When Michael Thomas scored the first touchdown of Sunday’s wild-card game between the Chicago Bears and the New Orleans Saints, fans watching the game on CBS saw a close angle of him spiking the football. Fans watching on Nickelodeon, the children’s channel, saw something much more exciting: digital slime cannons spewing Nickelodeon’s signature green goo all over the end zone.
“There we go with the slime cannons. Ayyy, that is epic!” said Gabrielle Nevaeh Green, a 15-year-old Nickelodeon star and one of the game’s commentators.
It takes more work than you might expect to get the slime cannons right. “Getting the slime consistency in the cameras, to the Nick team, was a big thing,” said Shawn Robbins, the coordinating producer for the game. “I was on a lot of emails where it was ‘tweak this a little more.’”
Nickelodeon has long featured various sports and athletes on its television shows — and has also had a robust presence at the Super Bowl in recent years — but broadcasting a full N.F.L. playoff game is a first. It went all out on something it thought the children and teenagers, who are its core audience, would enjoy.
The score display and digital information superimposed on the field were done so in bright orange, lime green and purple. A giant image of the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants appeared on the nets behind the field-goal posts. Players were given googly eyes and hamburger hats. The Saints quarterbacks Drew Brees and Taysom Hill were compared to an even more famous duo: SpongeBob and his best friend, Patrick Star.
The differences were not limited to digital ephemera. Rules that adult football fans are assumed to understand were instead explained. An analyst, former N.F.L. wide receiver Nate Burleson, made frequent use of (sometimes tortured) analogies, at one point explaining that driving down the field was like studying, and that snaps in the red zone were the test. Noah Eagle, the play-by-play announcer, said excitedly at one point that New Orleans receiver Deonte Harris was “hotter than a Peruvian puff pepper.”
That is a reference to an episode of the Nickelodeon show “Drake and Josh” from 2005, when Eagle, who is 24, was just 8.
Green, who was attending her first N.F.L. game, wasn’t asked to understand football like Burleson, who played in the league for 11 years. But Robbins still wanted to get her a one-page cheat sheet for each team. Instead, a production assistant accidentally included her on the same distribution list for the game notes that went to Tony Romo.
“Her mom sent me an email that said, ‘Um, hey Shawn, what do we need to know from this 800-page packet?’” Robbins said.
Until recently, it was hard to imagine Nickelodeon showing an entire N.F.L. game. “We are not encouraging anybody to play or not play. We are there as fans, and we are celebrating as fans,” Cyma Zarghami, then Nickelodeon’s president, told The New York Times nearly three years ago in response to questions about associating a channel for children with a violent sport that can cause head trauma.
“The actual sport doesn’t ever actually get to Nickelodeon,” she said.
But the sports media landscape has changed since then. Nickelodeon has a new president, Brian Robbins. It is also part of a new corporate structure, which brings with it different imperatives. In 2019, Viacom — which owned cable channels like Nickelodeon, MTV and Comedy Central — remerged with CBS, which pays the N.F.L. a billion dollars annually to show its games.
“This is sort of a dream come true for kids to get their version, sports their way, on the network they like to watch it on,” Brian Robbins said in an interview. “What changed is Viacom and CBS merged and made it a lot easier to make it happen.”
He was unequivocal about how he viewed the broadcast. “Nickelodeon’s broadcast of the wild card game was one of the greatest moments in the history of Nickelodeon,” he said.
All of the N.F.L.’s television contracts expire in 2021 and 2022. CBS may still be thought of as the Tiffany Network at league headquarters, but in some ways it has a weaker hand to play than its rivals. ViacomCBS is much smaller than competitors like the Walt Disney Company (ABC and ESPN), Comcast (NBC) and AT&T (DirecTV and Warner Media), and it has more than twice as much debt on its balance sheet as the similarly sized Fox Corp.
Putting Sunday’s game on Nickelodeon in addition to CBS was one way to potentially impress the league ahead of negotiations. Viewership for the N.F.L. would increase, along with the opportunity to capture a new generation of football fans.
“This came out of conversations with the CBS Sports team and the N.F.L. when there was going to be another wild card game,” Brian Robbins said. “They were negotiating to get the rights and somebody suggested a broadcast simulcast on Nick. I think the N.F.L. really was enthused by that opportunity, which kind of sealed the deal for us, for CBS to get the rights to broadcast an extra wild card game.”
ESPN, albeit without a children’s channel, has pursued a similar strategy, bringing its “MegaCast” production — typically used for the college football national championship game — to its Sunday wild-card game. The Baltimore Ravens’ victory over the Tennessee Titans was shown on six different ESPN channels: ABC and ESPN (traditional), Freeform (fun), ESPN2 (coaches’ room), ESPN+ (analytics-focused) and a Spanish-language broadcast on ESPN Deportes.
Television networks have long used big football games to advertise their other offerings, and Nickelodeon’s wild-card game was no different. There were commercials for other Nickelodeon shows and a section in players’ bios that included their favorite Nickelodeon show. Members of the reboot of the teen sketch show “All That” did impressions throughout the game; in an awkward moment, an impression of the rapper Cardi B segued into a referee calling a personal conduct foul and a microphone in the nearly empty stadium picking up a player yelling an expletive.
Shawn Robbins, who normally works on sports studio shows for CBS, was assigned the playoff game back in August. Most of the cameras and video feeds were borrowed from the CBS broadcast, but a test game in December showed that the Nickelodeon broadcast needed to control at least a few of its own cameras. On a typical broadcast, the cameraman will zoom in on whoever scores the touchdown. But Nickelodeon needed touchdown shots to stay wide, in order to fully showcase the slime cannons.
Oh, and the hamburger hats. “There are certain kinds of shots we needed. We needed a little extra headroom to put a hamburger on their head,” Shawn Robbins said.
The broadcast seemed like a hit, at least according to the reaction of mostly older millennial and middle-aged sportswriters. “To have the game stripped of all its self-importance and hubris was an absolute delight,” wrote Sports Illustrated.
But the excitement of sportswriters who have seen hundreds of N.F.L. games is not the same thing as success. They are not the target audience — children are.
Most important for Nickelodeon is how many of them watched, data that will be available Tuesday, though Brian Robbins said the early numbers are good, and that the N.F.L. was “thrilled.” Most important for the N.F.L. is whether this alternative broadcast helps turn more children into the kinds of football fans who will ask their parents to take them to games or to buy jerseys, and who eventually pay for their own tickets to games when they become adults.
That’ll take a lot longer to figure out.