‘Toy Story’ Characters Hit the Gridiron in Disney Bid to Woo Young Viewers to NFL

After working for Walt Disney Co. for decades, Woody, Buzz Lightyear and their “Toy Story” friends have been given new jobs by the large entertainment conglomerate.

Characters from the popular animated Pixar films will in October take part in the latest in a series of experiments aimed at getting young kids to watch live sports. When ESPN+ streams a Sunday-morning game between the Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium in London on October 1, Disney+ will offer an “alternate” version of the proceedings in which fully-animated “Toy Story” figures echo the action of the game, slated to take place in the room of “Andy,” the toys’ original owner in the iconic movies.

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On ESPN+, viewers will see sports-network mainstays like Chris Fowler, Dan Orlovsky, Louis Riddick, and Laura Rutledge calling the game. On Disney+, viewers can watch Woody, Buzz, Bo Peep, Bullseye, Bunny, Ducky, Forky, Green Aliens, Jesse, Rex, and Slinky Dog in various game-day antics. The “Toy Story” characters will go though the same paces as the NFL players, thanks to use of next-gen stats and player tracking. Graphics, scoreboards, penalty announcements and more will all embrace the “Toy Story” theme.

So too will the announcers and other signature sports segments. Drew Carter and Booger McFarland will lay out the action alongside Pepper Persley, a 12-year-old sports journalist who has landed gigs as an WNBA sideline reporter. Duke Caboom, one of the characters from “Toy Story 4,” will attempt a motorcycle jump during a bespoke halftime program. Viewers will see “how-to” vignettes and trivia questions during the streamcast, along with pre-recorded interviews with players from the Falcons and Jaguars.

The “Toy Story” game is the latest attempt to try live programming on a streaming hub, not just the scripted movies and series that viewers can watch at times of their own choosing. Disney had tested a cycle of the long-running ABC program “Dancing With The Stars,” and Netflix recently ran a live stand-up comedy show from Chris Rock.

Big sports outlets continue to examine ways to bring kids and their families to the playing field. Paramount Global plans early next year to offer a separate broadcast of Super Bowl LVIII on the kid-centric Nickelodeon, complete with its own sportscasters, some separate TV commercials and the network’s signature green slime. Disney and ESPN, meanwhile, earlier this year aired a broadcast of an NHL match-up that used animated figures from “Big City Greens,” and in 2021 tested a game using Marvel characters that kids could play as they watched an NBA contest between the Golden State Warriors and the New Orleans Pelicans.

Many media companies have determined that adults’ TV tastes are likely to be formed with their children in mind. While big movies and ambitious series continue to garner the lion’s share of attention in the TV business, it has long been understood that properties aimed at kids, young adults and families tend to create the sorts of lasting relationships that keep subscriber money coming in every month. With more sports moving to streaming windows, big games are becoming an increasingly good opportunity to lure the sizable business that media honchos hope will follow little people.

There is also growing interest in so-called “alterna-casts”

More TV networks are experimenting with so-called “alterna-casts,” or telecasts tailored for audience niches, such as kids, women, or gamblers. The technique aims to bring audiences to an event that might not normally tune in. Disney’s ESPN continues to try new concepts, including a “Monday Night Football” telecast hosted by the chatty gridiron brothers Eli and Peyton Manning. ESPN executives have suggested strongly that they would like try several alterna-casts when Disney gets the right to broadcast the Big Game in 2027. Jimmy Pitaro, the chairman of Disney’s sports businesses, says research suggests the audience for the “ManningCast” is five to seven years younger than the one that tunes in regularly for “MNF.”

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