NFL Network Thinks Outside The Lines With ‘Timeline,’ Broader Fare

The NFL Network wants to broaden its field of play.

The cable outlet is partnering with show-business luminaries like Tim McGraw and Jeremy Renner for a new documentary series called “The Timeline” that will highlight pivotal moments and teams in National Football League history, including the complicated relationship between Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers, the merger between the National Football League and the American Football League, and the Giants’ momentous decision to move from New York City to New Jersey. George Clooney’s Smokehouse Pictures will co-produce an episode that tells the story of how a Los Angeles reporter got a crude tape of Super Bowl XIV to U.S. hostages held in Tehran in 1980

“This will become a programming franchise,” vowed Ron Semiao, vice president of programming for the network, which is operated by the NFL. He likened “Timeline,” which will debut Thursday, December 3, following “Thursday Night Football,” to a project on the scale of ESPN’s “30 for 30,” a series of documentaries that has gained some renown among sports fans.

Following the December 3 debut, other episodes of “Timeline” will air throughout the month of December.

Viewers who think of NFL Network programming as being based entirely on live games and studio analysis will have to check their eyes. The cable network is eager to draw a broader array of viewers by launching primetime series that appeal to football fans’ passion not only for the game, but for the lifestyle associated with it, said Jordan Levin, the network’s chief content officer. Women and younger men are among the groups NFL Network would like to attract more of, he said.

“The games and the news and the analysis are going to be the bread and butter, but we recognize that if you look across the demographic, the fan base is diverse in terms of region, in terms of age, in terms of sex, in terms of ethnicity. They all relate to the games in a lot of different ways,” said Levin, a former executive at The WB broadcast network and Microsoft’s XBox Entertainment Studios, who was named to hist post in June. The network could “put a football twist or an NFL spin on a lot of pretty recognizable formats. What’s our outdoor show? What’s our food-related show?” he asked.

NFL Network has in recent seasons launched new documentary-style fare like “Undrafted,” a series that looks at college players who don’t make the NFL draft; and “A Football Life,” a skein of in-depth profiles of players, coaches and owners. In September, the network premiered “Football Town,” which explores small towns where football plays an outsize role in daily life. The first season focuses on the Barrow High School Whalers football team in Barrow, Alaska.

“There can be no hard right or left turns,” Levin said. “It’s all incremental activity but the general direction is young, to start opening up the doors, creating more opportunities and entry points for people to come to the network.”

During the regular season of 2015 as of October 16, NFL Network drew an average of 122,000 viewers between 18 and 49, according to Nielsen, an increase of 4% over a similar stretch of the 2014 season.Approximately 24% of the network’s average audience is female.

The new series, “Timeline,” will tap famous fans to help deliver the series’ stories. Tim McGraw will narrate nad contribute music to the episode about Brett Favre, who is a friend of his, said Semiao. Jeremy Renner will take part in a two-part episode looking at the football rivalry between the cities of Dallas and San Francisco. “We don’t want the narrators to just hae a voice,’ he said. “We want them to have a connection.” Meantime, the star power of the people involved in the series might help the network link to a wider crowd.

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