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Coming in second act for 'TNF': better picture quality, more data

Oct 11, 2023

The big questions for Amazon before its first season of exclusive "Thursday Night Football" broadcasts on Prime Video were whether people would tune in to the streaming service for games and whether viewers would enjoy the Amazonian sensibility of the coverage.

Viewership answered both questions resoundingly in the affirmative. Nielsen data showed that Amazon averaged 9.6 million viewers, peaking at around 13 million with its first game. Amazon also reported that fans watched an average of 85 minutes -- 12% longer than linear TV games.

For its second season, Amazon seeks to build on that foundation with enhanced picture quality (native HDR production) and more data-driven insights, particularly through its alternate feed, Prime Vision with Next Gen Stats.

The yellow first down line revolutionized the way everyone watches football. It’s a clear visualization of a binary outcome -- whether a team advances the ball past it for a first down or not. But its cousin, the field goal target line, suffers from not being so straightforward, and Amazon is seeking to enhance its utility by providing context to its meaning and by drawing more lines on the field for its Prime Vision feed. (Does that make them a second cousin or first cousin, once removed? But I digress ...)

“This line is not picked at random, but it's not really a scientific spot that broadcasts pick -- it's typically, what's this player's career long? But it doesn't account for the weather or the altitude of that stadium,” said Sam Schwartzstein, Prime Video’s "TNF" analytics expert. “We're going to be able to use Next Gen Stats Field Goal Make Probability, which is a machine learning model to help guide what's the likelihood a player makes a kick.”

Prime Vision will now show three lines, representing field goal probabilities of 25%, 50% and 75%. Furthermore, as data-reliant NFL teams have grown more aggressive in going for it on fourth down, the Prime Vision coverage will start showing a new line on third down plays indicating how far the ball needs to move forward to make a fourth down attempt worthwhile.

“Analytics has invaded fourth down, but it's often happening after the play, where it’s saying, ‘Analytics said to go for it’ with no explanation, no understanding about the context of the situation,” said Schwartzstein, who was the XFL’s director of football operations, innovation and strategy. “So we're going to mirror what teams do.”

Those are AI-powered metrics that show offensive strategy, while another newly refined metric will explain another dimension of the passing game. Last year Amazon introduced the intuitively named Open Receiver tool but redeveloped the underlying model to emphasize players with a high probability of converting a first down. This new metric is called Prime Target -- still fairly intuitive but now featuring company branding.

Making a defensive play

Similarly, Amazon leveraged a neural network for its feature on the other side of the ball called Defensive Alerts. This is also reliant on the RFID tags in every player’s shoulder pads -- provided by Zebra Technologies and forming the foundation of the AWS Next Gen Stats -- and will predict the players most likely to blitz, to use their positioning, and their accelerations and direction of movement.

This is an area of the game particularly dear to Schwartzstein, who was Andrew Luck’s center at Stanford. Centers typically call the blocking schemes, and Defensive Alerts is already picking up tendencies that its creator missed (even if the model doesn’t yet yell out “Mike!” to locate the middle linebacker).

“It's revealing things to me that I didn't see normally,” Schwartzstein said.

The stats featured in last year’s broadcasts will remain, such as a player’s top speed, but it'll be in the name of the game’s narrative rather than gratuitous stat sharing.

“It's numbers and data to support the story,” said Betsy Riley, Prime Video senior coordinating producer. “What we strive to do is provide insights. George Kittle’s 20.6 miles per hour -- that's practically speeding in a school zone. That helps our viewers understand and appreciate his athleticism, the bursty nature of his speed.”

Important for the user experience, Amazon isn’t showing the gory arithmetic for Prime Targets and Defensive Alerts, just a colorful circle. A math teacher might deduct points for not showing the work, but that’s not a priority for the fans focused on Feature Zero: the football.

“The beauty of Prime Vision is we're using data to power almost everything you're seeing on the screen, but it's all about making you understand football,” Schwartzstein said. “Fans aren't watching this game to watch a spreadsheet -- they’re watching this game to watch a game.”

Digital delivery

For all the complicated technology underpinning the experience, the alternate feeds and advanced metrics, the flashy graphics and upcoming retail integrations, Amazon’s Thursday Night NFL production team remains adamant that Feature Zero is football.

“Even as we talk about innovations and optionality, the game is at the center of everything,” Riley said.

But to deliver that action from glass to glass -- from a camera lens to the viewer's screen -- is a massive undertaking that began with a shocking realization in 2018 when Amazon first landed exclusive live sports rights with a domestic broadcast deal to show 20 Premier League matches on Prime Video.

“The internet wasn't big enough in the U.K. to even do what we needed to do,” said Eric Orme, Prime Video director of live events.

That’s right, the bandwidth capacity of a G7 country couldn’t handle the HD-quality picture Amazon wanted to stream.

Amazon began simulcasting "TNF" in 2017, and for the first several seasons, it was part of a tricast model in which it streamed games also being broadcast on CBS and NBC (later Fox) and the NFL Network, thus significantly reducing the viewership. (Also, the U.S. connectivity infrastructure was more mature.)

So, prior to beginning its three-year contract in summer 2019, Amazon had a year to prepare. Orme said Amazon worked with service providers to bolster their networks. Roughly 300 Amazon executives gathered in London and tested the system rigorously for resiliency and redundancy.

“We would inject chaos and break things constantly, and that led us to be prepared for what we needed to do,” Orme said.

By 2020, Amazon had developed some proprietary technology to synchronize its feed on a global clock for concurrent transmission -- to avoid any spoilers -- and reduce latency to fewer than 10 seconds, which Orme noted was “faster than cable and satellite a lot of times.” It’s based on a UDP (User Datagram Protocol) rather than the more familiar HTTP that he compared to pushing data to users rather the end user pulling that data.

While usually four primary feeds -- English, Spanish, Prime Vision with Next Gen Stats -- and an alternate production by Dude Perfect or Uninterrupted, Amazon actually hosts 144 feeds when accounting for redundancies and adaptations for all the relevant devices. Orme credited the support of AWS for its computing power and elasticity of services to serve as a sturdy “backbone” to help the team meet their goal of reaching every customer.

“Because we're a streaming service, it gives us a unique position -- we're actually able to get from the lens of the camera to a customer's home with fewer stops,” Riley said. “If you think of it as almost a bus stop, in the old school linear world, you’d have to stop at different affiliates, and you had some degradation going from lens to living room.”

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