After a nearly 10-year impasse between two unlikeable corporate conglomerates utterly indifferent to the pleas of a consumer populace just begging to give them both money, the NFL Network finally arrived on Time Warner Cable this weekend.
I have lived in New York City for 13 years. Now, paying eight times the average American’s mortgage to rent an apartment the size of a fourth closet, with rats in the ceiling and muggers in the hallway, with the profound dread that comes with being surrounded by millions of people yet never feeling anything but paralyzingly alone … that’s all obviously wonderful. But the downside is that, until this weekend, I had never once watched the NFL Network.
More to the point: I’d never watched NFL RedZone. I have friends who swear by RedZone, rhapsodizing about its brilliance with religious, almost cultish fervor. For those who don’t know -- that’s to say, people who have lived in New York City for the last nine years -- RedZone is a commercial-free, seven-hour block of every exciting play in every NFL game all day. (There is also the Red Zone Channel, which is the DirecTV version hosted by Andrew Siciliano.) You see every scoring opportunity, you see every two-minute drill, you see every moment of fantasy relevance. The general consensus: You’ll never watch football the same way again.
So on Sunday, at 1 p.m. ET, like millions of Americans, I welded my arse to my couch -- my arse is made of a weldable aluminum alloy -- and watched RedZone, all day. (Well, most of the day. We’ll get to that.) This fan favorite, this consumer-friendly bucket of joy. I had to see what the fuss was about. I can confirm, now that it’s over, that it’s definitely football how I’ve never watched it before. This is both good and bad.
Because the Internet loves lists, and because writers love making lists (it saves us the trouble of having to construct a propulsive narrative with thematic unity), here are seven observations from the day I lost my RedZone Channel virginity.
1. Scott Hanson is going to be a superstar someday. Because I don’t have the NFL Network (see: profound dread, above), I’d never seen Hanson’s work before, but now that I’ve heard him talk to me for more cumulative hours than my father ever has, I’m pretty sure that the 41-year-old is the future of broadcasting. He somehow manages to hop around the country from game to game every six seconds -- there were nine 1 p.m. games on Sunday, an unusually heavy load -- yet he keeps his cool throughout, weaving in some fun, wry, understated commentary. (Company line or no, Hanson gets his point across on the incompetence of the scab refs.) He’s basically hosting a whirling dervish crapfest, and there wasn’t a moment that I didn’t feel he was completely in charge and calm. I have to think that’s the toughest studio job in sports, and he’s just perfect. I think I want him to broadcast my class reunion. (“There’s Amy Garrett still looking fantastic … Betsy Schultz-Stein, on the other hand … moving on to Melanie Price …”)
2. The best part about the channel is the lack of commercials. Good Lord. I didn’t see anyone hit in the groin. I didn’t see some “young” guy choose a beer over a beautiful woman. I didn’t see any promos for shows with quirky pretty people being best friends in increasingly eccentric ways. I didn’t see a talking baby. I was able to spend several consecutive hours without someone trying to sell me something that’s not good for me by trying to appeal to my latent insecurities, envy and/or vanity. Honestly, I don’t remember the last time I went longer than two hours without some sort of advertising shoved in my face. (Other than, of course, the banners surrounding every NFL stadium.) Hours and hours without commercials? In this way, RedZone is like going through detox, some sort of juice cleanse or something. I honestly felt about five pounds lighter at the end of the day; sports advertising does a number on one’s soul.
3. The channel discourages institutional memory. So there was this play in the Bears-Rams game in which Jay Cutler was intercepted, and then the guy who intercepted the pass fumbled, and then the guy who recovered the fumble fumbled, and it was just all sorts of crazy. It of course took the scab refs about three minutes to sort it out. Anyway, I watched the play, and then RedZone moved on to another play and then to another and then Hanson said, “Remember that crazy play in the Rams-Bears game” to let us know what the scab refs’ ruling was. I’d certainly hope we remembered it: It was three minutes ago. Hanson said “remember” the way I say “remember” when I say things like, “Hey, remember when Tom Cruise and Goose had that cool high-five in ‘Top Gun’?” and that movie came out 26 years ago.
