The new team at NBC’s “Football Night in America” has yet to work a “Sunday Night Football” game in this year’s official NFL season, but they’ve already weathered at least one storm.
During NBC’s broadcast of the 2022 Hall of Fame Game last month, Jason Garrett, the former Dallas Cowboys head coach who is still relatively new to the art of TV sportscasting, got a bulletin in his ear courtesy of producer Matt Casey. “Looks like we have a rain delay,” Garrett recalls being told. “You guys are going to have to fill for half an hour.” Garrett, who has been working NBC’s USFL broadcasts to warm up for his new stint on “Football Night,” took a moment to collect himself: “Oh, this is interesting.”
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Everything that could have gone wrong with that telecast did, says Maria Taylor, who is taking over as the main host of the program this season. Teleprompters went blank. Monitors became unreliable. “We survived that,” she recalls. “If we can do that, we can do anything.”
NBC is betting she’s right. The network has assembled a new team for “Football Night,” which, though it’s simply seen as the pre-game show for “Sunday Night Football,” just happens to be the most-watched sports studio show in the business. In 2021, the show won an average of 7.1 million viewers, up 18% when compared with the previous season. At 8 p.m., as NBC nears kickoff time, “Football Night” lures an average crowd of 11.9 million viewers — an audience larger than that for many primetime shows in the era of on-demand streaming.
“The game is the game, but this is a tentpole,” says Casey, who oversees production of the show.
Most of the on-air team gathered in the hallways last week at NBC Sports’ headquarters in Stamford, CT, to rehearse and get to know each other’s on-screen stylings a little bit better. There is a lot to learn. Taylor is taking the reins of the show from Mike Tirico, who is in turn filling the “SNF” slot long held by Al Michaels. Garrett is joining the program to dispense wisdom alongside longstanding presence Tony Dungy. And Matthew Berry, the fantasy sports expert, has joined to give the big crowds that run their own leagues or are increasingly looking at legal sports betting something more to discuss. Chris Simms is on hand, of course, as is Mike Florio, and Jac Collinsworth and Rodney Harrison will be at the game site. There are a lot of signals to master.
“You get to know people and you get those non-verbal cues,” says Dungy. “It makes it a lot easier. That’s what we have got to get to.”
Taylor will prove essential to the mix. She joined the show last year after a stint working the Olympics for NBC and a stint at ESPN, and people on set and in the control room are impressed by her ability to create moments that aren’t planned. “She can go ad lib like Mike Tirico,” says Sims, the former NFL quarterback who serves as an analyst. “I once made a point during the highlights, and she doesn’t have to read a script and say, ‘I’m Ron Burgundy.’ She was like, ‘Wait, you said something, let’s talk about it.’ That’s where she’s amazing.”
The changes take place in an era full of them. Nearly every on-air TV football team will have something new or unfamiliar about it. Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, longtime Fox Sports NFL stalwarts, have taken their game to ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” Sunday-night veteran Al Michaels has shifted to Amazon’s “Thursday Night Football,” where he will hold forth with ESPN college-football mainstay Kirk Herbstreit. In addition to Tirico, who teams up with Cris Collinsworth, NBC has recruited Melissa Stark to succeed longstanding sideline reporter Michele Tafoya.
Indeed, the business of the NFL is also in flux. Amazon’s entrance on to the field makes one part of the league’s portfolio heavily reliant on a streaming outlet. ESPN and Amazon are setting up new “alterna-casts” that let fans watch games while Eli and Peyton Manning or the team from the social-media troupe Dude Perfect chat over the particulars. And fans are increasingly eager to use their mobile devices when they watch sports, seeking out highlights, clips, narrative, and interactions that might include legal wagering.
Matthew Berry’s participation provides evidence of that. “When you have a fantasy conversation, when you have a sports-betting conversation, you are having a football conversation,” says Berry, who joined NBC Sports in August from ESPN. “We all know fantasy is huge. We all know sports betting is huge as well, and yet it doesn’t feel like any other pregame show addresses it.”
Keeping tabs on new sports habits is key to the future of the show, says Casey. “The constant challenge for us is how do you adapt to viewer consumption,” he adds, noting that relying on clips is no longer sufficient for “Football Night.” These days, he says, hosts, analysts and coaches try to snare one-on-one interviews in unique settings with top players and officials. The access may impress viewers and it also helps fuel commentary on other venues.
Indeed, much of the “Football Night” team has other responsibilities, many of them on NBCUniversal’s Peacock streaming site, where both Berry and Sims host several hours of programs (Sims leads an after-game program as well as a weekday morning showcase). The show can serve as a gathering spot for each analyst’s followers, says Casey, and may push more of its audience to individual streaming shows and podcasts.
Though it all, the “Football Night” wants to maintain a high standard. In the current era, anyone can blow up around anything having to do with sports, and many frequently do. At “Football Night,” there’s still a bar to meet, “We are not trying to just make headlines and clickbait and all that bull—t,” says Simms. “That’s not what we are here to do.”
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