How Al Michaels is helping Amazon Prime’s NFL game

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Veteran sportscaster Al Michaels has a 20-year-old answering machine in his Brentwood home, and it’s likely never to be thrown away. The device contains several messages from the late Dodgers announcer Vin Scully, who died Aug. 2.

Michaels, 77, spent his early years in Brooklyn, where he first listened to radio broadcasts of Dodgers games with Scully in the booth. The team, its legendary announcer and a budding young sportscaster all moved to Los Angeles in 1958. Michaels never stopped listening.

“I learned a lot from Vin – he was the voice in my ear,” Michaels said during a recent breakfast chat in his backyard. “He never gave the impression that he didn’t want to be there. He could take a mundane game and turn it into a great listener. And it could take a big game and make it an iconic listen.

Michaels aims to apply the lessons he learned from Scully to the next phase of his enduring and historic career. This week, he joins Kirk Herbstreit in the broadcast booth for Amazon Prime Video’s “Thursday Night Football,” the opening contest for the NFL’s first TV package to air exclusively on a streaming video service.

Since the 2017 season, Prime Video has simulcast games with a broadcast network and the NFL Network on cable. But this season through 2032, Prime Video will be the only way to watch 15 Thursday contests across most of the country. The games – for which Amazon will pay $1 billion per season – will only be available on TV in the two local markets of the teams playing.

While the young viewers the NFL wants to reach have migrated to streaming platforms, football remains a powerhouse on traditional television. Last year, NFL games accounted for 75 of the top 100 most-watched programs, according to Nielsen.

For Amazon, whose Culver City studio recently created its acclaimed ‘Lord of the Rings’ television series, the acquisition of the rights to ‘Thursday Night Football’ was a ‘one-in-a-decade opportunity to create a new destination for users of Prime Video”. said Marie Donoghue, vice president of global sports video for Amazon.

“We also have so many Prime members in the US who have never used Prime Video,” Donoghue added. “Some of them don’t know they have it.”

Many fans, especially older ones, will be streaming NFL games for the first time. Amazon expects Michaels’ presence – having aired “Monday Night Football” for 20 seasons on ABC and the past 16 years on “Sunday Night Football” on NBC – to provide immediate familiarity to those getting used to the technology.

“I think Amazon wanted to prove that we’re playing with the big boys,” Michaels said. “They want it to be classy. We need to have a comfort level for the fans who want to watch the game and not get lost.

A major appeal of video streaming is the expansion of consumer choice. Amazon is also offering it on “Thursday Night Football”, as Prime Video will offer alternate streams of the game during the season. Four of the games will feature YouTube stars Dude Perfect, a sports comedy group. (“My teenage grandkids know all about them,” Michaels said.)

The team of Andrea Kremer and Hannah Storm that Prime Video used in the past will also return for two games, presenting the competitions with a more informal style similar to the Manning Brothers’ simulcast of “Monday Night Football” from ESPN.

Alternate streams, more of which will be announced throughout the season, are one way to attract new, younger fans. But for those who have watched football for years and want to feel connected to the game they already know and love, Michaels will be there.

“There might be people coming to Amazon who are skeptical of what the experience will be like,” said Patrick Rishe, director of Olin’s sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis. “Michaels adds an extra degree of seriousness. It’s a name people trust.

The situation is similar to 1994, when Fox, still a television upstart, shocked the sports world by poaching the rights to NFL National Football Conference games from CBS. Sports TV purists snorted, suggesting Bart Simpson would be reporting from the sidelines. Fox responded by recruiting the longtime announcing team of John Madden and Pat Summerall, giving its fledgling sports division instant credibility.

Michaels is pleased that Amazon has recognized the equity he has accrued with audiences over 36 seasons. He didn’t leave “Sunday Night Football” by choice, as the network made it clear that Mike Tirico was the future of broadcasting.

“I wasn’t happy, but I knew that well in advance,” Michaels said. “I didn’t want to retire. I’ve always loved doing it. I felt as energetic as ever.

Amazon approached Michaels after the end of the 2020-21 season to join its new team and signed him earlier this year, as part of a major shakeup by major NFL advertisers in the offseason. (Michaels signed a star-studded contract with NBC in May and is expected to appear on its NFL playoff coverage).

Al Michaels with former broadcast partner John Madden on “Monday Night Football” in Denver.

