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Jan. 10, 2021 — New ways to watch the NFL, but at a price?

TELESIDE, U.S.A. — One of the hallmarks of watching sports television in a number of countries are the alternate streams. If you’re a subscriber to Sky Sports in the United Kingdom, there are several different ways you can watch a Premier League game. There is the usual world feed of the game with commentaries, there’s a channel when you can watch a studio show with a host and three pundits commentating on what is going on in real time, and, until a few years ago, there was FanZone, where two superfans of each team would commentate on the match while aiming verbal jabs at each other, the opposing team, and occasionally the British government.

After a quarter-century of digital TV under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, this kind of rollout is very rare. But today, for the second day of the NFL’s Wild Card Weekend, we had three games that you could watch through streaming. The last game, between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, was just a replication of the same network broadcast.

But the other two games gave their broadcast a chance to push the envelope a bit. The first game, between Baltimore and Tennessee, was on the ESPN MegaCast, which meant the return of what is one of my favorite channels, the Film Room. In that room were former NFL players Keyshawn Johnson, Booger McFarland, Matt Hasselbeck, and Tedy Bruschi, along with former NFL head coach Rex Ryan.

The group took apart the strategy and tactics of every play, although the presentation was a little different from what I’m used to. The feed had two streams of the field — one of the live action in a postage-stamp in the corner, but the “clicker” feed in the middle.

The thing about the clicker feed is that the person running the clicker would often roll back the action at the moment that a catch was made or when a runner was first contacted, not with the end of the play; important details about the play’s implication or aftermath were often missed. I had to put on the actual game broadcast on a second screen in order to be able to follow the action in between plays, such as body language, penalties, or substitutions.

I liked the stories swapped between the five talking heads, but I didn’t get as much strategy as if there were all coaches in the film room, though I understand it’s hard to find anyone to fill that role because of the revolving door of coaching personnel in the NFL with the end of the 2020 regular season.

After the Baltimore win, we tuned into what turned out to be the most outside-the-box NFL broadcast since the first NFL network broadcast in 1939. In this game, New Orleans took on Chicago in a game which had an alternate broadcast on Nickelodeon, a network which built its fandom on not only cartoons, but through vintage TV programming.

The broadcast wasn’t your usual NFL telecast, to be sure. There were animations during the highlights, and sometimes even during the game. Virtual flames came from the field, and when touchdowns were scored, four virtual slime cannons would pop up and flood the end zone with virtual green goop.

What was really cool, however, was the broadcast team. Noah Eagle, the son of NFL and NBA broadcaster Ian Eagle, sounds just like his father and likely put himself in line for a future career on Sundays. Gabby Nevaeh Green, a 15-year-old actress and TikTok content generator, is incredibly poised for someone her age and punctuated the broadcast with interesting bits and an occasional “Ohhhhhhh!!!” during scoring plays.

Nate Burleson, who also works for NFL Network, did a great job of explaining certain aspects of the game such as the aftermath of a fight that got a player ejected from the game. In his explanation, he emphasized de-escalation rather than justifying the woofing that was going on between the Bears’ receivers and the Saints’ defensive backfield.

The broadcast team and the graphics gave a fresh look to a product which has been derided since the mid-1980s as the “No Fun League.”

I hope we see something like this again, but it’s interesting that many people were watching these alternate feeds on services which you had to pay extra to get. Many of ESPN’s alternate streams were found not only on ESPN’s sister networks, but on ESPN+. The NBC broadcast, plus a special post-game show, were found on Peacock Premium. And while Nickelodeon was available on most cable systems, they also teased a pay service called Paramount Plus, which is scheduled to launch soon featuring the content of the CBS All-Access channel.

I have a feeling we’re going to see a lot more of this.

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