The Other Existential Threat To The NFL: RedZone ChannelS

Every December, we near the end of the NFL season and the coming of Festivus, a wonderful holiday that begins with an airing of grievances. It's a holiday we inflict on loved ones, because only loved ones teach us to feel a profound peevishness. The hidden wage of loving is having to pay close, agonizing attention to everything, even the bad parts.

The NFL grows with us in a way that helps us chart our lives almost as accurately as remembering which Christmas had the toxic roast or the drunk college cousin. Because it is so much a fixture, it also means we're in a constant process of learning what drives us up the wall about it. This process will claim NFL RedZone, too. That channel already teaches us things we never would have learned about the NFL, including things about itself.

Two years ago, the idea of considering RedZone a vector for gripes would sound insane. It has only been broadly available as a stand-alone channel (independent of expensive DirecTV packages) since 2009. The core concept—up to seven hours of commercial-free highlights of every game—still thrills on paper and for most of every Sunday. I've been in love with the thing since 2009.

Still ... it rewrites how we enjoy football. It makes average games that you're "stuck" with (Sunday, Monday, and Thursday) seem almost glacial. It reifies how capricious and infuriating the NFL's regional programming is. I'm not the only person who's opted to stay home and watch it rather than go to a party and see whatever game networks screwed the locals with. I don't even have a fantasy team; I just bought RedZone and discovered that there is no turning back.

Nonetheless, at the risk of seeming like a guy from Louis CK's "Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy," some negative features of the channel itself start to shine through after the "WHOAAAAA!!! OH MY GOD!!!!! ALL THESE GAMES!!!!" rush dissipates.

  • As Will Leitch noted, RedZone hasn't figured out how to showcase dominant defensive play outside of stuff with fantasy impact. Interceptions, sacks, and recovered fumbles appear, but a Polamalu Classic™-like safety who can cross the width of the field to shut down vertical options doesn't show up. Smothering defensive play is often best seen in the plays that don't happen. RedZone is not the "What Didn't Happen Channel."
  • Non-explosive offensive context is also hard to find. You'll see your fantasy running back break out for a 30-yard run, but you probably won't see his 15 rushes of six yards each. Even if he has a 120-yard day, according to your TV, 90 of them never happened. You see his team take the kickoff; minutes later they reappear in the red zone. Everything in between belongs to the land of wind and ghosts.
  • It's impossible to watch with people unless you all maintain a monkish silence. Any party with RedZone will result in a murder—either of the party itself or any understanding of what the hell happened in the NFL. You either force yourself to make eye contact with people and chat, or you stare willfully at the TV, making disjointed idiot-talk at each other. "I agree, Adrian. I think ... well ... with the Browns ... you just ... game management ... you ... you manage the, uh ... the disappointment ... in the, uh ... in the game." Any prolonged attempt to split the difference between being jacked in to the RedZone or being a social human being makes you start saying vacuous word-fill like Thom Brennaman.
  • You can't do anything else, because you will get lost. Mom's calling? Forget about it. Cook dinner? Ahahahaha. One of the nice things about regular NFL broadcasts lasting three hours but only having about 11 minutes of action is that you can still follow the game while firing up the grill or taking a phone call. With RedZone, 20 minutes spent mentally occupied results in games turning into mush.
  • RedZone offers so much information, so relentlessly, that it's easy to walk away and need to concentrate to be able piece together events in narrative form. Last year, I tried to liveblog all seven hours with someone—sitting down and seriously taking notes—and we both degenerated into writing a manic pilot episode of a show in which Philip Rivers tries to raise all his kids while barking motivational football bullshit at them. RedZone makes you loopy.

You can be irked by all of these things, but to a certain extent, they're also your problem. You bought the ticket, and this is what the ride is like. If you want to speak to people or be at a party, use your DVR and get out of the house. If you want fuller context from all games, pony up the money for the full DirectTV package and a monster TiVo.

Outside of those problems, most of the implications of increased RedZone fandom have little to do with RedZone itself. As Drew Magary noted, advertisers, network buyers, and schedulers might all wonder what the point is in scheduling ever longer broadcasts and paying ever larger amounts for NFL rights and ad time when millions of Americans start opting out of the regular games.

But there is one thing RedZone teaches us is totally whacked about RedZone: the total imbalance between early- and late-afternoon games.

Through the first 15 weeks of this season, the NFL and RedZone have broadcast 122 games in the 1 p.m. slot. In the 4 and 4:25 p.m. slots, they've broadcast a mere 54. Some weeks can be remarkably democratic, like Week 5, which saw six early and five late games. Others, like the odious Week 8, saw nine early games and only two late ones. But after the dullness of those 1 p.m. games, you were probably ready for 50 percent of your late afternoon to be a Raiders-Chiefs barnburner!

