Only in rare instances will ESPN green-light a new show that has not been solidified. Yet that’s what the network did when it announced in July that its “Manningcast” featuring brothers Peyton and Eli Manning would be a secondary broadcast on “Monday Night Football” this season.
Through two games, the show has been a huge success. Aside from technical issues and other timing tweaks, the broadcast has been met with overwhelmingly positive reviews. The Mannings drew 800,000 viewers in Week 1 and more than doubled that number during Week 2 – 1.9 million, compared to 11.9 million on main ESPN broadcast.
But two people with knowledge of the production explained to USA TODAY Sports how ESPN took a leap of faith in the brothers. The people requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the broadcast and its intricacies.
First off, rehearsals didn’t start until after the July announcement, and continued throughout the summer. Locations were brainstormed, ultimately settling on Eli shooting from his New Jersey home, and Peyton at a private memorabilia warehouse in Denver. And hosts tried out.
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Mina Kimes of ESPN and Kyle Brandt of the NFL Network each sat in with the Mannings. Between their feedback and executives’ assessments, the decision to nix the host role became clear, one person with knowledge of the rehearsals said.
ESPN’s pursuit of Peyton Manning to be its primary Monday Night Football analystafter Jon Gruden returned to coaching has been well-documented. The five-time MVP retired following his second Super Bowl in 2015 and has remained in the Denver area, while upping his media presence through his production company “Omaha Productions.”
Manning launched a show on ESPN+ in 2019 called “Peyton’s Places” – which chronicles important places and people in NFL history through 20 episodes. That led to the creation of “Eli’s Places” (the same idea but on college campuses) plus other shows (starring Abby Wambach, Vince Carter, David Ortiz and Ronda Rousey) on the platform.
The idea of an accompanying broadcast is not a new concept. College football coaches usually gather during the playoff semifinal and championship to offer their analysis, for example, and CBS has tried to gear a broadcast toward kids on Nickelodeon.
What the Mannings offer is something different that likely cannot be replicated anywhere else in the broadcast space, although that won’t stop other places from trying.
Their format allows them more freedom compared to a traditional broadcast, allowing them to control the time like at the line of scrimmage.
“It’s the business of imitation, and often what they’re imitating is the one and only,” legendary broadcaster Bob Costas said on The Ringer show “Slow News Day.”
Peyton brings the energy, while Eli uses dry humor (and mildly insults his brother) to disarm. Both can do the X’s and O’s breakdowns, but that’s more Peyton’s wheelhouse.
“Can it be done? Yeah,” a skeptical Costas said. “Can it be done at the Manning level?”
One reason why that may be unattainable is their chemistry, which is hardly lacking during the brothers’ three-hour entertainment session, with some of the game sprinkled in. Guests join remotely and have included Charles Barkley, who discussed his bets on the game, and Rob Gronkowski, who joked he hasn’t watched game film in years. For those wanting the feel of a football game through their television, the main telecast with the Steve Levy, Louis Riddick and Brian Griese may be the preferred option.
After a handful of smaller rehearsals, the Mannings essentially held a dress rehearsal for a Jacksonville Jaguars-New Orleans Saints preseason game on Aug. 23, a Monday night. They brought in guests, among them former Colts executive and ESPN analyst Bill Polian, college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit, and ex-NFL player Chris Long during the unaired trial.
The Manning broadcast and main broadcast are separate entities in terms of resources. ESPN splits the production responsibilities with “Omaha Productions.” The technical side runs through ESPN, while “Omaha” takes the lead on content. Bryan Ryder, a veteran ESPN producer who formerly worked on the NFL draft, leads the Manning-side effort.
While the Mannings have found early success and popularity, the main telecast still garnered five times the amount of viewers last week. With eight more broadcasts to go in 2021, and in typical Manning fashion, the brothers aren’t focused on the positive attention, but focused on consistent improvement with each show, one of the people said.
From ESPN’s point of view, the Manning broadcast helps the network’s overall brand. Prior to the season, Griese was asked about any dynamic of competition and pushed back on the idea.
“I don’t really look at it that way,” Griese said on a conference call with reporters. “You know, I’ve known Peyton a long time. I don’t know Eli as well, but I’ve known (Peyton) a long time, over 25 years — we came out of college at the same time, competed against each other in the NFL, and now he lives in Denver and we play golf together. He’s a good friend.
“I’ve already texted back and forth with him about this, and I’m looking forward to having some fun with him going back and forth on a week-in and week-out basis and bouncing ideas off of him and having a dialogue that could be really interesting and fascinating to see where that goes.”
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.