(Craig Sjodin/ABC/Walt Disney Television)

At first glance, Michaels doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who welcomes change. He has been married to his wife Linda since Lyndon Johnson was in the White House. They have resided in the same house since 1986. He claims to have never eaten a vegetable and has no intention of starting.

But throughout his career, Michaels has learned to swim with the tide. He called a total of 60 minutes of hockey before being assigned to the sport during ABC’s coverage of the 1980 Winter Olympics. He then delivered the play-by-play of the gold medal won by the US hockey team against the Soviet Union – an unfathomable upset – and sealed it with the phrase “Do you believe in miracles?” Yes!” The coda has secured its place in televised sports history.

Bob Iger, former chairman of the Walt Disney Co., worked alongside Michaels at ABC Sports in the 1970s.

“I occasionally carried her bags to events,” Iger said in a recent interview. Iger recalls the network’s team celebration at a Lake Placid, NY hotel and restaurant after the hockey telecast aired where everyone realized they had witnessed an event for the ages. .

“Al walked into the restaurant and the whole place went up – a standing ovation,” Iger said. “That’s when I knew he had moved on to a completely different level.”

There have been times when Michaels has been called upon to handle breaking news. He became a natural disaster reporter, relaying details on the spot from San Francisco’s Candlestick Park when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck before Game 3 of the 1989 World Series.

In June 1994, he weighed in alongside ABC News reporters when OJ Simpson and his friend Al Cowlings were in Simpson’s white Bronco being chased by police (both men were tennis partners with Michaels).

A team of hockey players celebrating on the ice.

Michaels called the USA hockey team a “Miracle on Ice” at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, NY

(AP)

Declining ratings for “Monday Night Football” in the late 1990s spurred Michaels into experimenting with network television. He worked the 2000 and 2001 seasons in the booth with comedian and former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Dennis Miller. They became good friends, but Michaels said Miller’s rarefied references to Sylvia Plath and Cristo tested him. “I had Excedrin headache number 306 after every game,” he said.

But Michaels’ willingness to dive in whenever bosses threw something new at him likely contributed to his longevity.

“He’s not afraid of risk,” Iger said. “And he manages change because he works very hard.”

For Michaels, adaptation is part of the job. “When you sign up for something, you do it,” he said. “You can fight it, but it’s just a waste of energy. You have to find a way to make it work.

The length of Michaels’ career and the array of larger-than-life colleagues he worked with, including Madden, Simpson, Howard Cosell and Caitlyn Jenner, provide him with an endless source of anecdotes. He’s like a human search engine, able to recount past events and games in full detail every time – a valuable skill to have in an explosive game.

“A lot of people are interested in personalities and other things besides rotation zones,” he said.

Upon Scully’s death, Michaels joined the collective embrace of Dodgers fans who grew up with his idol. A network sportscaster since the mid-1970s, when Michaels first donned a canary yellow blazer for ABC Sports, he’s never experienced the deep connection fans have with their longtime local broadcasters. His relationship with the public is more complicated.

Michaels knows disappointed Seattle Seahawks fans associate his voice with the Super Bowl XLIX victory snatched by New England Patriot Malcolm Butler’s goal-line interception. His “wide right” call for Buffalo Bills kicker Scott Norwood’s missed field goal in Super Bowl XXV will never make him a heavy favorite in Western New York.

That’s why he cherishes his joyous call to the 1980 Winter Olympics. “It’s the only time in my career when 99.9% of the public are going in the same direction as me,” he said. .

But Michaels knows he’s blessed to be the voice of a sport that, even with its troubles in recent years, has only strengthened its hold on American audiences. He doesn’t buy the idea that fans turned away due to on-field social protests by NFL players, a theory behind the league’s declining ratings in 2017 and 2018.

“We went from number one to number one,” he said. “The margin between one and two was even greater. There were a bunch of people saying, “I’m not going to watch anymore.” It was a lot of noise. Those same people are probably watching.

Michaels believes the key to NFL dominance is its transformation into a “365-day-a-year conversation.” The NFL Draft – once the domain of football addicts – is a TV hit airing on multiple networks and streaming platforms. The NFL Scouting Combine for college talent, free agency machinations, and stars such as Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers providing celebrity gossip makes the league hard to avoid even in the offseason.

Michaels thinks the NFL is the best unscripted drama on television. Spending so many years telling these stories has wired him to handle the unknown, even a pioneering role at Prime Video.

“I consider it exciting and mysterious,” he said. “It’s good to have a bit of uncertainty.”


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