On RedZone, events happen and are then forgotten in the chaos. Something that happened three minutes ago is distant history. And I totally get it. Had they not returned to that play, in 10 minutes, after about 50 highlights, I would absolutely have forgotten it. I might have forgotten that the Bears and Rams were playing. I might have forgotten where the cities of Chicago and St. Louis were. There’s a lot to take in on RedZone.
4. Every play is important, and none are. This is an inherent issue in all highlight packages, let alone those that are happening live: When everything is exciting -- as every second of RedZone is, by design -- then nothing is. It's just touchdown after touchdown after turnover after touchdown after turnover, all day. When I watch a regular football game, a touchdown is noteworthy, a reason either to celebrate or to throw something at the television. On RedZone, a touchdown is just something that happens a few seconds before another touchdown. It drains football of all context; it turns the sport into incessant, almost droning sensation. This is still sorta fun -- not all touchdowns are created equal, after all, and besides, it makes it a lot easier to track fantasy matchups -- but I still couldn’t help but think that this should be a supplement to your regular football watching rather than a replacement. This channel tells you almost nothing about football itself; it’s like an NBA channel with nothing but dunks.
5. It makes the act of not scoring almost pointless. This is not a channel for defensive junkies. It took 22 minutes for either the Bears or Rams to reach the RedZone, so we never saw a second of the game; I didn’t even know they were playing until Robbie Gould hit a 54-yard field goal. Otherwise, in the world of RedZonel, it might as well not have been going on. It was strange, almost existential: If a Rams-Bears game goes scoreless in a forest, does anyone hear it?
6. It’s absolutely exhausting. There wasn’t a second that I wasn’t completely riveted by RedZone. When you take out all the boring parts of watching a football telecast -- which is to say, about 89 percent of it -- and just mush all the games together, you lose touch with all the natural dull rhythms of football and the way we watch it. This is not entirely a bad thing. There was so much excitement happening on RedZone that I found myself afraid to go to the bathroom. (Needless to say, this is not a problem when watching a football game from beginning to end.) I stared at the screen with an intensity with which I never watch actual games. The three hours of the early games passed by with almost frightening speed. It’s probably the fastest three hours of sports-watching I’ve ever experienced.
7. This is best consumed in small doses. That it went so quickly was a problem. Three 1 p.m. games went into overtime, and it was all happening at once, and it was all so exciting, and Hanson’s voice was rising, and Mikel LeShoure of my fantasy team was nearing the magical 100-yard plateau, and holy cow holy crap holy yikes … it was so all-encompassing that I hadn’t even noticed that the Arizona Cardinals game had started. This was a huge game for my beloved Cardinals, a chance to go to 3-0 for the first time since the year before I was born, and I’d been looking forward to it all week. But RedZone distracted me so much that it didn’t even occur to me that game time had arrived until the game was already midway through the first quarter. This, at long last, broke the spell. I took a break, stood up and stretched … and turned the channel to the Cardinals-Eagles game. It was a relief. Watching just one game was a respite. Watching one game felt like taking the afternoon off.
So, what have we learned? I think NFL RedZone is undeniably a revolutionary way to experience football, and television, and I’m furious that it has taken this long to make its way to my television. But it is not, at its core, football. It is whippets, a hashtag instead of a long read. I love it, and I’m going to watch it every Sunday.
But only when my Cardinals aren’t playing. That’s my compromise: three hours of short-attention-span football, three hours of the real thing. You can’t have one without the other. When I’m watching RedZonel, I want to have my “regular” football chaser, to remind me of the importance, of the context, of what I’m watching. Otherwise, it’s basically taking whippets for three hours. It feels fantastic, but you’ve just lost a ton of brain cells and can no longer stand.
I’m so glad that I finally have this channel. Now I have to make sure that I consume it with the moderation that’s probably necessary.
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I dunno who I’m trying to kid here: I’m fairly certain that I’ll be a junkie within a month. Thoughts, concerns, grousing, future column ideas? Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you’re yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you’re pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I’ll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.