By Chuck Kapelke
The New Orleans Saints score a touchdown — and the screen gets slimed — during their Wild Card game against the Chicago Bears that was shown on Nickelodeon earlier this year. The game was part of a megacast, an emerging model for how broadcast networks can expand their audiences by leveraging multiple channels and offering advertisers a new way to reach niche segments. Nickelodeon/YouTube
The NFL got slimed. When kids’ network Nickelodeon streamed a simulcast of the playoff game between the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears early this year, field goals soared through a virtual banner of SpongeBob, every touchdown was celebrated with virtual slime cannons, and winning coach Sean Payton was honored with a bucket of slime on his head, in keeping with a Nickelodeon tradition.
The broadcast was part of a “megacast,” with CBS/Viacom leveraging multiple channels, including CBS, Nickelodeon, and Freeform, to expand the game’s audience.
During the same weekend, Disney streamed the Ravens-Titans playoff game as a megacast across six channels, including the main broadcast on ABC and ESPN, a Spanish-language version on ESPN Deportes, an insider analysis-heavy version on ESPN2, and a loose talk-show format on Freeform, where the game was shown alongside a celebrity watch-party featuring guests like DJ Khaled.
The ratings were not earth-shattering. A little more than two million viewers tuned in to the Nickelodeon feed, compared to 30 million for CBS, and just 67,000 viewers watched the game on Freeform, according to the Hollywood Reporter, but Nickelodeon was Twitter’s No. 1 trending topic during the game, as well as the network’s most-watched program in nearly four years. Perhaps most important, the megacasts demonstrated an emerging model for how broadcast networks can expand their audiences for marquee events while offering advertisers a new way to reach niche segments.
“I don’t think our expectation is that anybody is watching the full game on one of these alternative broadcasts, but it gives them a reason to still stay tuned to be entertained, to get a different perspective, and perhaps to attract new audiences,” says Sean Hanrahan, SVP of sports brand solutions at Disney. “We want the advertisers in the national broadcast to benefit from the upside we’re delivering. It’s meant to deliver the most value for the core sponsors that we have.”
Networks Protect Their Turf
The megacast reflects the growing challenges that the major networks face to maintain hard-won market share during the pandemic. Empty stadiums and COVID-related postponements led to a 7 percent audience drop for NFL games compared to 2019, while the migration to over-the-top (OTT) content has accelerated.
Adding more channels for single games is helping the networks deliver on their contracts to their advertisers, says Larry Mann, EVP at rEvolution, an integrated sports marketing firm. “The networks are very tight on inventory, so this is providing audience sufficiency units, because the ratings have just been off this year,” he says.
“I love the concept of megacast, because it allows us to expand the audience and [it] attracts different types of viewers to the game.”
— Kate Fabian, director of marketing communications at Hyundai Motor America
Megacasting also gives the networks a chance to show their commitment to the NFL. “Behind the scenes, this is the networks courting the league for broadcast rights,” says Peter Laatz, global managing director at IEG, which advises businesses on sponsorships. “The declines in traditional sports viewership have been significant. They’re trying to get younger viewers off TikTok and video games. It’s good for the networks to try this kind of cross-platform production, giving viewers the ability to customize their experience, and it’s easy for them to do because they’re all under one roof.”
Ratings may be down, but professional football is still wildly popular relative to most TV content, and brands appreciate the benefits that live sports deliver.
“The NFL proves itself time and time again as a platform that’s unmatched in television, and is consistently dominating that weekly top 10 list,” says Kate Fabian, director of marketing communications at Hyundai Motor America. “People are more likely not to skip over the ads, or they’re not watching something that doesn’t have ad spots to begin with. I love the concept of megacast, because it allows us to expand the audience and [it] attracts different types of viewers to the game.”
Appealing to General Audiences
Of course, this approach can lead to awkward pairings, like beer commercials on a kids’ network, so brands need to ensure their ad creative is well-suited for a general audience.
Hyundai’s megacast spot showed a family driving their new Santa Fe model on an off-road adventure to buy spicy beef jerky. “The family’s having a bit of an adventure together,” Fabian says. “It’s relevant to the audience that we believe are watching the NFL.”
Hyundai’s new ad for its 2021 Santa Fe model shows a family making a special trip to buy some rare beef jerky — and getting more than they bargained for in the process. It’s crucial that ads created for megacast programming appeal to a general audience. HyundaiUSA/YouTube
Hyundai’s ad strategy includes 30-second commercials, in-stadium activations, engagement on social media, and direct sponsorship of teams in five key markets.
“It’s a big awareness play for us,” Fabian says. “In the past, the networks have been very siloed, but when they work together across their portfolio, they start to get more synergies. For me, it’s a better proposition because I can get a wider audience rather than having to look at each channel in isolation.”
USAA, which provides insurance, banking, and other services to military families, produced a single family friendly ad that ran throughout the NFL season, including on the megacasts. “The military community over-indexes on the NFL,” says Mayra Rivera, CMO at USAA. “Together with our in-person and virtual activations, we can engage members of the military community through a sport they love.”
The megacast is appealing, in part, because the model is new and buzzworthy. “Like all brands, we are looking for innovative ways to reach new audiences,” Rivera says. “In the case of the megacast, this includes military families watching the games together. Whether we would consider other megacasts will depend on how our content performs with our target audience.”
The New Normal?
Networks may eventually offer advertisers the opportunity to pick and choose which versions of the game they sponsor, enabling brands to customize their messages. Should that become available, advertisers should press hard to ensure the networks are delivering value and not needlessly fragmenting a proven audience, according to Laatz.
“Ultimately, the [networks are] going to need to deliver on the proof points, on the consumption analysis,” Laatz says. “Am I really getting higher quality engagement and interactions and logins and streams and viewers per minute? Once you go across all those channels, all the metrics are different.”
Whether the megacast will become the “new normal” is uncertain, and there is concern the novelty will diminish. “You want it to be special and unique,” Hanrahan says. “There are some added costs for us to aggregate and all those different productions, so you have to take that into consideration.”
Still, it is easy to conjure how these early experiments could lead to niche audience-specific versions of other events, in sports and other areas. Imagine a stream of comedians narrating a figure skating competition, or a channel devoted to the backstage scene at the Oscars. “The NFL is the 800-pound gorilla,” Mann says. “It’s the first pro league to do this, so I think you’ll start to see it more and more across the board.”