Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 22 No. 35
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

Prime-time power

Prowess at solving puzzle of NFL schedule gives Katz clout of a network boss

Everyone has a theory for why NFL games are the highest-rated programs on TV today — from the exquisite HD productions to the fact that they’re DVR proof, from the popularity of fantasy to, yes, even the popularity of Peyton Manning and Tim Tebow.

But ask David Hill, former chairman and CEO of Fox Sports Media Group, why ratings continue to increase and he’ll immediately answer with the “Katz Theory” — as in Howard Katz, the NFL’s senior vice president of broadcasting and media operations. For the past eight years, the former ABC Sports president has led a small team of NFL executives through strings of endless schedule possibilities to develop ones that work best, both on the field and for TV. Earlier this year, the group sifted through as many as 14,000 potential schedules in a quest for the perfect one, or as close to perfect as they could get.

Howard Katz
Photo by: NFL
Hill credited that schedule-making prowess with being as responsible for the NFL’s TV ratings renaissance as anything else.

“Howard Katz is far more important than Luck or Tebow or Eli or Peyton Manning,” said Hill, who is now senior executive vice president at News Corp. “If you look at the way the National Football League is going, the MVP is Howard Katz.”

Including this year, Katz now has developed eight schedules for the NFL, starting with the 2005 season. During that time, the NFL’s broadcasters have recorded record-high viewership numbers and are off to another strong start this season. These massive TV numbers are a big reason why the league brought in a record haul of nearly $6 billion a year from its new TV contracts that start in 2014. It also shows why advertisers are paying more to market their wares during NFL games than anywhere else on television.

Katz’s team — which includes Michael North, director of broadcast planning; Onnie Bose, vice president of broadcast operations; and Jonathan Payne, manager of broadcasting — spend their springs trying to balance the desires of the league’s 32 clubs with the wishes of the league’s five television partners.

“Howard and his team are a main factor in the TV ratings we are seeing,” said Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports. “They are so scientific and strategic in the way they lay the schedule out. It’s a remarkable task.”

It’s hard to argue with the results. Last year, NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” beat out “American Idol” as the most watched prime-time series on television. Since ESPN picked up “Monday Night Football” in 2006, it has been cable’s most watched series by far. Last year, NFL games made up 23 of the 25 most watched shows on television.

NFL games have become the truest form of “must-see TV.” A Hollywood production studio could only dream of such prime-time domination.

Monday, Monday
Teams with the most “Monday Night Football” appearances and their average ratings from 2006-2011:

Saints: 11 appearances, 8.8 (average U.S. rating)
Ravens: 10 appearances, 7.9 rating
Broncos: 10 appearances, 7.5 rating
Packers: 10 appearances, 9.1 rating
Vikings: 10 appearances, 9.2 rating
Patriots: 10 appearances, 9.2 rating

Source: Austin Karp,  SportsBusiness Daily

But Katz’s job is more than just acting as a producer. His job in scheduling the NFL’s content has become as important to the television business as any of the prime-time decisions coming from the biggest network TV heads.

“Howard belongs in the company of executives like [Fox’s] Kevin Reilly, [CBS’s] Les Moonves and NBC’s Bob Greenblatt,” said Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports senior vice president of programming and research. “He has an imprint on television that is as large as anyone who runs the traditional Hollywood side of the business.”

Consider this: Last year, the NFL accounted for more than 4,000 gross ratings points across its five networks, including the playoffs. That’s more ratings points than the entire prime-time schedule Fox and NBC delivered last season (Sept. 19, 2011-May 23, 2012). It’s basically even with ABC and in the neighborhood of CBS, which were the highest-rated networks for prime time last season.

The NFL’s ratings dominance is even stronger in the 18-to-49 demographic that advertisers crave. The NFL accounted for more gross ratings points in the 18-to-49 demo last season than any broadcast network delivered from its prime-time schedule. That’s not a bad story to take to Madison Avenue.

How has the NFL’s TV ratings performance become so strong? TV executives cite the league’s consistently strong schedule as one of the main reasons. And they say Katz’s TV background combined with North’s analytical savvy have created the most TV-friendly schedules they have ever seen.

“Howard, for probably the first time in the league’s history, is bringing an unbelievable knowledge of each individual market and the needs of each broadcaster,” Hill said. “What he’s been able to do is showcase the best of the league in every available window. The scheduling of the National Football League right now is the best since it was started.”