On average, the lopsided NFL schedule results in about eight early games and about three late ones. It doesn't make sense. While West Coast teams deserve home games late in the day, there's no reason why East Coast and Midwest teams can't also have late games. They already do. Moreover, there's no vague social concern at work here. People who want to spend time with family will take off their mornings or afternoons as they see fit. Scheduling the lion's share of Sunday games at midday doesn't preserve some sanctified "family time" part of the later afternoon. If 4-7 p.m. is somehow important, then Sunday Night Football already ruins it in Mountain and Pacific times. And if Sunday is the Lord's day, starting so much football at 1 p.m. EST makes observance difficult for religious citizens in California, Oregon, and Washington's interior, and for the many Mormons and evangelicals in Nevada and Idaho.

We have the popularity of RedZone (and Sunday Ticket) to blame for highlighting this imbalance. This was something the old way of watching football hid. Usually you got to see two daytime games—maybe three, depending on the week and the market. Three was a lucky maximum, and toggling between two games in the early or late part of the day was a luxury compared to having only one alternative. Now, toggling between two games—when one might be a total dog—seems like gross mismanagement and fan disregard.

This isn't a minor quibble, either. The frenetic incoherence of RedZone is almost entirely a function of the scheduling regime. During Week 14, for instance, there were 10 simultaneous 1 p.m. games. The Rams-Bills and Chiefs-Browns games were both buried for huge chunks of broadcast time, as one or two games inevitably are during every early-game bloc on Sundays. Fans probably had a much suppler understanding of the Saints-Giants, game, though, considering it aired against the Cardinals-Seahawks blowout and faced only Dolphins-49ers for an uncertain outcome.

This didn't matter three years ago, when RedZone appeared on the cable menu for non DirecTV people. The oddity of an explosively packed early afternoon followed by a languorous late day just seemed like the price of doing a weird and different business. But, as business normalizes and creeps into being a majority transaction, it's foolish not to mainstream and optimize it. Some of the shine will go off RedZone, even for loving adopters, because that's what happens when something becomes family—you have the privilege of carping about it. The NFL, of course, will argue that the success of something like RedZone proves that it doesn't need tweaking, because the NFL is hidebound and stupid. It will argue that RedZone wouldn't be successful if it weren't already just peachy. But that's what you get from atavistic, house-proud bozos like Roger Goodell—the faulty conceit that when something succeeds as an alternative, it must already be the best alternative.

There's nothing wrong with RedZone that the NFL can't correct by balancing out the broadcast schedules. It would normalize the pace of game cutaways, preventing the channel's broadcast from being too spastic early or too slow late. It would give people more access to games, rather than orphaning a few early in the afternoon while unfortunately showcasing poorer late games because there's nothing else to watch. And it would prevent the late RedZone product from being compared to its earlier self and failing. That kind of correction wouldn't even ruin the plodding "take what you can get and like"-levels of the regular broadcast schedule. The NFL could keep disregarding non-paying customers as usual.

Of course, that kind of correction would likely also require revisiting the NFL's commitments to national advertising airtime buys, with late "national" games competing against more regional fare and reducing market penetration. It's not difficult to expect that advertising relationships will provide the sort of long-term insurmountable obstacle that the NFL will invoke to ward away pesky, terrifying change. Then again, that argument would be more convincing if the very fact of the NFL RedZone Channel didn't pose a far more critical threat to those relationships in the first place.

While the NFL faces an obvious existential threat from a legion of overdue lawsuits and media profiles of broken current and former players, its nemesis might be its success in packaging innovation. Every RedZone broadcast acts as an implicit rebuke of the traditional product—snapshots of action orphaned by FORD TRUCK MEN telling you that's ALL THEY DRIVE, happy dads in erection-related jam bands, John Mellencamp claiming ARRR COUNTRY in the name of Chevy. Worse, RedZone tacitly reveals a truth that Roger Goodell can only acknowledge at the risk of promotional suicide and ego death: that 2 hours and 49 minutes of a football broadcast can now be skipped, while much of the remaining 11 minutes of actual football are useless to those people watching with betting slips in hand or a fantasy-team home page on auto-refresh. An ideal RedZone would offer a more comprehensive and satisfying league product that would lead, ultimately, to a less lucrative league. In RedZone, the NFL threatens to perfect itself and destroy itself.

"Mobutu Sese Seko" writes for Gawker.