When NBC got back into the pro football business this year, turning Sunday night into the NFL's marquee prime-time show, the network went looking for help in making sure the show appealed to hardcore football fans.
"They said, 'OK, so we've got football, it's been like nine years since we had it, the world has gone through a lot, especially entertainment, and we're not even sure we know what the core fan wants these days," says Clynton Taylor of Jump Associates, the San Mateo, Calif., design strategy firm NBC hired to consult on what became "Football Night in America."
"You've got so many guys in their 20s playing video games, and just, with the amount of stimulation and interaction that they have there and other shows and certainly online, what are they going to want from a telecast?" Taylor says. "That was kind of the general question."
The answer, arrived at through what Taylor calls "a research-based, product-definition approach," was that the young men who are the hardest-core fans and the most-sought-after demographic want the show to be about them.
Jump Associates is one of those high-concept firms that advises car companies about what's going to come after SUVs or cookie companies on what to do with their product line in light of recent findings about trans fats, Taylor says. He says the company specializes in studying the lives of a few customers in depth.
It's field study. Like sitting in trees with gorillas.
"It's more than just focus groups and it's more than just surveys," he says. "It's 'What are these people's lives like?'"
Taylor says the volunteer subjects often have no idea what product the researchers are interested in. "That's purposeful because we don't want to narrow in too much and have our assumptions make us avoid some really interesting insights into what's meaningful for these folks," he says.
The Jump team, using an agency, found representative young men and had them invite friends over to watch NBA playoff games. The researchers, plus some NBC executives who didn't initially identify themselves to the subjects, observed, interviewed the men, had them play custom card games that gave clues about what choices they'd make when choosing which sports event to watch.
Taylor says Jump takes its findings, combines them with research into the state of the art and current trends in the industry in question, and turns it all into what Taylor calls imperatives, or guidelines. From there, it makes specific suggestions about products and services that the company should be offering.
So what were the findings, imperatives and suggestions? Taylor can't spell it all out, but essentially, Jump found that young, hardcore football fans, weaned on fantasy football and the impossibly influential Madden NFL video game, want to feel like they have a stake in every game.
"Many times when they are playing video games, there's a game on as well, and then they're also taking a break and quickly checking stats from other games online and seeing how they're doing on fantasy football," Taylor says. "There are all these things going on at the same time. So decoding that a little bit and getting beyond 'Guys are multitasking -- give 'em lots of stuff!' Seeing what's really going on, you start to really see how just watching that game and enjoying those players play, that's not good enough anymore.
"For the younger generation, it's very much like 'I want some vested interest in this game. I want the outcome to totally mean something to me, to impact me, to the point where people are betting on games just so they'll be more interested in watching. And at the same time having a lot of stimulation that is not just for entertainment purposes but is also informing them, making them smarter and more aware of what's going on."
So the imperative was to make the game meaningful to viewers in as many ways as possible, give them the information they'll be seeking and a stake in the outcome. And the specific suggestions?
Taylor can't say, except to say that NBC's online fantasy component can be tied directly to Jump's research, and almost nothing else visible on the air at this point can be.
"A lot of what I'm saying here, I can imagine you scratching your head and saying, 'But where am I seeing that?'" Taylor says. "There are subtle changes that are definitely in the right direction."
Broadcast networks don't turn on a dime. They're the biggest networks with the most diverse audience. They're not where you look for innovation, and Taylor says Jump knew that going in. NBC executives didn't return calls on the subject.
Bob Costas, studio host of the "Football Night in America" pregame show, says he'd figured some research had been done but he hadn't been aware of any specifics and had never heard of Jump Associates. He says he and the other on-air personalities -- Cris Collinsworth, Jerome Bettis and Sterling Sharpe -- got no direction about making sure to make the games meaningful to young male viewers.
"I think within reason, we've made a substantial nod to that," he says. "There is a fantasy segment toward the beginning of the show, and the information that would be of interest to fantasy people is running constantly."
Costas says he hadn't thought much about whether "Football Night in America" is aimed at the hardcore fan, but agrees that it is -- which he credits to the very nature of a Sunday-night show.
"We're leading into a game, which we touch upon and preview, but what we're doing is actually re-viewing a whole slate of games," he says. "The show therefore doesn't have the kinds of features that pregame shows are always dependent on because what else are they going to do? It's more hardcore highlight stuff and reaction to what's gone on in the games."
He's careful about going too far, though.
"I think an obvious danger, even as you identify the preferences of a certain demographic, even if it's the preferred demographic, the young male demographic," he says, "you tack too much in that direction, you confuse and alienate a very substantial part of the audience, you know?"
Taylor says he knows, and that while Jump Associates had only a one-month contract with NBC, he's hopeful that more of the company's suggestions will find their way on the air in future years, both in the pregame show and the game broadcast itself.
"I think it's fascinating that a rather traditional sports group decided to actually kind of rethink things and go so far off the beaten path as far as exploration and development with us," Taylor says. "It was pretty cool. As to what differences have actually showed up, I think it takes a little time."
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NFL Week 16 [PERMALINK]
The playoff scenarios are flying as the NFL gets together for its last fully competitive weekend, before the teams assured of their playoff seedings play the third string. The Bears are the only team that can do that this week. Coach Lovie Smith says they won't. Sure, Lovie.
Picks in caps, with the choices of the coin-flippinest 3-year-old in my house, out of school for winter break and throwing a mild (4.4 Richter) tantrum even as I write this, included.
