SBJ/Jan. 31-Feb. 6, 2011/In Depth

Networks know they can't replace TV's ratings king

NBC didn’t air an NFL game on Dec. 26 — the first Sunday night of the football season when it didn’t show a game.

A nor’easter predicted to bring more than a foot of snow to Philadelphia caused the league to postpone the Sunday night game for two days.

NBC scrambled, putting “Minute to Win It” and “Law & Order: SVU” on its schedule in place of the NFL.

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NBC faced a Sunday without football when a December game was delayed by weather.
The result was more than an 82 percent drop-off in viewers. NBC’s makeshift Sunday night schedule drew 3.9 million viewers. In comparison, “Sunday Night Football” averaged 21.8 million viewers this season.

Those TV numbers could be reality for networks this fall if the labor dispute causes the NFL to miss games. In the meantime, none of the NFL’s TV partners have yet developed contingency plans in the event they lose TV’s highest-rated programming next fall.

“We know the parameters if there is a lockout. We understand our obligations. We haven’t made any alternate programming plans right now,” said Sean McManus, president of CBS News and CBS Sports. “When presented with whatever scenario develops, we will adjust. But right now, we’re not making any contingency plans or any thoughts of next season without football. We’re hoping that in early September, we’re once again carrying the NFL on CBS.”

The problem is that the NFL has been a ratings gold mine. Each of the NFL’s network partners set viewership records this past season. If the networks go into the fall without NFL games, they will see huge drop-offs in ratings and ad sales — even while still paying out a rights fee that network sources have described as a loan. The networks typically begin selling ad time for NFL games around the spring upfront selling season.

“If they don’t play games, you’re going to see a ratings drop-off regardless of how the networks schedule,” said Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research for Horizon Media. “There’s a lot of sports out there the networks could put on in the NFL’s place. The problem is that none of it is the NFL.”

Adgate speculated that some of the networks — ESPN or Fox — could conceivably roll out college football games on Sundays in place of the NFL. “Sunday seems to be the only day they don’t play.”

He also speculated that a lockout could help other sports, particularly the MLB postseason, both from an ad sales and a ratings standpoint.
“My feeling is that they’re going to come to some sort of resolution,” Adgate said. “There’s just too much money involved.”

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