Inside Amazon’s Vision For Football’s Late Night Show With ‘TNF Nightcap’

When Amazon Prime Video won the bidding for Thursday Night Football in the NFL’s latest TV broadcast package, the streaming giant suddenly had to craft a vision for how it would build a football broadcast.

For the game itself, Amazon wanted to bring in familiar faces to grant some immediate legitimacy to the broadcast. That meant hiring the legendary Al Michaels away from NBC, pairing him with longtime ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit, and bringing Kaylee Hartung back into the sports space to handle sideline reporting duties. However, when it came to the on-site studio show, it wanted to cast a much wider net and bring in fresh faces for pregame, halftime, and postgame.

The postgame portion of that equation was particularly important, because Amazon didn’t want to just do a 10-minute recap of the game and go off of the air like most networks do. It explored, alongside the league, what its version of late-night television would be with a football focus, and the result was TNF Nightcap.

“The notion of doing a longer postgame show just in general really was borne out of a functional aspect,” explains Mike Muriano, Prime Video’s Executive Producer of Live Sports over breakfast prior to their Bengals-Ravens broadcast in Baltimore. “‘Hey, we’re here. We’ve got all of our bells and whistles and stage, everything’s here.’ To do an abbreviated 10-minute postgame show just didn’t feel right — we can do more than that. So now we have a blank canvas to do more NFL stuff, but also really lean into, okay, what would we want to see? We know that we’re different. We’re getting a different audience than most postgame shows. We’re up late. It’s late. People are fighting sleep and coming off a game, so we started with what would we want to see. Like, what’s been entertaining for us. Obviously stay based and rooted in football, but what are some other opportunities that present themselves and what we can do?”

From there, Amazon set out on building its team and needing to strike the right balance between having a group that can break down a game and analyze what’s happening on the field from a variety of perspectives for pregame, halftime, and postgame. All of this would need to happen while being engaging, entertaining, and willing to color outside the lines of a traditional football show once they hit Nightcap. The goal was to bring together a diverse group with different perspectives, not just in the positions they played on the football field, but in life experiences as well.

Amazon ended up going with two TV veterans in Charissa Thompson and Tony Gonzalez, and put them alongside three freshly retired players who had never done television: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Richard Sherman, and Andrew Whitworth. There were various iterations of what the group would look like, but through various meetings, interviews, dinners, and some luck with when that trio all hung up their cleats, they ended up with the perfect balance of football knowledge and personality.

“It’s just been fascinating from day one, just the ultimate collaboration between all of us, all the stakeholders that had a say-so in the talent. And then it’s a little bit of luck too,” recalls Amina Hussein, Head of On-Air Talent and Development. “But I remember our first dinner and Fitz and Sherm reminded me of like a buddy cop movie. It’s the first time they’d ever met [off the field], and they instantly clicked. And then Tony got in there, and Charissa obviously just is the queen of the show. And then with Whit, it’s not about position. Who puts offensive linemen on a pregame show? You just don’t see that very often. But after one meeting with Andrew, I think we all kind of knew immediately, okay, this guy has it. But they just immediately clicked, and I remember thinking, ‘I think we have something.’ It was just that immediate feeling of, okay, these guys really enjoy each other’s company. They’re ridiculously intelligent and humorous at the same time.”

For the production crew, what they were most focused on was ensuring that the personalities they coveted after those conversations and dinners shined through once the group was behind the desk and the red light came on. It can be easy to try and make sure everyone looks the part and comes off polished and professional on air, but in doing so, you risk dimming the personalities you hired them to bring to the show.

“They’d never been on television, but we knew, and we stress this from the beginning, we’ll help you with the television. Be yourself. Be your authentic self. Be genuine. That’s why we’re here,” says Jared Stacy, Director of Global Live Sports Production. “The worst thing we could do is try to mold you into something that you are not. We really believed, we’ll go through the early problems of what do you do with your hands when you’re on set. What do you do when you’re not talking? Where am I looking? How do I hold a mic? Like, you are here to be yourself. We put a lot of effort into having deeper conversations, like about where they wanted to go in life? What’s important to them? Again, trying to figure out curiosity, authenticity, those types of things. If they had those things, we knew we could help get them where they needed to be from a TV perspective.”

Gonzalez knows firsthand what that’s like. After starting at CBS and then moving on to FOX, Gonzalez has found himself reenergized on the Thursday Night Football set, saying he’s having the best time he’s ever had doing television. Part of that is getting out on the road with the crew and feeling a bit more connection compared to when everyone flies in for a Sunday studio show and then goes their separate ways.

The other part of it is getting a chance to feel like he’s truly able to let his personality shine on TV, and making sure the three TV rookies feel the same way.

“Go out there and be your authentic self. Don’t try to be sports broadcaster this or that, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes,” Gonzalez says of his advice to the TV rookies. “You know this game, you know it so well, but I think that was probably something that that I wish was told to me. Like I was trying to be this broadcaster. I was trying to present, and trying to go high and go low instead of just being yourself. And the environment I was in, I don’t think they kind of fostered that. And that’s why I’m no longer there — we’re not talking about Fox. And I loved my time at CBS, but it just was a little bit more uptight where this was just like, just come in and relax. And let’s just be yourselves and hang out and have a good time.”

Thursday Night Football Nightcap
Amazon Prime Video

The centerpiece of Nightcap is the interview with the star (or stars) of the game, where they bring them out to the set for an extended conversation, which we rarely get to see on sports television. We typically get a walkoff interview on the field, with two or three questions as a guy is looking to get into the locker room and celebrate with their team.

