At 12:30 p.m. on a Sunday in October, my current favorite hour of television kicks into high gear. “Wait, what?” you say. “Don’t you have a DVR? Who still watches live TV?” Yes, I do have a DVR, yet there’s nothing I can record with it that hits the same sweet spot as tracking up to nine NFL games live as they enter the second half via NFL RedZone, an NFL Network pay-per-season offering that I subscribe to through Cox Cable. RedZone’s whip-around-coverage approach targets fantasy football fans and sports gamblers with a product that allows them to mainline the statistically important game events that will either make or break their day.
For me, a relatively casual viewer with no interest in fantasy football and only a bemused onlooker’s curiosity about the stomach-churning world of betting on the point spread or the over/under, RedZone’s appeal lies less in what it provides than in what it does not — commercials. The one thing that really matters about RedZone, even more than the consistently intelligent commentary of host Scott Hanson, or the preternatural live editing skill of the NFL Television team running the show from their Culver City studios, is the uncanny silence of broadcast television’s loudest, most insistent voices. What makes RedZone great is that it airs NO COMMERCIALS. EVER. NONE. Occasionally an in-broadcast plug for some network show will slip through the cracks, but otherwise, those ubiquitous messages are gone.
What’s left is the extreme simultaneity of regular-season pro football in all its glory. Starting around noon, as the nine early games enter their respective second halves, the RedZone tempo, already rapid, accelerates. Some of the better teams paradoxically take themselves out of the viewing rotation by running up big leads, but what’s left is the beating heart of America’s most popular televised spectacle. The focus narrows to the one-possession games and red zone opportunities that give the channel its name. Big plays and decisive moments like missed extra points and costly penalties multiply as teams approach the two-minute warning, all without a single time-filling shot of players patrolling the sidelines, or coaches covering their mouths so that their lips can’t be read as they call in plays on their league-issue Bose headsets. When things are close and the game is in its final minutes, broadcast coverage of football slows to a crawl, and Dennis Leary and the Geico lizard build to a repetitive crescendo. On RedZone, these same close games come in together as a tight pack, roaring toward their respective finishes like racehorses in the homestretch.
NFL ratings on broadcast television are down this season, so much so that the league issued a memo to advertisers that managed to both blame the presidential election for stealing Monday Night Football’s audience share and insist that there’s nothing to worry about. The average NFL game on broadcast television carries 21 minutes of advertising per hour, as opposed to the standard 15 minutes per hour typical of other prime-time viewing. That’s an hour and three minutes of ads during just one game. If you’re a serious fan, or just work in a restaurant or bar where sports are viewed, you will have the game on from 10 in the morning until Sunday-night football ends around 9 at night. That’s more than three hours of the same two dozen commercials battering you into submission to have another beer, buy another truck, and for god’s sake, save on car insurance.
I remember when people used to smoke tobacco in public places like restaurants and bars. Now, when I change channels back to NBC on Sunday night, or to ESPN on Monday night, or to CBS and the NFL Network on the occasional Thursday, I do so with a similar sense of a culture in rapid decline. Has commercial-driven football broadcasting heard the two-minute warning? Probably not, but in the meantime, I’ll continue whipping around on Sunday afternoons.