Grand Jury POV: Bill McCullough, Vice President/Head of Content Development, National Football League

Advisory Board/Grand Jury member Bill McCullough is an 11-time Emmy Award winner who now serves as Vice President/Head of Content Development for NFL Media. In this interview Bill shares today’s hot topics in content strategy, audience engagement, and the importance of storytelling in the future for the NFL.

New York, NY | April 28, 2020


NYF TV & Film Awards Advisory Board/Grand Jury member Bill McCullough is an 11-time Emmy Award winner who now serves as Vice President/Head of Content Development for NFL Media. After 2 award-winning seasons as a Creative Director in the Marketing group where he helped drive record ratings, Bill now moves to the content side of the organization where he will be tasked with developing and executing a multi-platform content strategy for NFL Media.

The former Vice President of HBO Sports and Executive Producer of GoPro Entertainment has earned a reputation for developing and producing premium content like the NFL Films documentary A Lifetime of Sundays, Dude Perfect Super Bowl Trick Shots (27M+ views) and the 8-part Facebook docu-series Hala Madrid! (30M+ views).

During his time at HBO, Bill creative directed and edited the Emmy Award-winning HBO documentaries Breaking the Huddle, Assault in the Ring, Lombardi and Namath.   He won his first Emmy for editing the HBO documentary Howard Cosell: Telling It Like It Is.Bill also directed the critically acclaimed HBO series’ Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel and State of Play, and won his most recent Emmy as Director for Outstanding Sports Anthology.  Other HBO projects include shows like The Chris Rock Show, Inside the NFL, Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, and Reverb as well as campaigns for Sex and the City, Carnivale. Angels in America, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Def Poetry, and HBO Sports.

In the interview below Bill shares today’s hot topics in content strategy, audience engagement, and the importance of storytelling in the future for the NFL.

New York Festivals: In 2019, of the 50 most-watched television broadcasts of the year, 41 of them were NFL games -  an amazing testament to the reach of the sport. What type of content development do you need with a stat like that? 

Bill McCullough: It really is impressive that the NFL can consistently deliver the type of eyeballs it does on a platform with the recent trajectory of linear television.  Combine this with the digital streaming numbers and there aren’t many programs that come close to the reach of a live NFL football game. But as it relates to development the focus is on delivering fans the best quality game and experience possible.  As a result we have seen some rule changes over the past few years that have impacted the speed and excitement of the game as well as some innovations to the actual broadcasts designed to keep viewers watching. Next Gen Stats is another tool used to help tell the story of how great these athletes perform through the use of NFL proprietary data.

But the best development strategy for the NFL is to invest in the players themselves.  The 2020 NFL Draft was the most watched Draft in history and it featured some of the most extraordinary athletes to ever play the game.  We are witnessing the dawn of a new era in the NFL as we look forward to watching Joe Burrow and Chase Young take the field for the first time in an NFL uniform.  We also continue to be dazzled by the talents of Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Saquon Barkley, and Nick Bosa.  This young crop of players is the future of the NFL and they are providing an even more exhilarating brand of football that showcases high scoring offenses, amazing athletic feats and extremely competitive games.

New York Festivals: Looking ahead to the 2020 season and beyond, share thoughts on growing engagement beyond traditional broadcasts.  

Bill McCullough: As we look at the consumption behaviors across demos it’s no secret that the younger demos are watching less linear television than ever.  Since the NFL has made live games widely available across digital platforms two years ago, we are seeing consumption on those platforms grow by double digits.  We are also seeing different ways in which games are consumed.  I use my 15 year old as an example.  On Sunday nights we talk about everything that happened in the games that day even though we didn’t necessarily watch them together.  Highlights on Snapchat, Youtube, and the NFL app are go-to’s for my son, whereas I am more in the traditional linear television group consuming entire games and NFL Redzone.  As we continue to make the game available on more platforms and learn the consumption behaviors of the younger generation, it is imperative that the NFL continue to deliver live games regardless of platform while still maintaining a native experience. 

New York Festivals: Is the search for an all-encompassing strategy focusing on where the audience is or what the platform is?

Bill McCullough: It’s definitely an audience first approach.  “Fish where the fish are” is the idea.  This really comes in to play when we talk about content that is outside of the live games.  Shoulder programming presents a different challenge for NFL Media. Unlike a live game which is one of the last appointment viewing programs, fans consume NFL content in so many different ways and on so many different platforms.

It is important for us to understand viewer behavior in this fractured, multi-platform world more than ever so we can serve fans the content they expect in the places they expect it.   

New York Festivals: How important are demographics and actual data measurement in determining content strategy?

Bill McCullough: It’s an extremely important part of developing a content strategy in today’s world.  The tools and data now available allow us to make more informed decisions about what is working on what platform, what content resonates with which audience and ultimately helps determine where to spend money. But having access to data doesn’t solve any of the problems if you don’t know how to use it. You have to know what to look for and how to interpret the data it in a way that is useful for your programming and ultimately helps promote your strategy.  Ask the right questions and use the data to optimize the content so you can maximize consumption and manage costs.

New York Festivals: With so many choices of outlets, and so many constituencies, how did the content development process over the past year take form?  

Bill McCullough: With 70M avid NFL fans we had to start with the audience.  We really wanted to break that 70M down to get better insight on how their avidity drives behavior and consumption. From there we can start to look at what content will resonate with them on which part of their fan journey.  This strategy is focusing on content that is outside the live games, so it’s crucial to have a firm understanding of the fan and the fan journey.  Understanding the audience and behaviors also allows us to utilize other platforms and partners for content creation and distribution.

New York Festivals: Will storytelling be the key element for wide audience engagement?   

Bill McCullough: Storytelling is essential not only to attract new fans but also to deepen the connection with existing fans. For decades the Olympics have been using storytelling to connect athletes with fans to create a connection and provide a reason to watch a sport that only comes around every two years. It’s about humanizing these athletes and making them accessible to fans through stories.  And as we live through this COVID-19 crisis we are establishing a new level of intimacy with these athletes as we are in their homes, meeting their families for the Draft and Draft-a-thon, and letting fans get to know them off the field..

But again this has to consider the fact that platform behavior is key to understanding what content to serve and where to serve it.  Showing up in an authentic way on different platforms means there is a need for bespoke content.  We are beyond the days where we can just clip off a piece of a TV show and throw it up on social or Youtube.  Sure that approach can work in certain instances, but a more effective strategy involves really understanding each platform and what the content experience is from a user perspective. 

The NFL is also very fortunate to have amazing and talented partners who are also looking to engage fans through storytelling on their platforms and that certainly benefits the NFL as a whole.