Home Blog 'Thursday Night Football': Behind the scenes of Amazon's big swings – USA TODAY

'Thursday Night Football': Behind the scenes of Amazon's big swings – USA TODAY

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Spoon Daftary apologized into his headset for a slightly rushed segment, but the clock was already ticking on this commercial break. 
“Just go with the flow,” the “Thursday Night Football” senior coordinating producer ordered from the command truck at FedEx Field, not long after the Chicago Bears defeated the Washington Commanders. “Everyone have fun here.” 
That’s usually not an issue for the traveling studio crew of Richard Sherman, Andrew Whitworth, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tony Gonzalez and host Charissa Thompson – the people Daftary is instructing from the truck. They were about to play a game, he said, as celebrity chef David Chang rejoined the set. 
It’s a simple premise. Producers from the truck will put up a name on the screen. The panel must answer whether that person played in the NFL or is a United States Congressperson – “On the Hill” or “On the Field” – all while chowing down on spicy chicken sandwiches from Chang’s restaurant.
“Roll the dice here,” Daftary said. “What can go wrong?” 
The hijinks may lose a viewer more interested in a traditional NFL post-game show. But for the type of content Daftary’s bosses at Amazon Prime Video desire, this is par for the course. 
Now in the second year of exclusively streaming the games, Daftary wants the postgame show to be memorable enough – through both creative bits and substantive football conversation – sports fans are talking about it Friday morning. 
“My dream is somebody says, ‘Ah, (expletive), I fell asleep. What did I miss?’” Daftary told USA TODAY Sports. “That’s what I want to continue to push to our staff and to our talent. I want our show to be that: ‘I gotta stay up late to watch.’” 
As Daftary and executive producer Mike Muriano started building the “TNF” studio team, they were aware of the natural constraints all pregame, halftime and postgame shows have structurally. But as Amazon became the league’s first new media partner in nearly 30 years, the company also saw the opportunity of a blank canvas. 
“We’re OK with this feeling a little more raw and authentic, I think, than sort of the polished Sunday morning pregame shows that I’ve been a part of in the past,” said Daftary, who spent nine years at FOX, where he held the same role for “FOX NFL Kickoff.” 
Daftary said FOX’s takeover of the NFC package in 1993 ushered in the modern era of studio programming. A streaming giant taking center stage for the NFL one night per week represented a chance to take another step toward the boundaries. 
“Collectively, we’re just like, ‘We have to take some swings, we know not everything’s gonna be great,” Daftary said. “But like, we want to take the swings and see where we land.” 
One place they landed this season was Intercourse, Pennsylvania, for a dispatch by contributor Marshawn Lynch from Amish country. 
That type of segment likely would not have been flown at network television. At Amazon, it’s encouraged. 
“It’s refreshing,” Muriano told USA TODAY Sports. “Sometimes, senior management is saying ‘No, push a little bit more’ and we’re the ones going, ‘Hey, not that far.’” 
Finding talking heads who took the job seriously – but not necessarily themselves – has been essential in delivering a different type of show, Muriano said. Their willingness to pitch ideas makes the show that much better, he added. 
“We’ve got a group that is invested that way, which again, that’s so rewarding to see that you’re not the only one trying to come up with everything,” said Muriano, who has been involved in producing every “Thursday Night Football” game in NFL history. “The show is better for it.” 
Thompson, Fitzpatrick, Sherman, Whitworth, Gonzalez and the producers will have a video call – a 45-minute brain dump, as Daftary put it – every Monday to discuss that week’s upcoming game. From there, the producers begin outlining a show ahead of a Monday afternoon production call in which the sketch becomes more of a rundown. Last week, when Daftary mentioned that Fitzpatrick lost his mind upon hearing that Commanders part-owner Magic Johnson would be joining the pregame show, the producers started coming up with ideas to leverage his fanboying into a made-for-TV moment. 
Reading the letters Fitzpatrick wrote to Johnson as a boy was one idea. The crew brainstormed ways for Johnson to sign items for Fitzpatrick and how to place that into the segment. Of course, it would have to be right before commercial break. And they’d have to make sure Johnson sat next to the former quarterback. 