Saturday night game
KANSAS CITY (7-7) at Oakland (2-12): NFL Network's counting on the rivalry to give this one some juice. Good luck with that.
Buster's pick: Kansas City (coin, and I'm not getting dressed)
Sunday early games
Washington (5-9) at ST. LOUIS (6-8): Not convinced by last week for either team.
Buster's pick: St. Louis (coin)
Tampa Bay (3-11) at CLEVELAND (4-10): Not convinced by last week for the Bucs.
Buster's pick: Tampa Bay (coin)
Tennessee (7-7) at BUFFALO (7-7): Both of these teams could win an NFC division, maybe two.
Buster's pick: Buffalo (coin -- I'm never getting dressed)
NEW ORLEANS (9-5) at N.Y. Giants (7-7): I'm tempted to chase the motivation here, but at the risk of getting burned by the Giants two weeks in a row, I'll take the better team, one that got slapped by Washington in a trap game last week.
The Giants have the most entertaining "if Team A beats Team B and Team C loses" scenario, so here it is: They'll make the playoffs if they win AND Atlanta loses AND Philadelphia wins OR ties AND Seattle OR San Francisco wins OR ties. Got that? Me neither.
Buster's pick: New Orleans (coin)
NEW ENGLAND (10-4) at Jacksonville (8-6): I am convinced by last week for the Pats, who have less to play for here but look like they're getting into playoff gear.
I was going to say don't listen to me because the Jags are a mystery to me. But I looked it up and I'm 7-7 picking their games. That's bad, but I'm 6-8 picking Pats games. That includes two What the Heck Picks, but still, that means I've been right about who I thought would win eight of 14 times. That's bad too. So don't listen to me because both teams are a mystery to me.
As are 30 others.
Buster's pick: Jacksonville (coin, and I'm the daddy. You're not the daddy)
CHICAGO (12-2) at Detroit (2-12): What the Heck׳ Pick of the Week candidate. The Bears have been the WTH opponent three times, tied for the league lead, with Baltimore. But surprisingly, the Lions have only been the WTH Pick once. This would be the WTH pick this week, but the Bears have clinched home field, so they might just Cadillac it in Detroit. I still think they'll win, but it's not the kind of slam-dunk required for a What the Heck Pick.
Buster's pick: Chicago (6-point favorite)
Indianapolis (11-3) at HOUSTON (4-10): What the Heck Pick of the week. Not exactly a slam-dunk either, since I'm not sanguine about the Colts even after that nice win over Cincinnati. But whattaya gonna do?
Buster's pick: Indianapolis (9-point favorite -- no, Daddy! Give it back! Give it back!)
Carolina (6-8) at ATLANTA (7-7): A couple of lost causes.
Buster's pick: Atlanta (7-point favorite)
Baltimore (11-3) at PITTSBURGH (7-7): This time, I'll chase the motivation. The Steelers are theoretically still alive and they got pasted by the Ravens 27-0 Thanksgiving weekend, their only loss in the last six games.
Buster's pick: Pittsburgh (coin, and you're not my best friend!)
Sunday late games
Arizona (4-10) at SAN FRANCISCO (6-8): This game figures to be every bit as exciting as Tampa Bay-Cleveland, but with slim-hope playoff implications for the Niners.
Buster's pick: San Francisco (coin)
Cincinnati (8-6) at DENVER (8-6): Big wild-card sort-out game. The last time the Broncos beat a team that wasn't the Arizona Cardinals or Oakland Raiders was Nov. 5. They've also lost three straight games at home, where they're supposed to be so tough. But Jay Cutler has been improving by the week, that was a discouraging performance by Carson Palmer and the Bengals Monday night, and Cincy has to play in the thin air after a short week.
Buster's pick: Cincinnati (coin, poopyhead)
SAN DIEGO (12-2) at Seattle (8-6): The only way the Seahawks win this one is if the Chargers go through the motions. I think they're motivated enough by home-field advantage not to do that.
Buster's pick: San Diego (coin)
Monday night games
Philadelphia (8-6) at DALLAS (9-5): The Saints are the story of the NFL in 2006 no matter what happens, but if the Eagles win this one, they'll clinch a playoff spot and a claim on Story 1A. They've already got a claim on making me look bad because I keep picking against them. I think home-field disadvantage and a bad run defense will do them in here.
Buster's pick: Dallas (7-point favorite)
N.Y. Jets (8-6) at MIAMI (6-8): Forgot this last week -- the Dolphins don't like the cold. They'll do better in this one, a much better game than the records would indicate.
Buster's pick: New York (coin, and I like Mommy better than you)
Record so far this week: 1-0
Season record: 128-97
Last week: 11-5
What the Heck Picks: 2-12
Most frequent What the Heck Picks: Cleveland and Oakland, 3
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This column will be on vacation Christmas week as Salon publishes on a holiday schedule. My annual Year in Sports piece will be Salon's cover on Jan. 1 and the regular column returns Jan. 2. The Week 17 NFL picks will appear on this column's MySpace page.
Meanwhile, look for me on "The Bob Edwards Show" on XM Radio Channel 133 on Dec. 28 at 8 a.m. EST, repeating at 9 and 10 a.m. and 8 p.m., and available online all that day.
Have a happy holiday season, and thank you for reading this column all year. The best thing about this column is its readership, which collectively makes up the best editor in the business.
Well, except for Michal Keeley in Salon's Washington office, who is responsible for this column being a little better than it would otherwise be every day.
Previous column: Wild spending good for business?
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