Having already earned a spot on CBS’s 53-man roster back in the spring, everyone’s favorite member of the phylum Porifera is now gearing up for the NFL postseason. And while it’s anyone’s guess where they’ll find a helmet that’ll fit his quadrilateral-shaped head, SpongeBob SquarePants will be activated on Wild Card Sunday as part of a scheme designed to introduce the footy-pajamas set to pro football.
In an effort to draw a crowd of younger viewers to its bonus Wild Card game, CBS Sports is working with corporate sibling Nickelodeon to develop a kid-centric simulcast of its opening-round NFL broadcast. Set to air on Sunday, Jan. 10, in the 4:30 p.m. slot, the playoff presentation will get the full pineapple-under-the-sea treatment, one that will include special graphics overlays, a one-of-a-kind halftime performance and a sneak peek at the upcoming CBS All Access/Paramount Plus series Kamp Koral: SpongeBob’s Under Years.
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 15, 2020
First announced on March 31, in conjunction with the news that CBS and NBC would each air an additional Wild Card game in 2021, the NFL Wild Card Game on Nickelodeon will feature a standalone booth crew in Noah Eagle, Nate Burleson and rookie broadcaster Gabrielle Nevaeh Green, who stars in the Nick revival series All That. Green’s co-star Lex Lumpkin will prowl the sidelines during the game, which has been scheduled for what’s been the highest-rated time slot of Wild Card Weekend three out of the past four years. NBC last season averaged 35.1 million viewers and a 19.2 household rating in the Sunday 4:30 window, which saw Russell Wilson and the Seahawks beat a banged-up Eagles squad, 17-9.
Speaking Monday afternoon via Zoom, CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus said the proposed Nickelodeon simulcast went a long way toward securing one of the bonus Wild Card outings. NFL owners this spring voted to approve the postseason expansion, which bumped the number of playoff teams from 12 to 14 and gave broadcasters a chance to be a part of the new back-to-back triple-header format.
CBS paid around $70 million for the rights to air its bonus NFL playoff game, while NBC, which will air its own additional Wild Card broadcast in the Sunday primetime slot, forked over a fee said to be closer to $75 million. (For its part, Disney pays $100 million for the Saturday afternoon Wild Card game that airs simultaneously on ESPN and ABC. That cooperative effort will get even more inclusive this year as Disney’s Freeform, the cable network targeting women 18-34, will be added to the “MegaCast” roster.)
To get a sense of how the Nickelodeon simulcast may play out in real time, Shawn Robbins, the coordinating producer CBS Sports’ NFL coverage, staged a rehearsal effort in Green Bay. Animators enhanced the Packers game with a kid-friendly blend of vivid on-screen graphics and filters that served as a virtual means of punctuating the in-game action with a series of colorful and kinetic visual overlay. In another synergistic wrinkle, specially-selected inserts made it seem as if SpongeBob and his aquatic pals were reacting to the game alongside the home audience.
The various cartoonish elements were added to the game footage by a team working in the production truck, which allowed for what amounted to a series of eye-catching instant replays. The process of animating the footage and then bumping it back into the broadcast feed was all but instantaneous, Robbins said, which means that even the most distractible kids won’t have to wait very long to take in the enhanced version of a given play.
Robbins said the in-house fraternizing would extend to the Nickelodeon pre-game show, during which the flesh-and-bone Jim Nantz and Tony Romo will make a cameo appearance from their booth. In other words, we’re all that much closer to seeing Romo try to explain the intricacies of the cover-6 to an excitable, trousers-wearing sponge.
If the Wild Card experiment allows CBS and Nickelodeon to collaborate on one of TV’s biggest stages, it also should help the NFL make some inroads with the hard-to-reach younger crowd. According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, viewers under 18 make up just 6% of the primetime NFL audience, and while advertisers don’t necessarily value these grammar-school denizens, you don’t have to be Whitney Houston to realize that the children are the future.
If the NFL is to retain its hegemony over the American media space, it has to make converts of a whole bunch of young people. And the best place to do that via linear TV is arguably Nickelodeon, which has been the leading light in kids’ entertainment for nearly all of its 41-year history. Even though the target audience is now far more likely to access the Nick content via their handheld screens, the network can still draw a crowd with a big event. In May, Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards averaged 2.4 million viewers in its opening weekend, half of whom watched the show in real time.
As one might expect, the advertisers who buy time in Nickelodeon’s interpretation of the NFL Wild Card game for the most part won’t be the same brands supporting the flagship broadcast on CBS. (McManus allowed that there “may be some duplication” in the two commercial loads, as some advertisers will look to take advantage of the adult co-viewing that is likely to take place on the kids’ channel.) And while the CBS Sports boss added that the same team would sell both feeds, he did not expand on how the simulcast would be sold or what sort of ratings guarantees would be offered to Nickelodeon ad buyers.
According to Standard Media Index data, CBS in 2020 generated $41 million in ad sales revenue on the back of its Saturday primetime Wild Card broadcast. In upsetting the New England Patriots, Derrick Henry and the Tennessee Titans helped CBS deliver an average audience of 31.4 million viewers and a 17.1 household rating, making it the weekend’s second-biggest NFL game behind only the aforementioned Seahawks-Eagles battle on NBC. Based on pricing estimates and the volume of ads sold in the Kids’ Choice Awards, the Nickelodeon Wild Card simulcast could add another $6 million to $7.5 million to the kitty.
When asked if a successful crossover might serve as a precursor for future CBS-Nickelodeon NFL collaborations, McManus said he’d just as soon “wait and see how this works out” before committing to another kid-targeted telecast. Circling back to the question, McManus later said similar brand mash-ups would “probably be fairly few and far between.”
While there’s no telling which teams will appear in the bonus Wild Card game, Brian Robbins, President of ViacomCBS Kids & Family Entertainment, said he’d be particularly chuffed if the Kansas City Chiefs were part of the mix on Jan. 10. “Patrick Mahomes would be perfect for this,” Robbins said, citing the Super Bowl LIV MVP’s outsized standing among younger viewers. A dynamic quarterback who almost singlehandedly has injected “Fun” into the No Fun League, Mahomes also sports a haircut that wouldn’t look out of place at the Krusty Krab.