How NFL Primetime Was Brought (All. The. Way!) Back to Life

Chris Berman’s highlights show never died in the minds of ESPN lifers. Now it’s back with a new home on ESPN+, thanks to a team effort from the network’s old and new generations.
By Jacob Feldman ,

Just over 12 minutes passed on Sunday night before Chris Berman delivered a signature Whoooop! and a little less than 16 went by before he let out a full-throated, He. Could. Go. All. The. Way.

Reviving NFL Primetime, though, took a lot longer. And as Berman put it Wednesday, the process played out like one of the classic games he and Tom Jackson recapped every fall Sunday from 1987 through 2005, even going into overtime. 

For ESPN lifers like Seth Markman, a vice president of production who’s been in Bristol since 1993, the classic 7:30 p.m. highlights show “has been in our minds for years,” he said. “It’s something that never really left our minds.” The show died in 2006 because NBC bought Sunday Night Football and the exclusive rights to air highlights before each week’s game. 

“It was a brilliant move. That’s the first thing I told [NBC Sports] chairman Dick Ebersol,” Berman said back then. “‘You guys are geniuses, but I don’t like you.’” This winter, however, Berman came up with an idea. During a conversation with ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro, Berman asked if they could work around the rights restrictions by putting the show on ESPN+. I don’t know if that’s allowed, Boomer said, but if there’s some way to make it work, I’d be a part of it.

Buzz for a potential return picked up this summer as the network negotiated the details with the NFL. Thursday before Week 1, a deal still hadn’t been reached, but with a potential green light around the corner, Markman reached out to Tom Jackson, who retired from ESPN in 2016.

“There’s no way we are going to bring it back without asking you first,” Markman told Jackson. The 14-year Bronco and 29-year analyst asked for a day to think about it. That Friday, he said yes. “I couldn’t believe it,” Markman said. A week later, an agreement was finally in place with the league, as Markman learned late Thursday night via e-mail. Sunday, Berman and Jackson were back in the building.  

One of the first orders of business was teaching the show’s new production assistants a lost art. For years, cutting highlights for Primetime was an ESPN rite of passage. “I remember being terrified walking into the room, just terrified of meeting them for the first time,” Markman said. Berman put him at ease, asking about his background and the game he’d monitored for the show. “Everybody has a Primetime story,” Markman added. “You couldn’t have climbed the ladder at ESPN without being involved in that show.”

On Sunday, Markman watched a new generation of staffers get their turn, but only after a brief lecture from the show’s hosts. These days, the assistants aren’t used to cutting the lengthy highlights that Primetime relies on. So Berman explained to them how they could tell stories with their segments rather than just show a couple key plays. They could include a whole drive if need be. Some PAs even watched old clips of the show to get the vibe. 

Early on, ESPN decided that if it was doing Primetime again, it was going to change as little as possible. “We brought back the long highlights, the exact same music,” Markman said. “Usually we embrace new ideas. On this one we are not going to do that. If we had the old studio and set, we might have even shot it there.”

It’s a bid for nostalgia, absolutely, but it’s also a modern strategic decision. “A lot of us in the business have done a bad job in assuming everyone sees everything on their phones now,” Markman said. “I think there is still a large audience of people that still wants to get the long highlights of NFL games.”

As Berman puts it, “There’s still a want to eat a full meal rather than just grabbing some food here and there… and that’s what Primetime is.”

(I think the show could benefit by chopping up its 45-minute run time into individual game highlights so fans could jump to the games they’re interested in or the ones they missed. Alas…)

After the impromptu lesson, Berman and Jackson decamped for the NFL’s TV-filled “war room” to watch the games alongside Chris Mortensen, just like old times. Stephanie Druley, Primetime’s coordinating producer in its earlier incarnation and now one of the network’s top executives, checked in too, watching from the control room once 7:30 rolled around. Meanwhile, Chad Minutillo, an 11-year ESPN vet who grew up watching the show, produced its return. 

Primetime’s lack of commercial breaks on the subscription platform made that task tricky. It also made the taping fly by. That felt like 18 minutes, Berman said while signing off Sunday. ESPN later went and added highlights from the Sunday and Monday night games to the episode, a new trick. Other changes in Primetime 2.0 include on-screen callouts to games still in action and the upcoming SNF matchup (partly due to contractual agreements), as well as fewer teases about the games’ outcomes off the top. Even if fans haven’t seen the long highlight reels, there is a good chance they’ve seen the score.

NFL Primetime was the most fun I’ve ever had in a studio,” Berman said. “Now that it’s happening again, it’s even more amazing than I thought it would be.” And the best part is, he gets to do it again next week.

Aaron Murray Tapped To Call Texas A&M-Auburn on CBS

Murray (right) with his CBS Sports Network partner, Rich Waltz.

Courtesy of CBS

Former Georgia QB Aaron Murray likely won’t tune into No. 3 UGA’s primetime matchup with No. 7 Notre Dame until halftime Saturday, but he’s got a solid excuse. In his third year working for CBS, the 28-year-old will call the network’s 3:30 game from College Station alongside Carter Blackburn and Rick Neuheisel. 

Murray said he was slightly shocked when he got the assignment this summer—”good shocked,” he added. A Florida native, he’s long made clear his desire to work SEC broadcasts. 

Overseeing all CBS Sports talent, Ross Molloy said Murray earned the opportunity through his hard work. Since entering broadcasting after his brief NFL career ended in 2017, Murray has taken coaching on everything from his voice to his telestrator use, and this offseason he requested tape of CBS’ top analysts, Tony Romo and Gary Danielson, to review.

Saturday’s gig is the logical next step in Murray’s progression, Molloy said. “Aaron could be a really, really good staple announcer,” he added. “Saturday is going to tell us a lot.”

To prepare, the trio worked a Missouri-Wyoming game earlier this season. Even that was something Murray of a reunion for Murray and Neuheisel, who faced off this spring in the AAF. “I beat him,” said. “You can put that in the article.” In fact Murray was 20-of-33 passing for 254 in a 14-11 victory. 

The XFL may come calling soon enough, but Murray isn’t sure if he’ll ever put on another helmet. “I don’t know, I’m getting old,” he said. “My knees are starting to wear down a little bit.” He’s fully committed to broadcasting now, wherever it might lead, and even if it means racing back to his Houston hotel to catch the second half of his alma mater’s Saturday showdown before going back to watch however much he missed.

SIGHTLINES

• Andy Staples took a look at NBC’s new broadcast angle, which I found really cool for some plays and completely jarring for moments near the bottom sideline. I’m curious to see where they go from here.

• UNINTERRUPTED has a new weekly podcast featuring Le’Veon Bell and Jalen Ramsey. If only they had stuff to talk about…

• Big Noon Kickoff’s upcoming trip to USC provided the opportunity for some cheeky headlines.

• Laura Wagner broke down ratgate.

• Sam Darnold’s mono diagnosis keeps on giving, thanks to the ESPN graphics department.   

• Enjoy this Gus Johnson profile, courtesy of Harry Lyles Jr.

• This Week I Learned:  There’s a Cowboy Channel.

• DirecTV has added 4k broadcasts of 11 Thursday night games this season.

New details are out on an upcoming golf skins challenge featuring Tiger Woods. Taking place in Japan for an international audience, the competition will tee off around midnight eastern time on Oct. 20.

• HBO’s 24/7 series is heading to four colleges this football season.

• Yahoo Sports is hoping to significantly grow the audience for its mobile NFL streams, adding them to the company’s fantasy platform. 

Thank You, Internet…

...for sparking some much needed self-reflection.

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