The Makings of "America's Remote"

Behind the Scenes at DIRECTV RedZone


September 24, 2015 Sports and Outdoors : Sports By Photo by Hayden Coplen
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Andrew Siciliano and a pair of football stat gurus pace excitedly back and forth in front of a 103-inch wall of TVs at the DIRECTV RedZone studio in Los Angeles. It’s about 12:45 p.m. on the West Coast — the middle of the most frantic hour of NFL Sunday — and the trio is monitoring 10 different games to find the single most compelling moment among them to broadcast live on the RedZone channel. The Atlanta Falcons are mounting a late comeback against the New York Giants, the Cincinnati Bengals are trying to stave off a late surge from the San Diego Chargers, and rookie quarterback Jameis Winston is attempting to close out his first career victory for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when Siciliano notices a moment that is comparatively subtle.

“Hey,” he says to producer Bill Wagner, “this is a big third down in Cleveland.” The Browns are at midfield and already up one touchdown. Wagner seems lukewarm to the idea of airing the play. Siciliano continues to sell it. Finally Wagner caves.

The instant RedZone puts the game on air, wunderkind quarterback Johnny Manziel takes a snap, spins out of the grasp of a blitzing linebacker, rolls to his left, and delivers an off-balance 51-yard touchdown pass to Travis Benjamin. In Manziel’s first true breakout game as a pro, this is unquestionably his finest moment. Siciliano and his stats researchers can’t contain their excitement; they explode into fist-pumps, yelps, and leaps into the air. “Sometimes you just have to guess,” Siciliano tells me later when we talk about his instincts while hosting RedZone. “We caught lightning in a bottle.”

This is the play that will be discussed at Monday’s proverbial water cooler. Later, when my Dad and I rehash the games via text message, he agrees the Manziel moment sticks out — though for him it was relegated to a clip on SportsCenter, like the majority of dedicated football fans.

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RedZone has been running for 11 seasons and was inspired by an Italian program that showed all the live goals in Serie A soccer. In its very first brainstorming meeting, Siciliano laid out the tenets for the channel: no commercials and no downtime. He said he wanted to act as America’s remote.

Those who can afford to watch would likely agree with his description. The channel is only available to DIRECTV subscribers who have upgraded to the premium NFL Sunday Ticket Max package, which costs around $350 a year. The network doesn’t break down subscribers by package, but they have about 2 million Sunday Ticket viewers overall, according to a company spokesperson. The reason for the lofty price (HBO Now costs about $180 per year, Netflix is $119, and DIRECTV’s MLB package is $208) can be traced back to a rights fee arms race in sports and a deal DIRECTV made last year with the NFL to pay $1.5 billion annually for eight years in exchange for the right to show all the league’s games.

Still, the proliferation of fantasy football, which leads fans to watch players around the league instead of just one team, has “only made RedZone bigger,” says Siciliano. The concept has also earned praise from NFL players, some of whom watch the channel on their bye weeks. It’s also spawned copycats like NFL Network’s identically named NFL Redzone hosted by Scott Hanson and ESPN Goal Line, which adapts the model for college football.

“It’s like a sports bar without the booze,” says James Crittenden, DIRECTV’s vice president of production and the original RedZone producer, while showing me around the facility. The broadcast space might be “boutique” compared to the studios of giants like ESPN, as Crittenden says, but it feels chiseled to fit RedZone’s needs. The control room is a blinking LED nerve center, with 10 staffers monitoring a second wall of TVs, handling technical duties, and acting as Siciliano’s supplemental eyes and ears. A massive, dynamic scoreboard called NFL GSIS (short for “Game Statistics and Information System” and pronounced “Jesus”) is projected on the side wall of the control room. GSIS changes color depending on the current game situation — red for a team in red zone, green for a touchdown, black for game over — to help the crew quickly stay up to date. Siciliano appears on camera for a quick word before games start and after they end, but mostly he is the unseen, all-knowing voice of NFL Sunday, bouncing viewers between games and bringing them up to speed on a situation before passing them off to the live, local broadcast. If RedZone can’t catch a critical moment live, they show a replay moments later with Siciliano providing color on the play.

Fans who have watched RedZone almost universally describe the resulting experience as one of intense excitement, a form of football nirvana. Siciliano and his team operate with a sense of pride in the belief that they are bringing viewers a premium product that warrants a price. “We know people put their faith in us,” Siciliano tells me in the minutes before he goes on air. “We take that honor seriously. We want to make sure that people can sit there and get super-served,” he adds, then grows more serious. “They’re not going to miss a play, not going to miss a fantasy highlight, not going to miss anything their friends are going to be talking about the next morning at work.”

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Siciliano squashes the stuffy sportscaster archetype. He doesn’t worry about his hair. He’s hiked Kilimanjaro and Macchu Picchu. His fantasy football team is affectionately named The Assclowns. He is short in stature, young and ebullient, with jet black hair and a well-documented resemblance to one-time VP candidate Paul Ryan. He is pure energy, staring me straight in the eye and filling the ebbs in our conversation with witty quips. He’s been the host of RedZone for its entire 11 seasons, getting the nod after spending over a decade on the sports radio circuit, calling games for the Arena Football League and juggling positions at Fox Sports.

He is also built for the new age. He openly admits to watching college football action on Saturdays, his day off, on four different screens at once at home. He keeps the public generally abreast of his non-bathroom streak—16 weeks and counting since he has taken a restroom break during the seven-hour show. His Twitter feed spits out cheeky reactions and one-liners in the spare seconds between games; he even forwards grievances to the customer service department from followers whose RedZone packages aren’t working.

The all-male crew of football savants that work on the show seem to orbit Siciliano. In fact, the only true silence I hear during our day is when he steps out for some air before the show goes on air.

The secret sauce of RedZone is that Siciliano makes viewers think they are watching football with their buddy who knows all the stats, has all the channels, and uses the remote at just the right time. Sure, the Miami Dolphins are lining up for a field goal, but Siciliano wants to stay on the Patriots-Bills game as Buffalo readies an onside kick. He knows that is the game everyone will be talking about. The operation of RedZone is built on his instincts as a fan.

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It’s now 1:41 p.m., and Siciliano has been on his feet without breaks or sitting since 9:20 a.m. He volleys between a hurried seriousness, pointing at one of the 10 screens before conferring with producers, and a lighthearted deadpan once he goes on air. Observing the show makes one feel out of breath — it’s chaotic and high strung, with roster numbers and game updates constantly screamed across the room. Siciliano has powered through the morning slate on the fuel of five chocolate chip cookies, a five-shot Americano, and three cups of coffee.

“I’m pretty freakin’ tired,” he admits as the morning rush of 10 games trickles to the afternoon schedule of three. Still, he remains steady and unflinching. He and his crew will again catch a serendipitous moment live when the Dallas Cowboys block a punt and run it back for a touchdown against Philadelphia. Later that night, hours after RedZone has finished their work, I watch the Seattle Seahawks lose to the Green Bay Packers on the national broadcast of Sunday Night Football. The single-game format, even for a highly anticipated game, now seems mind-numbingly slow.

“Twelve years ago Twitter didn’t exist and this channel didn’t exist and no one knew how to watch football other than the traditional way,” Siciliano says. “[RedZone] is the only way to watch football.”