ood Morning Football” is one of the hit shows on NFL Network’s schedule, bringing more viewers to a 7 to 10 a.m. time slot that always has been a graveyard for the league-owned channel. But the show’s road to success was not always so clear.
In the weeks after it launched in the summer of 2016, Mark Quenzel, NFL Media’s senior vice president of production, worried that he had made a mistake in greenlighting the show, which mixes entertainment topics and pop culture with football.
There was a reason for Quenzel to worry. TV ratings in those early months lagged, and the show drew fewer viewers than the show it had replaced, “NFL AM.” Plus, the show suffered through embarrassing glitches that looked amateurish. On occasion, one of the show’s hosts would call for highlights that never came. Segments would either take too long or be too short.
“There were some real crash-and-burn moments, both on and off the air,” Quenzel said. “The first few months into the show were not pretty for anybody and frustrating for everybody.”
Luckily for Quenzel, he and the show’s producer, Michael Davies, could engineer tweaks in relative obscurity. Unlike ESPN’s morning show “Get Up,” which has been on-air for only two months, Quenzel had the luxury to preach patience. By comparison, “Get Up” has higher-paid stars and a much bigger budget; any changes will be much more publicly dissected. “Get Up’s” ratings have been almost daily fodder for mainstream newspapers and sports media blogs. An anonymous Twitter feed — @DidGetUpGet300K — tracks the show’s numbers daily.
In NFL Network’s case, producers decided that the best way to move forward was to embrace the cast’s free-flowing style. That meant giving more power to the hosts, even though they had much less on-air experience than other show hosts on the network.
That change especially could be seen in the show’s production meetings, Quenzel said. A typical NFL Network studio show, like, say, “Total Access,” has detailed production meetings that choreograph who will say what and when.
By contrast, “Good Morning Football” production meetings are not scripted at all. Network executives and hosts all point to TNT’s free-flowing and popular studio show “Inside the NBA” as the basis for that decision. One of the host’s — Kyle Brandt — went so far as to describe “Good Morning Football” as “‘Inside the NBA’ without the Yo Mama jokes.”
“They break every television rule — their segments go too long and their interviews run too long,” Quenzel said. “Most shows — like ‘SportsCenter’ or one of our shows — are producer-driven shows where the producer has the rundown and tells the talent how long they have to speak. In this show, there’s very little of that. In this show, we say, here’s the subject. Let’s go. And it goes wherever it goes.”
The host-driven show has led to some awkward moments, Quenzel said. For example, at the end of the May 23 show, which was produced during the NFL owners meeting in Atlanta, the three hosts in studio that day — Kay Adams, Nate Burleson and Brandt — ended the show with a spirited discussion.
The problem was that the network already had moved on to another segment, so the segment did not make the air. The three hosts that day laughed about the snafu afterward.
“Those are the segments that make me crack up the most and where we rely on each other the most,” Brandt said.
From Quenzel’s perspective, those are the types of moments that make viewers find the cast endearing and the show so watchable.
“There are awkward moments and long lapses; ironically, they are the key to the success of the show,” he said. “They succeed because this show is produced differently from any show that I’ve produced here or at ESPN. It’s a different kind of show.”
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So far, TV ratings have posted impressive growth, even if the show’s overall numbers still are relatively low — the show rarely gets more than 100,000 viewers outside of the regular season. During the 2017 regular season, “Good Morning Football” averaged 109,344 viewers — a 23 percent jump from NFL Network programming in that slot in 2015, the season before the show launched. During the postseason this year, “Good Morning Football” averaged 88,587 viewers — a 30 percent jump from January 2016, prior to the show’s launch.
“I don’t know if we’re doing flips over the ratings — we’ve still got a long way to go,” one of the show’s hosts, Peter Schrager, said. “But I do know our words matter and we resonate with people I work with on a day-to-day basis.”
Those people — front-office executives and players — make up the kind of audience that causes the hosts to believe that they have hit on a formula that works.
“Our show is successful because the owners love it,” Adams said. “They interact with us in a way that I have never seen them interact with anybody.”
It’s not just the owners, but it’s the rest of the front office, coaches and players who offer daily feedback.
Schrager recalled a 2017 playoff game between the Seahawks and Falcons when he realized that the show was starting to resonate. Schrager was working as a sideline reporter for Fox, and flew down on Thursday after the show to prepare for the game.
On Friday morning, he went to the Seahawks’ hotel for a production meeting with the team’s coaches and some players. In an adjoining room, he saw the team’s defensive leaders — Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Cliff Avril — eating breakfast and watching the show.
“They were listening and engaged,” Schrager said. “It’s one thing to see the rerun of our show in an airport. But to see the players before the big game actually watching and nodding their head and arguing? That was eye-opening. If the players care what we say and the players respect what we say, then we’ll never stray from where we want to be.”
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On May 23, three of the hosts — Adams, Brandt and Burleson — gathered off to the side of their new set looking out over Times Square for an impromptu interview. The set, which is part of NFL Experience in New York City, featured a fully stocked bar. Burleson casually walked behind the bar and jokingly offered to mix drinks for everyone.
The hosts genuinely seemed to enjoy each other’s company. They finished each other’s sentences, laughed at each other’s jokes and regularly tossed compliments to one another.
They all gave the same answer when asked why their show has seen the growth it has in what had previously been such a deadly time slot.
“Chemistry is why we’re successful,” Adams said. “You could put that desk in the middle of Times Square. You could put it in a stuffy studio — wherever you want — and it’s still the four of us.”
That chemistry is as much a function of luck as it is of casting. Brandt said he had never met Adams or Burleson and barely knew Schrager before he was cast.
“We all sat down already hired — there was no chemistry test,” he said. “That could have been a disaster. We could have all hated each other and had zero chemistry. They took a roll of the dice.”
Burleson said the on-air chemistry did not happen immediately, but it developed quickly.
“We’ll say something at the same time as if we’re like quadruplets,” he said. “It’s these little things that only people that have been around each other for 10 years do. … I’ve worked with a lot of people. I’ve been on teams where you can play with a guy for four years and you don’t even know the name of his daughter because he’s shut off or you don’t care. But here it’s different. We’re like family. We’re so overly concerned with each other, which you can see.”
Schrager mentioned a show last August that Brandt missed because he was guest hosting the 9 a.m. edition of the “Today” show with Al Roker. Schrager said the three hosts would run into the break room during “Good Morning Football” commercial breaks to watch their friend host.
“We encourage each other to be great and try to help each other in every way,” Schrager said. “That’s not a given always in a competitive work environment.”