Can Jordan Levin ‘Save’ the NFL Network?

The NFL isn’t used to failing and maybe it’s a little unfair to label the league’s network a lemon but it’s pretty clear that the folks on Park Avenue expected much more from their in-house television vehicle.

And that’s why the league hired a longtime television executive Monday to help boost the listless channel.

Former WB chief Jordan Levin was named the NFL’s first ever senior vice president, chief content officer, a position which encompasses all the sports giant’s owned and operated media assets, including NFL Network, NFL Digital Media, NFL Films, and external media partnerships, networks and platforms.

“I’m both honored and humbled to be joining the NFL Media team to help them realize their bold strategic vision of delivering NFL fans unique and distinctive content experiences in a personalized manner across all screens, channels and media platforms worldwide,” said Levin. “I look forward to working closely with both the NFL’s own media properties and external partnerships to create additional value for the League and most importantly, serving its current and future fans.”

The key words there are “future fans” because that’s what the NFL, and a lot of other major-league programmers for that matter, is really concerned with.

The rapidly evolving media landscape includes a shrinking conventional television audience. The number of Americans who pay for their TV through cable, satellite or fiber services fell for the first time in 2013, and the slide figures to continue as those untrusting or unaware of the top streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu pass away and are replaced by generations who are indoctrinated into so-called, over-the-top offerings.

Levin’s purview will include managing current NFL event programming franchises, such as the Super Bowl Halftime Show and NFL Honors, but from those in the know, his main mission will be addressing the long-term growth objectives of the network with an eye on developing programming for that younger generation of viewers, who expect on-demand access.

Levin, who most recently worked at Xbox Studios before Microsoft axed that division, is the former CEO of the WB Network, helping launch and build the “Michigan J. Frog” brand, which eventually became the first broadcast network to target young adults with programs like “Dawson’s Creek,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Felicity,” and “Gilmore Girls.”

Prior to that, Levin spent five years as a member of the creative team in the Disney television division, helping develop shows such as “Home Improvement,” and “Boy Meets World.”

His strength is obvious — connecting with the demographic the NFL craves.

“Jordan will be a great addition to an already strong executive team at NFL Media and help us produce first-class content we can deliver to NFL fans around the world across all platforms,” Brian Rolapp, the NFL’s executive vice president of media, said.

When the NFL started its own network, the league was like every other major sports brand and figured it’s library of programming already on the shelf could carry things but that hasn’t been the case.

Most television viewers — especially younger ones — crave new above all else and if history isn’t last on the Millennials checklist, it’s certainly near the bottom on the to-do list.

In fact Rolapp, who will be Levin’s boss, mentioned game shows and scripted shows when he spoke about the Levin hire to Sports Business Journal, themes that will likely make the most ardent of the league’s fans roll their eyes.

However, the one thing that has been proven to this point is that the hardcore fans — even in America’s most popular sport — are not enough to carry a television network.

You have to cater to the casual viewer and that’s a tough road for stations named after sports leagues.

Any viewer who sees NFL, MLB, NBA or NHL in their cable guide knows what to expect on those channels. And for those looking for the Lifetime Movie of the Week or the latest reality sensation, they aren’t headed toward the sports tier.

May 8, 2014:  Rich Eisen of the NFL Network broadcasts prior to the start of the first round of the NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan, NY.

Will Rich Eisen and Co. be able to adjust to improve ratings?

Pitting members of the “Steel Curtain” against the “People Eaters” in NFL Family Feud or placing Michael Sam is a house with 19 other wannabes for a slot in an NFL training camp isn’t the answer either, although some royalties will be expected by yours truly when Levin swipes those ideas.

The only model of success for any sports-themed network is the television-news formula. Think CNN in between the games and special events like the scouting combine and the draft.

But it’s tough for any house organ to speed down a journalistic path while maintaining any sense of credibility.

For the NFL Network to change its perception, Rich Eisen and Co. will not only have to talk about the fun stuff like who has the advantage in the Sam Bradford-Nick Foles trade, they will have to address the often seedy, off-the-field problems the league has endured in a substantive way, something the network has failed miserably at to this point.

So maybe the only real end game here is the status quo.

Let’s face it, the NFL’s plan of scripted offerings, and game shows is doomed to failure and the league doesn’t have the stomach for the fair-and-balanced approach, making this whole experiment an exercise in futility.

Treating the NFL Network as a necessary evil, almost a loss-ledger of sorts, for what Roger Goodell believes will be a $25 billion industry by the year 2027 may be the only prudent path.

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