Poaching highlights: The curious case of NFL Network’s RedZone channel

Curator's Note

On September 13, 2009, the NFL Network launched the NFL RedZone Channel. The channel is advertised as “every touchdown, every game.” The “red zone” in American football is defined as the area between the 20-yard line and the end zone of the defensive team. In other words, the red zone is often where the game-changing action occurs. The NFL Network created the RedZone Channel as a sort of real-time highlight vehicle. As games are being played live, the RedZone broadcasts only the red zone action.

Historically, viewers watch sporting events for their liveness and unpredictability; anything can happen. After a game’s conclusion, sporting channels and networks compile highlight “packages”—their lingua franca. The best-known example is ESPN’s SportsCenter, which for more than 30 years has endured with content consisting largely of highlights and subsequent commentary about those plays. Here’s where the RedZone’s producers have changed the game: They edit the entire channel as if compiling an ex post facto “highlight” reel. Ostensibly, the RedZone allows viewers to watch “all games” being played simultaneously. And only the exciting bits.

The launch of the RedZone channel by the NFL is at once brilliant and baffling. The NFL licenses its “product” to a myriad of other broadcast entities (CBS, Fox, ESPN, ABC, etc.) for hefty broadcasting rights. And yet, the RedZone channel actually pulls viewers away from a game being broadcast live by those licensees. Why would the NFL, which makes billions in earnings—much of that profit from broadcasting rights—bite that hand that, um, feeds? In other words, why would the NFL choose to usurp the networks that line its coffers so well?

For media scholars, the NFL RedZone is fascinating in that it poaches “feeds” from other networks, many of which may be blacked out in certain markets, to a centralized delivery vehicle complete with an on-air personality/host (Scott Hanson). Structurally, the channel functions much like a blog in that it centralizes content from multiple sources and then recontextualizes the content within a new framing device (i.e., highlights). Perhaps the NFL RedZone is a harbinger of things to come in the ever-fracturing sports media landscape.


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