Amazon Prime Video demonstrated that streaming could handle TV-sized audiences as its first season as the exclusive home for NFL “Thursday Night Football” went on without any major technical glitches.
But the football gods were not always kind to Amazon last year and kept the online tech giant from seeing the kind of ratings the NFL scored on traditional TV.
The announcing team of Al Michaels and Kirk Herbstreit were stuck calling several uninspired contests, the low point being Oct. 6 when the Indianapolis Colts won a dull, touchdown-free 12-9 contest against the Denver Broncos.
When the game went into overtime, the cameras showed Denver fans heading for the exits at Empower Field at Mile High and Michaels didn’t hide the ugly truth. “Sometimes you’ve got to beat the traffic,” Michaels said. “They’ve seen enough.”
The NFL, which is getting $1 billion annually from Amazon for the rights to “TNF,” took note of those gripes.
The league believes streaming is the way to reach younger fans as it becomes their first stop for video content. (Amazon proved that as the median age for “Thursday Night Football” viewers was 47, seven years younger than those who watched NFL games on TV networks).
The success of “Thursday Night Football” is key to Amazon’s aspirations to be a major player in live sports and growing the audience for the tech retail giant’s Prime Video platform.
As a result, the NFL improved the competitive match-ups for this season’s Thursday night package, which begins this week with the NFC Champion Philadelphia Eagles against the NFC North Champion Minnesota Vikings.
The San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants, both considered Super Bowl contenders, face off next week. There is a Cincinnati Bengals-Baltimore Ravens battle on Nov. 16. The New York Jets with quarterback Aaron Rodgers appear twice, including the first ever “Black Friday” game played Nov. 24, the day after Thanksgiving.
The league will also have the option to move more desirable Sunday afternoon games to “Thursday Night Football” between weeks 13 and 17 of the season. No more than two games will be flexed onto Thursday, and the decision will be made 28 days in advance. But the plan provides some assurance that Amazon Prime will have meaningful contests in the final month of the regular season.
Competitive games with contending teams make a difference. NBC carried the NFL’s 2023-24 season opener last Thursday between the Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs and the much improved Detroit Lions. The nail-biting 21-20 win for the Lions drew an average of 26.8 million viewers.
Amazon Prime is also making technical improvements. The games will be presented in high dynamic range (HDR), which provides greater picture contrast and more vivid color. The stream will feature Key Plays, a new feature allowing fans to access in-game highlights on demand. For fans who tune in late, Rapid Recap offers a quick AI-generated review of the game before taking them into the live stream.
Michaels and Herbstreit return for a second season in the booth, with Kaylee Hartung reporting from the sidelines. Michaels recently shared his thoughts about his inaugural Prime Video season and what’s ahead this year.
When you traveled last season, did you hear from fans about their experience watching on Prime Video?
Yeah, a lot. And most of them were pleasantly surprised or happy at least that it looked as good at it did. I mean, the one issue that would come up from people from time to time was, “How do you get it?” Amazon wants to make it simpler for people to get it like you get conventional television. You sit with the remote control and press channel 2 or channel 4, and get to Amazon the same way. That’s probably the next step that needs to be taken.
You received a lot of attention for your very candid analysis of some of these games.
You might say.
It felt like you were trying to speak for the fan.
I was, absolutely. I’ve been a fan since I was 6 years old. I can feel what the fan feels. I would do similar things on Sunday or Monday nights, but I guess this was a case where maybe more attention was being paid to how I felt. We did that game in Denver. It was so bad that the next day, I can’t remember if it was the Denver paper or the Indianapolis paper, but the guy who was covering the game, his lead was, “It made you want to scratch your eyeballs out.”
Now, when the game is that bad, what am I going to do? I’m not going to sit there and sell the game. You want the game to be good. That game had so many interceptions, penalties, a lot of bad things were happening. I said to Kirk at one point, “Is it possible that sometimes a game can be so bad it’s actually good?” And Kirk, who was learning my sense of humor, blurts out, “No.” … When people say, “you’ve got to try to keep the fans in the game” — the fans are too smart. You can’t lie to them.
What did Amazon executives say about your critiques at the time?
Nothing. They were great. And I think they all understood that, “Hey, you know what? This is one of the reasons we hired this guy. Because he’s going to connect with the fans.” I would like to think that’s what they thought. But the Amazon people couldn’t have been more supportive than they were last year on every level. They wanted this to be a top-flight, top-level show. And they were able to do it.
Do you think that your commentary on the bad games influenced the league to maybe pay a little bit more attention to the scheduling and make the changes that they did?
Some people think that. It might have had some effect. But for the most part I know (NFL Commissioner) Roger Goodell and the powers that be, they want this to work because streaming is the future. They’re looking long-range. And I think they also understood we have to enhance the quality of these games, whatever we have to do. [Flexing the schedule] was met obviously with a lot of resistance inside the league, to some degree. But most of the owners were in favor of it. If this is the future, then the league knew we had to do something to make this more than it was last year. So we know the schedule from this vantage point is really good.
Do you see the different levels of play on Thursday due to the shorter rest? Is it more challenging for the players?
It varies from week to week. I mean, there are games on Thursday night where it looks like they’re exhausted or they haven’t practiced enough. But then there are other games that are better than what you might see on a Sunday. It runs the gamut. I mean, we had some Thursday games last year such as Los Angeles Chargers-Kansas City that were as good as any game you’d see with seven days’ rest. People like to say when there’s a bad Thursday night game, teams are exhausted, they’re hurt, blah blah blah blah. I hear that less and less now from the players than I did early on. Because I think they all understand, too, that one of the reasons the salary cap has been enhanced is the extra money coming in from television. And sometimes money trumps all. By the way, “Thursday Night Football” has been around for years. This is not “Amazon came in and screwed it up.”
You’re doing the first Black Friday game — 3 o’clock Eastern on a Friday. How is that on the body clock? This is uncharted territory.
It is. But I think it’s going to be extremely well-received. Because the match-up is good (the New York Jets led by Aaron Rodgers playing the Miami Dolphins). It’s the tryptophan after-effect, right? They’re going to go to the mall and try to beat 15,000 people to [get] deals on television sets, or they can sit at home and log on and watch the game and buy a lot of stuff off Amazon.
It gets them into the tent.
Right. And they’re taking the game out from behind the paywall.
You can still watch if you’re not an Amazon Prime member.
Yes, [Amazon Chairman] Jeff Bezos said “tear down this wall.”
Should fans be worried this game is going to turn into the Home Shopping Network? Are you pitching anything or guiding viewers to the Amazon store?
No. I haven’t heard anything along those lines, but I think Amazon is smart enough to know there are ways to let the audience know they can do that without us interrupting the game and saying to do it.