The Giants and Cowboys, who played in this season’s opener, have appeared frequently and drawn well in the NFL’s weekly showcase game.
The start of the current season offers a good example. The NFL was able to place its three most popular games of the week in national windows. NBC had the Cowboys-Giants for the league’s NFL Kickoff and the return of Peyton Manning against the popular Steelers for “Sunday Night Football.” Fox’s late national window had the 49ers visiting the Packers, another game pegged to be a big ratings draw.

As a result, Fox set an all-time viewership record for Week 1, and NBC posted its highest “SNF” viewership to date.
“Those three games made for a great leadoff to the season,” said Brad Adgate, senior vice president and director of research for Horizon Media. “Those were the three marquee games on the schedule and the NFL made sure fans could watch all three of them.”

The beauty of the NFL schedule for TV partners is that week in and week out, it is able to put its best matchups in national windows, which is a main reason why TV ratings have stayed so high.

The Top Draws
Teams with the most appearances on “Sunday Night Football” during the 2006-2011 seasons:

Cowboys: 20 appearances, 13.1 (average U.S. rating)
Giants: 18 appearances, 12.4 rating
Colts: 18 appearances, 11.2 rating
Eagles: 17 appearances, 12.2 rating
Steelers: 15 appearances, 11.3 rating

Source: Austin Karp,  SportsBusiness Daily

Flex scheduling has helped the NFL take fewer chances on the back end of the schedule. Not only can NBC switch out of poor matchups starting in Week 11, but the Sunday afternoon broadcasters can switch their best matchups into the later Sunday afternoon national window, guaranteeing the biggest audiences for the biggest games.

“A lot of the changes Howard and his team have made to the schedule have been subtle,” McManus said.

One of the most unassuming executives in all of sports, Katz also is one of the most influential, thanks to the league’s TV ratings success. It’s a position that makes Katz uncomfortable.

“We don’t have any power,” Katz says of his team. “I don’t look at it as any degree of power. I look at it as a responsibility and one that we take seriously.”

But the executive certainly is in demand, particularly early in the year. TV networks start lobbying Katz and his team during Super Bowl week, getting right to the point of how they’d like to make their programming lineup more powerful. Sunday afternoon broadcasters CBS and Fox give Katz a list of games they want to keep on their networks. The prime-time channels — ESPN, NBC and NFL Network — give their wish lists for games and teams they’d like to get.
It’s not quite passing along deal points on napkins, but it can be a mix of casual prodding with sophisticated analysis from networks looking for the most popular teams and best matchups.

This season’s schedule put the first weekend’s three marquee games, including Broncos-Steelers, all before national TV audiences.
Katz also fields requests from all 32 teams, who send along their wish list, with stadium availability and requests for specific start times. Team requests can be particularly detailed, as NFL coaches are known to prefer consistent game times, while ownership aims to balance national exposure with fan preferences. For example, Patriots owner Robert Kraft has said that he requested more 1 p.m. ET starts this season because his team has played so many prime-time games over the years, which can be an inconvenience to fans.

Katz compares the process to trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube, where one seemingly minor change affects the rest of the schedule. Katz and his team work to solve their own puzzle in the NFL Manhattan offices over the first four months of the year.

“We’re throwing away schedules now that we would have played 10 years ago,” Katz said. “We’re not even giving them serious consideration because we’re so much more sophisticated in what we’re looking for.”

A decade ago, NFL schedules were created by the legendary Val Pinchbeck, who died in 2004. Pinchbeck literally created schedules off of index cards and a big cork board in NFL offices. Ten years ago, the league used four simple computers. This year, its half-dozen high-tech computers are 40 times faster than the ones used 10 years ago. The league used proprietary software that the NFL conceived, designed and owns.

The NFL says the six computers spit out 824 trillion possible solutions over 10 weeks. It’s a process that runs virtually 24/7 from the end of the season to the schedule’s release in April.

“Sometimes we’ll get a computer-finished schedule at 3 a.m., and Mike North, who’s the computer genius, will email me in the middle of the night with it,” Katz said. “Generally, we’ll come back in the next morning and go through the process all over again.”

This year, about 12:30 a.m. Monday, April 16, Katz shot Commissioner Roger Goodell an email recommending a final schedule, which was released the following day and is being played out now. If Katz’s past schedules are a guide, by the end of the season networks will be trumpeting bigger ratings and increased viewership. Again.