SBJ/Jan. 17-23, 2011/Media

Meet the NFL’s scheduling guru




It was the first week in November — Week 9 of the NFL's regular season — and Fox Sports President Eric Shanks was not happy about Fox's slate of games.

The most compelling 1 p.m. game — at least as far as TV ratings were concerned — looked to be Arizona at Minnesota. Brett Favre always brings strong TV ratings. But Favre's Vikings were 2-5 at the time, and the Cardinals weren't much better, at 3-4.

It hardly seemed like ratings gold, and the Fox Sports executive was worried about a ratings drop.

Shanks, who was named Fox Sports' president in May, called the NFL's Howard Katz to vent. It seemed that Katz, the league executive who's become a behind-the-scenes superstar for his schedule-making prowess, had gotten one wrong.

But it was Shanks who was wrong. Fox's ratings for that window increased 6 percent from the previous year, posting a 10.8 rating for that slot, which included a thrilling overtime win for Favre's Vikings. Shanks called Katz again. This time the Fox executive would admit that his dire predictions were off.

"We had some weeks where I had to eat crow with Howard," Shanks said. "He's a mad scientist with the schedule. He's able to put just an unbelievable group of games together week in and week out so that there's always a week when there's multiple unbelievable games with story lines."

There's a reason top network executives like Shanks gush about Katz, the NFL's senior vice president of broadcasting and media operations, and his ability to craft TV-friendly schedules.

The NFL has been on a two-year run of ever-increasing ratings that have turned football games into the most popular programming on television. NFL games on Sunday and Monday have become must-see programming.

This year, Katz relied on his unit's intuition and acumen, and for the first time, a "ratings predictor" — software the league used to push the TV numbers even higher.

The numbers already were high to start with. Over the past two years, viewer numbers for NFL games across all networks are up 23 percent. This year, the league's network partners averaged an all-time-high 17.9 million viewers per game. These numbers are unheard of in the current media climate, where thousands of programming choices are siphoning viewers from popular shows.

But not from the NFL.

"Sunday Night Football" was the highest-rated broadcast show for the year. "Monday Night Football" was the highest-rated cable show. Fox, CBS and NFL Network posted all-time viewer highs for their games.

Network executives have a lot of theories about why football ratings are so popular these days. They cite everything from story lines to fantasy games to the fact that viewers generally don't DVR live sports.

But each conversation with a network insider about why ratings are up so much always comes back to Katz and his team. They believe his group has somehow figured out the secrets of scheduling.

Several NFL teams enjoyed their best local ratings eve

Household rating Change from 2009 season
New Orleans Saints 49.7 1%
Pittsburgh Steelers 47.3 4%
Green Bay Packers 44 19%
Indianapolis Colts 39.4 14%
Minnesota Vikings 39.2 2%
Baltimore Ravens 37.1 20%
New England Patriots 34.9 16%
Chicago Bears 32.9 21%
San Diego Chargers 31.8* 2.0%
Atlanta Falcons 24.2 16%
New York Jets 15.8 22%
New York Giants 15.6** 12%
* Three of the Chargers' games were blacked out** Tied with 2008 season for highest-ever average local ratingNote: Records date to the 1998 season.

Final 2010 NFL Game Viewership
Network 2010 (000s) 2009 (000s) Change from 2009 2008 (000s) Change from 2008
NBC 21,848 19,418 12.50% 16,638 31.3%
Fox 20,100 19,097 5.30% 16,992 18.3%
CBS 18,747 17,211 8.90% 16,211 15.6%
ESPN 14,657 14,382 1.90% 11,962 22.5%
NFL Network 5,705 5,548 2.80% 3,738 52.6%
Sources: NFL, Austin Karp/SportsBusiness Daily

"There are more big games on the schedule now than there used to be," said Sean McManus, president of CBS News and CBS Sports. "And so many of those games this year were very, very competitive, down to the last minute."

It may seem like there are more big games this season. But it's more likely that the NFL has become more adept at scheduling them. Katz initiated some changes to this year's schedule, like scheduling division games in the first and last week of the season, which led to record high ratings on those weeks and the perception that the league had more marquee matchups than it had in the past.

"I truly believe that the job Howard Katz and his team, under Roger Goodell, do to create the NFL schedule around 'the spine' of the NFL season (CBS and Fox's late afternoon windows, Sunday and Monday night windows) has taken the ratings to new heights," said NBC Sports & Olympics Chairman Dick Ebersol. "That is evident by the fact that each and every one of the NFL television partners have seen viewership gains in each of the last three seasons."

The biggest schedule-making change came from a piece of software the NFL used this year that Katz described as a "ratings predictor." Developed by the British Columbia-based Optimal Planning Solutions, the software assigned a minimum ratings level for every TV window on the schedule. This helped Katz focus on making the early Sunday afternoon games more appealing to television.

"The whole scheduling process is far more sophisticated than it's ever been, and it's a combination of manual input and allowing the software to solve the rest of the puzzle," Katz said. "It was the first year we used the software. We learned and we can improve upon it. It was successful because it helped us ensure there weren't any really bad television windows anywhere. Even our weakest weeks were better than our prior years had been."

The ratings predictor software helped the league guard against events that typically would cause ratings to drop. Take "Monday Night Football," for example. From Nov. 15 to Dec. 20, five of the six games were blowouts, where the average margin of victory was 30 points. The sixth game competed against the Giants-Vikings game in the New York and Minneapolis markets, rescheduled from Sunday because of a snowstorm.

Still, ESPN posted record-high viewership for its "Monday Night Football" schedule. The software can't predict blowouts. But it can predict the teams and matchups that will draw ratings, even in a blowout.

"I keep kidding Howard after every year that he should retire and have a big parade down Park Avenue," said John Wildhack, ESPN's executive vice president of programming and acquisitions. "Nothing lasts forever. Then he does it another year and the ratings continue to go up."

Katz is already thinking about tweaks to the schedule to keep the ratings rolling. "I'd like to see if we can play an even heavier dose of division games in the last three weeks," he said. "That worked very well."

Related story: NFL’s TV partners already jockeying for next year’s best matchups.

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