A custom built X-Ray product, an all-female announcing duo and an exclusive Twitch experience will debut on Amazon's Thursday Night Football broadcast of Rams–Vikings.

By Jacob Feldman
September 27, 2018

Choice. Jim DeLorenzo, Amazon Video’s head of sports, used the word four times while discussing the company’s newest Thursday Night Football features, which debut on Sept. 27 when the Rams host the Vikings. Last year, Prime subscribers could watch the games globally, across a slew of devices, in any of three different languages. Prepare for even more options this time around.

Amazon made news earlier this week, announcing a new audio feed from Hannah Storm and Andrea Kremer (listed under languages as Storm-Kremer). On FireTV devices, fans will be able to call up stats, play history, team information, and a shopping experience, all built by the company’s X-Ray team. Then there’s Amazon-owned platform Twitch, which will host its own stream of the game, featuring an interactive prediction challenge, the platform’s native chat feature, and an additional audio option, with Twitch streamer GoldGlove “co-streaming” the event on top of the FOX audio.

Each add-on moves us closer to the dream of a truly personalized production. Viewers will be able to select their favorite audio feed, choose what graphics to see alongside the action, and even interact with the presentation. Taken together, Amazon’s full Thursday Night package might represent the most forward-thinking live sports offering today, as well as a clear encapsulation of why the internet represents the future of sports broadcasts. Choice, of course.

That said, streams still are years away from being dominant. Before every fan can enjoy the new choices, availability and quality concerns need to be answered. Season 1 of TNF has 2.5 stars on Amazon, with nearly twice as many one-star reviews as five-star scores, and a litter of video error pop-ups represented among the user-submitted photographs. DeLorenzo said his team focuses on customer feedback, adding that there has been significant work done on the tech behind the stream, though declining to offer specific details.

No matter what Amazon does, stadium, communication, and home infrastructure are still largely built for traditional broadcasts, giving FOX a major home-field advantage. The network will draw an overwhelming majority of viewers each week, and for good reason. “A lot of people will watch on FOX and some will prefer to watch Amazon,” DeLorenzo said. “I think that’s great.”

Yes, Amazon spent $130 million on NFL rights to strengthen its Prime offering in the here and now. But as much as the company is focused on providing a compelling experience, it is also working to figure out what that experience should look like. “You will hear people at Amazon talk about how it is always day one here,” DeLorenzo said. So no, there won’t be a launch party for Thursday Night Football 2.0. “We’re going to be turning around and doing more work—diving into customer feedback, looking at how we did, working on making it better.” That flexibility is another benefit of working online, and the team should have some interesting data after fans get their hands on the newest features.

A few more details on what’s in store…

CREATING STORM-KREMER

Amazon did not set out with the intention of fielding the first all-female NFL announcing duo. “Our focus was on finding the best announcers and sports journalists we could,” DeLorenzo said. “We didn’t go into it with the idea of an all-female crew. It just worked out that way, and we couldn’t be more excited to have it.” They approached longtime SportsCenter anchor Hannah Storm and former Sunday Night Football sideline reporter Andrea Kremer directly. (Both also have several other relevant work experiences.)

Storm will generally be running the broadcast, getting in and out of commercial breaks and conveying live information, while Kremer will play more of the analyst role, but their official titles are intentionally undefined, and both are hoping to contribute to a more conversational, sitting-with-you-in-the-living-room vibe. Guests will call in as well, including former coach Brian Billick and ex-Packers executive Andrew Brandt (who is also an SI contributor). Inside baseball note: all four are represented by the Octagon agency, and a company spokesperson said president Phil de Picciotto played an active role in the team's formation.

Amazon gave Storm and Kremer the power to build out the rest of the production team and they brought on two more women: producer Betsy Riley and content producer Lauren Gaffney. (This week’s SCREENSHOTS column has more on the historic broadcasting booth.)

As for why Amazon wanted to offer an additional set of announcers, you already know the answer. “We really just believe in providing our customers more choice,” DeLorenzo said. The possibilities of future feeds (Storm and Kremer are signed up for this year) are pretty much endless. ESPN has previously experimented with multiple voice choices during its megacasts, but only for the biggest of games.

BRINGING X-RAY TO SPORTS

Amazon’s X-Ray product began over five years ago as a tool to help readers learn about terms in Kindle books. It’s since grown to provide information during movies and TV shows on the Prime Video platform. Not long after Amazon first got the rights to Thursday Night Football in 2017, X-Ray head of product Alex Kravis (a New England native but Seahawks convert) started wondering how the tool might complement a live sports broadcast.

Though it has the same brand name, TNF’s X-Ray functionality had to be largely custom-built for the NFL. It pulls live data and refreshes between plays, whereas the IMDB data used for on-demand entertainment is much more static. And, because viewers don’t want to pause the game to read the information, the experience had to be designed for quick interactions. The current product shares many similarities with the real-time stats DirecTV offers with Sunday Ticket and what YouTubeTV recently launched for certain sporting events. “Last year we were focused on bringing Thursday Night Football to prime video viewers,” Kravis said. “This year it’s about enhancing the experience and making it even better.” Plus, she says, after extensive testing of the tool, “I have a ton of weird facts about stadium sizes and mascots in my head.”

The FireTV device-only limitation is a drag, but once again, the potential here is exciting. Having a running play history makes returns to the living room that much smoother. The tool also presents a decent way to kill time during commercials. Down the line, you could imagine a video catch-up feature too, something MLB.TV already offers on the Apple TV. (Kravis declined to comment on future features.)

THE TWITCH OPTION

Twitch began streaming Thursday games midway through last season, but this year, they’ve built an exclusive experience for their users.

On PC and mobile, a click will pull up live stats and an interactive prediction contest with a leaderboard. Twitch built the functionality as an extension, though it may not roll out until after Thursday’s game. (By the way, I’ll be shocked if this stats overlay isn’t branded by the end of the year.)

The co-streamed presentation is somewhat like Prime Video’s alternate audio feeds, except GoldGlove will be speaking along with the audio from Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. It’s a common set-up in eSports broadcasting, and something that Twitch’s senior vice president of content, Michael Aragon, hopes will attract new viewers to the game. “That’s the thing that really excited me about this job in general,” he said. “We’re reimagining how sports can entertain fans, and the thing I’m really interested in is how do we bring in adjacent fans.

“What gets me excited is just the potential.”

 

 

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