Starting this week, Peyton Manning will be calling Monday Night Football for ESPN. Sort of. Technically, Manning will be co-hosting Monday Night Football with Peyton and Eli, along with his younger brother, the two-time Super Bowl champion Giants quarterback. They’ll reconvene on ESPN2 nine more times this season for ESPN’s latest multicast experiment.
The show, which is being co-produced by Peyton’s Omaha Productions, aims to offer a casual presentation that will mix game analysis with general chit chat and guest appearances. MNF with Peyton and Eli will retain many of Monday Night Football’s motifs, with the action being shown on ESPN often taking up a bulk of the screen while the Mannings appear in inset boxes. But the ex-QBs will be able to pull out a telestrator and break down a play, even if the next one has already started. Bryan Ryder will produce the show, after running past Film Room multicast presentations.
“Year over year, we are always tinkering with the offerings,” ESPN production SVP Lee Fitting said in an email. “The Manning alternate telecast will have elements of former megacast productions, but amplified and tweaked for both Peyton and Eli and this specific telecast.”
Fans looking for a more traditional telecast will find Steve Levy, Brian Griese and Louis Riddick on ESPN, as well as on ABC. Meanwhile on ESPN+, Between the Lines returns, marrying the casts of NFL Live and Daily Wager for a stats-heavy show that incorporates live betting odds. Add in ESPN Deportes’ coverage, and the Worldwide Leader will be offering football four ways on Monday night. Soon enough, that could become the norm.
NFL broadcasting took a leap forward in January, and it has shown no intentions of going back since. During Wild Card Weekend, ESPN aired an AFC game across six networks, including Freeform, as it debuted Between the Lines. On the same day, Nickelodeon aired an NFC game in a bit of ViacomCBS corporate synergy that proved to be a massive success, drawing rave reviews and 2 million viewers.
“I think we learned a lot from that,” NFL Media COO Hans Schroeder said in an interview. “Increasingly there are parts of our fan base, and there are opportunities, we think, to create more tailored productions.”
For the last decade, Schroeder explained, one of the NFL’s top priorities has been expanding access to its games. The league made broadcasts available on Verizon phones, and then on every phone, through the NFL app. Before long, NFL games landed on Paramount+, Peacock and Twitch.
“What’s also come along with that is a growing interest and focus on identifying opportunities to expand not only… how we distribute the games but the experience itself,” Schroeder said, adding that alternative broadcast possibilities were “at the core” of the league’s recent negotiations over media rights, which fetched more than $100 billion from its biggest partners.
Of course, multicasts are nothing new; ESPN has been airing alternate broadcasts of college basketball and football games for roughly 15 years. One reason multicasts haven’t become ubiquitous on Sunday afternoons, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said during a recent call with reporters, is that the local networks are wary of losing viewers to alternate streams. They also want to hold onto the exclusivity that is so valuable when negotiating with cable distributors, as retransmission fees have nearly doubled in the last five years despite declining numbers of subscribers. “Exclusivity for our affiliates is one of the reasons we buy the NFL,” McManus said.
National and primetime games have made for better multicast candidates, and Nickelodeon will once again be airing an NFL playoff game this year. The network is also talking to the NFL about doing more programming. Advertisers have been excited about multicast opportunities too, given that more tailored productions can reach a more targeted audience.
Amazon, which has aired Thursday Night Football since 2017, has taken a slightly different tack from its TV peers. Rather than offering multiple broadcasts, the streamer has built an interactive environment that lets viewers pick the audio feed of their choice and toggle informational overlays.
“We like to do it all in one experience,” Amazon global sports video VP Marie Donoghue said in an interview. “We continue to look for additional ways to serve the broadest set of fans the way they want to be served.”
The company has also been limited because it uses Fox’s feed as the base of its presentation. But starting in 2022, when Amazon will be TNF’s exclusive broadcaster, it will be able to experiment even more. Amazon global live sports production director Jared Stacy said the group is excited to try out voices who wouldn’t normally be associated with football—or even sports—and that a kids-focused broadcast is “front of mind.”
For 50 years, one way of showing football games has been developed, honed and pretty close to perfected. Now, an array of networks are getting the chance to figure out entirely new models. Watching from afar, Schroeder said he’s seen a sense of competition amongst the NFL’s partners as each iterates on new concepts. As Fitting put it, “We see it as a great compliment that other networks are adapting to and recognizing the value of alternate telecasts.”
After helping to popularize the multicast concept, ESPN on Monday will take a shot at raising the bar. Or rather, multiple shots.