After Nickelodeon Football, CBS May Try Other Sports Experiments

Spongebob Nickelodeon
Courtesy of Nickelodeon

Putting professional football on kids-TV outlet Nickelodeon might at first blush seem like something of a Hail Mary. But CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus knew his team had completed a crucial pass by game’s end, when the winning team’s head coach, Sean Payton, agreed to be doused with Nick’s signature green slime.

CBS Sports said Tuesday that the Nickelodeon broadcast, part of a wide series of interesting experiments with NFL football this past weekend, scored. A game between the Chicago Bears and the New Orleans Saints tailored to its young audience represented was the network’s most-watched program nearly four years. An average of 2.06 million viewers tuned in to see touchdowns celebrated by virtual cannons shooting green slime and Gabrielle Nevaeh Green, one of the members of Nick’s “All That” sketch-comedy show, rattling off stats that included players’ favorite ice cream flavors.

“I think it’s probably the first of many collaborations between CBS Sports and the Viacom platforms,” says McManus in an interview, referring to the 2019 merger of CBS and Viacom.

As more TV viewers migrate to streaming venues to watch their favorite scripted programs, live sports – already one of most prominent economic pillars holding up the media industry – are taking on even more of a burden. Big media companies like ViacomCBS, Walt Disney, Fox and NBCUniversal have been experimenting with new kinds of formats and distribution models they can use to get audiences who might normally have less interest in a basketball game or golf match to go ahead and give one a try.

That’s what happened this weekend as CBS put one of a new series of NFL Wild Card games on Nickelodeon and the streaming video hub CBS All Access; as Disney tested new game concepts that put a different game on the young-audience skewing Freeform and its broadband outlet ESPN Plus; and as NBCU put its Sunday night Wild Card game on Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo as well as its streaming outlet Peacock (complete with a bespoke post-game show).

CBS Sports and Nickelodeon executives spent nine months ironing out the details of how a young audience might watch a game, McManus says. He put specific emphasis on “how are we going to broadcast the game itself and still make it attractive to audiences of all ages.”

For every shot of a player walking around with a filter of a hamburger on his head and for every animated first-down line shown with a moving coat of green slime, the announcers made sure to weave in the details of the game. Actor Iain Armitage, who plays the title character in the CBS sitcom “Young Sheldon,” appeared frequently amid the bottom-of-the-screen graphics to explain a ruling (Nickelodeon followed the game broadcast with several episodes of the series). And announcers Noah Eagle and Nate Burelson made sure to quiz Green about what she thought might happen next or whether she understood what was taking place during game action.

“Over and over, we heard how enjoyable it was for parents to watch with their kids of all ages,” says McManus. “We had hoped that was going to happen, but in reality, it did.”

CBS probably isn’t going to bump its main football team of Jim Nantz and Tony Romo for Green and Lumpkin (at least, not yet), but might there be more Nickelodeon football in the future? “We haven’t made any decisions yet. We are still kind of analyzing it,” says McManus. “I think if we do it again, it would be on very select events, but we really haven’t made any decision about going forward.”

Meanwhile, who knows? Maybe the idea of a Masters golf broadcast on TV Land isn’t just a pipe dream any more.