually holds forth from his home in New Jersey, and producers can sometimes see his kids on the set before the game starts. Peyton, meanwhile, typically is sitting in a makeshift studio built in a friend’s private warehouse facility in Denver. The brothers can travel if they need to, knowing they can host a game no matter where they might go, and Peyton even visited an ESPN studio for one game.

ESPN originally expected to have a host work with the duo, but after off-camera tryouts, producers decided one wasn’t necessary. Peyton Manning is said to be particularly involved with the process — casual on screen but hands-on with details behind it. The brothers have even taken an interest in working with ESPN to book guests, which this season included Jon Stewart, David Letterman, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

There have been moments when the brothers’ lack of polish has been jarring. Eli Manning raised two middle fingers on live TV while recounting an anecdote about getting “the double bird” from a 9-year-old while talking on screen to former Philadelphia Eagles player Chris Long. “I’m sure you can blur that out, right?” he asked producers as the show progressed. Um, no. On the final ManningCast of the season, Peyton at one point was heard to say loudly, “I can’t hear shit.”

ESPN executives are trying to fine-tune a format that so far seems to work because of its looseness. Do the brothers need more guests? Should they not have as many? And ESPN could have some soul-searching on its hands if Peyton Manning and other investors make a successful bid to buy the Denver Broncos, as has been speculated. How can the network have someone who has a vested interest in one of the teams talking about NFL games, players and policies? “It depends, I suppose, on how it happens. Is he a principal owner or a minority owner?” asks Magnus, who notes that more players are moving into the business side of sports. “Player-ownership concerns are going to become more frequent over time. I can’t really speculate. We’d have to have a conversation about that.”

The network has time to ponder these questions. Executives hope to pair the brothers with the best “Monday Night Football” games on the schedule, says Magnus. But ESPN also has to maneuver around the Mannings and their personal commitments. “Maybe, over time, we can do a couple more games,” Magnus suggests. Still, ESPN doesn’t want to overplay its hand. “One thing we are really mindful of is, I call it the ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ syndrome,” says Burke, referring to the ABC game show that, at its most popular, was airing in primetime five days a week and saw its numbers fall. “You don’t want to take something that works and just overdo it.”

Already, there is speculation that Amazon, which has taken over rights to “Thursday Night Football,” may one day look to woo the brothers away. Marie Donoghue, vice president of global sports video at Amazon, declined to comment. “Makes for good copy,” Magnus quips.

• • •

There’s more to come. ESPN plans to run a separate broadcast of its long-running “Sunday Night Baseball,” led by former New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez and veteran Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay. Already, the pair is being called “Kay-Rod.” And ESPN is in discussions with the NBA about potentially creating a sort of “team cast,” says Paul Benedict, the NBA’s senior vice president of broadcast content management, that gives viewers hours of behind-the-scenes coverage of one of the teams in the league’s playoffs before and around a pivotal matchup.

Amazon has created a stream led by Hannah Storm and Andrea Kremer for “Thursday Night Football” games. Amazon also gives European subscribers access to Premier League soccer games, accompanied by an audio feed that plays only the sounds of the stadium where the game is taking place. All of this activity means that more experimentation is on the way. “We absolutely believe offering fans optionality is a positive,” says Donoghue. “It’s a way to create big-tent experiences where people come in and can experience the game in their preferred way.”

Even the Super Bowl could get a new megacast format. If Jimmy Pitaro, chairman of ESPN and Disney’s sports content, has his way, the 2026 championship telecast — the first time Disney will carry the big game since 2006 — will be done across many broadcasts. Some might feature unique camera views, or a certain set of celebrities. “When the Super Bowl comes around for us, it’s not going to be just one thing,” says Magnus. “It’s going to be a dozen things.”

Some media outlets are even creating bespoke events outside the sports leagues. Nickelodeon is getting ready to launch a “Nickelodeon Slime Cup” that pits four three-person teams — a professional golfer, a celebrity and a Nickelodeon actor — against one another on an obstacle-course fairway. It follows the success of WarnerMedia’s “The Match,” which relies on teams of top golfers and other athletes. “A lot of dads play golf, and getting to watch this with your kids really will be fun,” says Nickelodeon’s Robbins.

Two fast-moving dynamics are likely to quicken the adoption of the broader changes. Sports betting, once taboo, is fast becoming a legal pastime, and sports networks are devising programs that focus more on wagering than on the plays on the field. Some gambling-focused alternatives come with experts in oddsmaking and special stats. Meanwhile, the sports leagues are eager to find new ways to court younger fans and their families. Robbins says talks are ongoing over whether Nickelodeon will pursue its Wild Card kidscast for a third year. “We are talking about what we are going to do next year — what games, if we do a playoff game — something different,” he says.

The Mannings may not know it, but they are leading a bigger fight. How can traditional media companies sustain the kinds of TV-watching behaviors that still generate billions of dollars in advertising and subscription fees as the prevalence of streaming eats away at that model? If the brothers can spawn new activity around “Monday Night Football,” a show that has been on the air since 1970, who’s to say that the right combination of actors, celebrities or influencers couldn’t do something similar for other types of shows?

Nickelodeon is getting all kinds of requests, says Robbins. “Everybody wants us to do” this type of programming, but, he suggests, “you might see us try it in some other areas with our corporate partners, potentially CBS, and maybe that happens sooner rather than later.” What could that look like? “Everyone wants to see how the ‘CBS Evening News’ could be Nick-efied,” says Robbins. “We are having a lot of conversations — let’s put it that way.”

If the Mannings eventually take a pass on hosting and producing, a lot of people seem poised to take the ball and run with it.


Originally published: January 19, 2022 at 20:19 GMT.

H/T: USA Today; Additional source: @jokerbeans2091.

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