SBJ/April 7-13, 2014/Media

Execs expect strong NFL slate for CBS

An annual rite of spring, the NFL’s schedule release is one of the most closely watched events among sports media executives. Network brass lobby aggressively for the league’s top matchups starting weeks before the Super Bowl, then anxiously await to see how their efforts paid off.

SBJ Podcast:
Executive editor Abraham Madkour and media writer John Ourand discuss the upcoming release of the 2014 NFL schedule and what it could mean for ESPN, CBS and the league's other media partners.

This year’s release has created even more anticipation among the league’s TV partners, thanks to the presence of CBS’s first Thursday night package. Media executives are expecting that schedule to more closely resemble NBC’s high-profile “Sunday Night Football” package than the slate of games NFL Network has carried on Thursday nights over the past several years.

Not only that, but multiple media sources are expecting the CBS package to appear much stronger than ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” package, too.

A team led by NFL executive Howard Katz is working on the schedule, which could be released as early as late next week.

The NFL in February awarded CBS an eight-game package of early-season games, accepting the network’s $250 million bid to carry the games in 2014, with a one-year option. Carrying the games means CBS will be pushing the debut of its highly rated Thursday night prime-time lineup to later in the fall.

NFL Network will carry an eight-game package of late-season Thursday night games — after simulcasting the early-season games airing on CBS. Sources have been told to expect a stark quality difference between the games that CBS and NFL Network carry.

CBS’s involvement in the Thursday night package is one of the biggest stories heading into the NFL’s season, with the league and CBS both placing big bets on the ratings and ad sales success of Thursday night.

The NFL has placed a clear emphasis on its Thursday night presence, as it expects its games to dominate prime time on Thursdays as they already do on Sundays and Mondays. Once it achieves higher Thursday ratings — New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft told reporters last month that he expects ratings to double on CBS compared to what the league has had for its NFL Network Thursday night games previously — the league can sell the Thursday night package at a higher cost.

NFL Network’s 13 regularly scheduled games last season averaged 7.1 million viewers, by far the lowest of the NFL’s partners.

Even with a schedule that rivals NBC’s, John Miller, head of the NBC Sports Agency, said he does not believe that the Thursday night package will rate as highly as Sunday night. That’s because more people, in general, watch television on Sunday nights than Thursdays.

“That’s not to say it won’t be valuable, because there is a high volume of advertisers, movie companies and autos in particular that will want to be there because it’s right before the weekend buying experience, and I think CBS will do well,” Miller said. “I don’t think it will match the numbers for ‘Sunday Night Football.’ I think they will do significantly better than the NFL Network did by itself — not the least of which, it’s increasing the distribution by 40 million households.”

Miller said he expects CBS’s Thursday night package to equal or perform better than ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” package.

Even if the ratings aren’t as high as Sunday, Frank Hawkins, a former NFL executive who is a founding partner of media advisory Scalar Media Partners, believes the NFL will reserve some of its marquee matchups for CBS’s Thursday night schedule.

“My guess is that CBS on Thursday is going to look more like NBC on Sundays,” he said. “Howard’s a genius about being able to balance all five networks that carry NFL programming.”

Complicating matters is the provision that mandates each team must play at least one Thursday night game each season. The league’s 17-week schedule, which now includes three Thanksgiving games, provides for 36 Thursday TV window slots for the 32 NFL teams to fill.

The league does not play a Thursday night game in the final week of the season.

Any schedule that doles out some of the biggest games to CBS’s new Thursday night schedule is certain to irk ESPN executives, considering that the network pays a much higher rights fee than its broadcast competitors and clearly wants a strong Monday night package. Since ESPN started producing “Monday Night Football” in 2006, it has had less compelling matchups than NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.” ESPN has long lobbied for a stronger schedule and last week reiterated that it plans to have a schedule commensurate with the league’s most expensive package, regardless of what the league puts on Thursday nights.

“We have scheduling provisions in our new deal which gives us some insurance,” ESPN said in an emailed statement.
At an average of $1.9 billion per year, ESPN pays, by far, more than any other NFL TV partner. Over the years, NFL executives have viewed ESPN’s package as the premier cable package, which is different than the premier broadcast prime-time package. Much of ESPN’s rights fee covers highlight rights and shoulder programming that typically bring good ratings.

Insiders say that in creating its schedule, the NFL has two different schedule levels. It saves “premier” games for NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” showcasing rivalry games. You can bet that at least one Seahawks-49ers game will be on “Sunday Night Football” this year. For the coming season, the Seahawks, 49ers and another regular-season Broncos-Patriots game will be in strong demand. The league’s NFC East teams — the Cowboys, Eagles, Giants and Redskins — consistently draw high ratings as well.

Of course, a game that looks good before the season may be a bad matchup as the season wears on. Last season, for example, Fox, NBC and ESPN pushed for a late-season matchup between the Giants and Redskins because both teams are traditionally strong draws that were expected to have good seasons. Neither team made the playoffs, as the Redskins only won three games and the Giants won seven.

Media executives also will be watching to see how much a stronger Thursday night schedule affects the NFL’s Sunday afternoon broadcasters.

“How much is going to be taken out of CBS and Fox’s packages?” Hawkins asked. “The league didn’t create more ‘A’ game inventory.”

The “Monday Night Football” schedule is intended to be more of a mix, with occasional “A” games supplemented with more “ordinary” games, insiders say. NFL Network’s Thursday night schedule was filled with lesser games, including such matchups last season as Cleveland-Buffalo and Houston-Jacksonville.


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