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'GameDay Prime' leads charge in big fall for NFL Network

Pittsburgh had just finished off its 30-12 victory over Miami in the opening round of the playoffs, and NFL GameDay Prime wanted Antonio Brown to speak to Deion Sanders on its postgame show. The receiver had a big game with 124 yards and two touchdowns.

Brown, though, was anxious to quickly leave the locker room, and wouldn't be available to do a conventional live TV shot with a camera crew. In another place and time, GameDay Prime likely wouldn't have gotten the interview.

But this is the era of exploiting modern technology.

"We told Antonio, 'No problem. Give us your cell number and we can do it on your drive home,'" said Chris Weerts, coordinating producer for NFL Network.

Call it FaceTime with "Prime Time." There was Brown in the backseat of his Rolls Royce chatting up football and life with Sanders.

"Hey, man, you've been balling all year and I've finally got you," Sanders said to a smiling Brown. "How are you the last one I get?"

Sanders' interviews on GameDay Prime are among the factors in producing a big fall for NFL Network. For the first time ever, NFL Network was the second most-watched sports cable network during the NFL regular season in the ages 18-49 and 18-34 demographic (ESPN is ranked first). The network averaged 256,000 overall viewers, a three percent increase since 2015.

Among top programming performers for NFL Network were premiere episodes of NFL Films produced A Football Life series, which averaged 445,000 viewers, and the new morning show, Good Morning Football, which was up 15 percent in the 18-49 demo and nine percent over compared to the equivalent time period average in 2015.

Then there are ratings for GameDay Prime, which were up 36 percent from 2015 when the show was known as GameDay Final. Clearly, viewers are responding to what Weerts terms a more "personality driven" approach for this year's show. Along with highlights and analysis of Sunday's games with LaDainian Tomlinson and Chris Rose, GameDay Prime is highlighted by Sanders' unique interviews with players and celebrities.

"It's all about access and interviews with your guard down," Weerts said. "It's astounding how many people Deion knows. We thought to ourselves, 'How do we leverage Deion's rolodex?'"

Indeed, the connections helped lead to New Orleans native Lil Wayne explaining to Sanders how he became a Packers fan during a recent show. Nicki Minaj even made a cameo appearance during the Wayne interview. Denzel Washington appeared live with Sanders during Saturday's show.

GameDay Prime has featured a virtual who's-who of the NFL's top stars. Sunday's show featured an interview with the Steelers' Le'Veon Bell on his way to the bus after a big game in the win over Kansas City.

Weerts admitted the producers weren't sure how many players GameDay Prime could land at first. They found quickly that most of them jumped at the opportunity to be interviewed by Sanders.

"Around Week 5, we realized that the players were engaged in what we're doing," Sanders said.

"It's amazing how Deion resonates with those players. We've had rookies and 10-year vets. It doesn't matter. They're all excited to talk to him."

Indeed, the players know they aren't going to get a conventional interview with the Hall of Famer. Sanders is going to have fun, sometimes at the players' expense.

For instance, there was a game in which Pittsburgh receiver Sammy Coates dropped a couple of key passes. He later redeemed himself with a big touchdown. During the interview, Sanders told Coates to place his hands within view of the phone so he could scold them.

"If a beat writer does the same thing, it probably doesn't end as well," Weerts said. "Deion can get away with that kind of stuff."

GameDay Prime player access comes in large part by relying on cell phones and Skype. There is no need for a camera crew in 2017. Picture quality isn't an issue, Weerts said, because people are used to the technology from using it themselves.

"As long as the Wi-Fi is good enough, we'll get a good shot," Weerts said.

FaceTime actually has provided some good behind-the-scenes moments, Weerts said. During an interview with Cincinnati defensive back Adam Jones, he took a shot of the players on a festive bus on the way to the airport after a game.

Then there are funny moments when a player's FaceTime skills could be lacking.

"Occasionally, we have to tell the players, 'Hey, your camera is on,'" Weerts said.

Weerts believes the interviews add an extra dimension to GameDay Prime. He also cites an "interesting chemistry" between Sanders, Tomlinson and Rose in taking the show to another level.

"They all come in with ideas, and not just for themselves," Weerts said. "The three of them really are engaged in making this a good show. That's what makes it fun."

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