When it was showtime 72 hours later, Fitzpatrick was all smiles as he unveiled his No. 32 Lakers jersey beneath his signature zany button-down shirt. 
“Spoon allows for that creativity, allows for us to have a little bit of fun on set,” Fitzpatrick told USA TODAY Sports. “So the fact we do have that leeway and he’s given us that creative freedom, I think really helps the process. We don’t feel limited or put in boxes.”
The postgame show – “TNF Nightcap” – is the aspect of the production the team takes “a ton” of pride in, Daftary said.
“That’s a place we have an open canvas to do a lot of things that other shows don’t – between our guest interviews and our actual football conversations, which, by the way, I would put up against anybody else’s actual football conversations,” Daftary said. 
Through four weeks, “TNF Nightcap” is averaging 2.08M viewers, which is an increase of 24% over last year’s full-season average (1.68M), according to Prime Video. (“TNF Tonight,” the pregame show, is averaging 500,000 more viewers per week compared to 2022.)
The morning of the Bears-Commanders matchup, the crew met in a hotel conference room to review the show rundown. On more than one occasion, as Daftary lead the meeting, the talent are told to save it for the show.
“We’ve been part of shows where almost every word is rehearsed and gone through,” Muriano said. “And we’ve been shown we’ve been on parts of shows where not enough of that has happened as well.”
Finding the sweet spot is the challenge of creating programming in 2023 for a streaming service. Other market forces, like podcasts, have influenced the way they construct the show too. 
“It’s so less-produced,” Daftary said. “So how do we still produce a show that feels network-level where our halftime is gonna be viewed by (millions of) people? So it’s not a podcast, we don’t want it to be a podcast. The elements in the show have to reach a bar.” 
That type of transition made it easier on the trio of Whitworth, Fitzpatrick and Sherman, all of whom went straight from the playing field to analysts’ chairs (Gonzalez and Thompson both had ample television experience prior to joining “TNF”). Everyone had homework following an offseason of reviewing video, and former players’ experience make them more coachable than other people Daftary has worked with in the past. 
Making sure they don’t lose their personality by improving for television is a fine line to walk. 
“If something becomes too rehearsed, it just feels like audiences have just gotten so savvy,” said Muriano, who has an instant focus-group with four teenage children watching at home. “That teenage radar really just sniffs out when something’s not authentic so quickly in this day and age. And I think it’s because there’s so much content they’re consuming in different ways. As soon as they see someone kind of stiffen up, they’re like, ‘Why isn’t he just talking normal? Why isn’t she just talking normally?’ So we try to stay as real as we can.” 
The “TNF” team met throughout the offseason to preview that year’s upcoming games. During one of those sessions, it became clear that a “Quiz Bowl” for the Week 3 game between the San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants in the Bay Area would be the perfect setting. Sherman went to Stanford. Gonzalez is a proud Cal product. Fitzpatrick famously graduated from Harvard.
But that “TNF Tonight” led to the most viral moment of the season, with ex-NFL quarterback Andrew Luck dressing in meme version, “Capt. Andrew Luck,” a social media account that likened Luck’s football conquests to a Civil War-era Union soldier.
“I want a space where everybody can pitch an idea, and anyone can pitch an idea,” said Daftary, who almost talked Luck out of dressing up in costume for his postgame appearance only to realize he was overthinking the bit.
“That would be the perfect amount of craziness,” he realized.
To close out the Week 5 broadcast from the nation’s capital, Daftary and Co. wanted to capitalize on a “wild” week in D.C. Kevin McCarthy had been ousted as Speaker of the House. Something political – but not polarizing – felt appropriate.
“Is this going to be the greatest thing ever? Probably not,” Daftary said. “But it’ll be a fun way to end the show. We got David Chang, we got fried chicken sandwiches.”
With the cameras rolling, Thompson – the only one who had prior knowledge of the game – accidentally gave away the answer to the first question.
No memes or viral posts came from the segment. A few laughs for sure. The show ended with Daftary shaking the hands of those around him in the truck. He said the segment featuring Fitzpatrick being honored at his high school the previous weekend was too much. Muriano assured him it was fine.
“I’m not going to lose sleep over it,” Daftary said.
He hopes everyone else watching did.

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