TNF, meanwhile, brings them on after they’ve gotten that time in the locker room to celebrate and decompress a bit. Once they arrive on set, they’re a bit looser. Being surrounded by four former players — some of whom may have been teammates or opponents — leads to a tendency to open up a bit more than we typically see, and they aren’t afraid to go back-and-forth about some previous commentary.

“When these guys come on there before they even come on, it’s hugs, ‘What’s up, what’s going on?’ And those guys can just relax,” Gonzalez says. “And I think they really enjoy it. I mean, look at George Kittle, he’s just out there just talking, and Jason [Kelce] and everybody that we’ve had on just coming out. I mean, Jared Goff, he was way more relaxed than he is in those interviews normally. And that’s what it does. I think that’s the best part, and that’s why I think people like watching the Nightcap because they get to see the realness and that’s what it is.

“I love that you brought up Jared Goff because I also think that that’s a different Jared Goff than you would have seen years ago,” Thompson adds. “He would have never called out Fitz the way that he did, and I loved it, because it got to it showed me like, okay, Jared got a little bit of his swagger back. And you know, Fitz can take that. It was a good it was a reminder, too, in that moment of the mutual respect that they have for one another that you can kind of flip shit and it’s not personal.”

Thompson has been in the position of doing walk-off interviews (and, recently, got herself in hot water for saying she made up some reports while doing sideline reporting). Now in the host chair on TNF, she’s able to truly appreciate seeing players open up at the desk. The interviews feel less like a press conference and more like a late night show, which is the overall feeling everyone wants to create with Nightcap.

“I think that there is that back end of the show looseness that that I really enjoy because it reminds me of the time I was on a show called The Best Damn Sports Show on Fox,” Thompson says. “And I’ve always wanted to recreate that and be back on something like that where it feels like that late night talk show kind of vibe. It’s loose and fun. So, I really enjoyed that. We have that opportunity because we don’t have the time constraints on the back end.”

For all of the stress caused by trying to create a show from scratch on a network that’s never done an NFL broadcast, there’s a freedom that creates as well. The gold standard of sports studio shows is Inside the NBA, which is able to stretch out and have fun in part because they face fewer restrictions given their place on TNT. If the conversations is really good, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal are going at it, or whatever else it may be, the time constraints placed on the show are less rigid. If need be, TNT can bump a movie or rerun back a bit (or move it up if they wrap a touch early).

TNF Nightcap enjoys a similar freedom, and that’s been particularly beneficial to a group that’s learning how to do TV for the first time. Getting your point across in a clear, concise manner is a skill that takes time to master, and the hardest part of doing sports television is figuring out how to fit what you want (or need) to say into a 30 or 60 second window. Being able to open those windows up alleviates some of that pressure, and it’s a luxury few networks are afforded. That’s not something the TNF crew takes for granted, and it allows them to foster conversation more naturally, because the guys on the desk aren’t as worried about fitting in the point they want to make. And if someone else makes a point they like, they’re given the space to react and build the conversation off of that.

“The amazing thing, too, with that whole group, which has been so rewarding, is — and one of our hallmarks is curiosity — this group listens to each other. Not just in the meeting room, but on the set,” Muriano says. “One of the most amazing things to me, and probably all of us for being around TV for the collective years we have, is I was shocked from show one through last week, seldom is this group ever yelling over each other or talking over each other. And as we can all attest, we did not have weeks of rehearsal going into our first week. It was preseason and go. And that group naturally just listens to each other and reacts, they’re not so conditioned just to go off and run and say, ‘Okay, my 30 seconds is here. I’m gonna say this. I’m not even listening to what they’re saying.’ They’re scrapping their comments if they hear something. Them listening to each other has been such a rewarding thing so far.”

As everyone I spoke with noted, they’ve gotten incredibly lucky that the group they put together has come together so quickly and all genuinely enjoy being on the road and on the desk together. As Muriano explained, you can make a good television show with people who don’t actually like one another, but it’s much harder and takes a lot more time than if there’s a natural chemistry that flows on and off camera. For Thompson and Gonzalez, it’s been energizing after many years in the TV industry, while Sherman, Fitzpatrick, and Whitworth are getting the chance to learn how to make good TV together, rather than trying to fit into an established group.

While the Prime Video team thought they had put the right group together, they admit you can never tell until the light goes on. With just one preseason game acting as a live test run, it wasn’t until the day of their first game in 2022 that they were able to fully realize they had the right group.

“The morning of our first regular season game, Chiefs-Chargers last September, I’m nervous, ten trillion butterflies in every possible way,” Stacy recalls. “I’m getting coffee downstairs, and Andrew Whitworth was doing a hit for Good Morning Football in the lobby. You kind of were like this. And Richard and Ryan are down there, and they’re having coffee, and they realize that Whit was live on television. So they start climbing up on the bar to figure out if they can photobomb Whit as he’s doing his live shot. And it put me such at ease. I’m like, we’re gonna be fine. We’re gonna be fine.”

The results speak for themselves for TNF Nightcap, which has averaged 1.94 million viewers through 11 weeks of the 2023 season (up from 1.63 million a year ago). That’s a robust figure for a show that typically takes place in the 11 p.m. hour on a streaming service that would be just as easy to cut off right as the game ends. But this group has managed to find the balance between football conversation and entertainment, with a unique approach to what a football show can be and how it can bring out something different from the players that come by the set.

As Sherman says to Gonzalez every night on the desk just before they go live for pregame, “We got something here, right?”