Are you ready for some football?
Time Warner Cable may not be at the moment, but pro football’s regular season kicks off in 24 days on Sept. 7 with the Miami Dolphins visiting the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers on NBC, which is returning to the National Football League fold for the first time since 1998.
Three nights later, the Peacock will assume its principal pigskin formation on Sunday nights. And that isn’t the only new page in the league’s TV playbook. In fact, several primetime shifts figure to shake up this season’s viewing habits and Nielsen fortunes.
Entering its 37th year, Monday Night Football no longer belongs to ABC, but rather its cable cousin, ESPN, the former Sunday night carrier. Then, beginning on Thanksgiving night, the league’s own channel, NFL Network, will air the first of a live eight-game primetime package.
However, NFL Network, which is seeking a substantial rate hike for those live games and other programming upgrades, has encountered distribution resistance from some cable operators, including Time Warner Cable, which has not yet inked a deal with the service because it doesn’t want to afford it expanded basic positioning.
Moreover, Time Warner moved to pull the network from 1 million homes on systems it purchased as part of its acquisition of Adelphia Communications Corp. earlier this month.
But the Federal Communications Commission intervened, ruling that the operator had not given its customers the proper 30-day notice of its intentions to remove the service.
Sports TV watchers believe that over time those issues will be resolved.
“The NFL is the largest entertainment property in our culture; it produces almost 60 ratings points per week. Yes, the NFL Network has leverage,” said sports consultant Neal Pilson, who also sees Time Warner’s point that the eight live games represents only a fraction of the service’s hours over the course of the year.
Ultimately, though, he believes the parties will reach an accord and that NFL Network will grow to between 50 million and 70 million homes over the next two years.
The changes stem from new TV contracts the league, which last Tuesday elected chief operating officer Roger Goodell to succeed Paul Tagliabue as commissioner, also signed with Sunday afternoon carriers Fox, CBS and DirecTV Inc. for the satellite giant’s “Sunday Ticket” out-of-market package. All told, the NFL will net some $3.75 billion annually from its new rights deal that extend from 2006 to 2013, a 53% jump over deals expired with the end of last season.
Meanwhile, NBC, which punted its American Football Conference package back after the 1998 season over high rights costs, has jumped back in at a time when its primetime lineup has fallen to fourth place. For $600 million annually over the next six years, NBC has secured four primetime hours on America’ most-watched night, playoff games and a pair of Super Bowls.
The network has imported John Madden, recently enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Al Michaels, who was let out of his ESPN MNF contract in part for NBC returning the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, an old Disney animated character, as its on-air team.
NBC will benefit from what appears to be a strong schedule — the teams for its first nine games posted a cumulative 192-96 record during the 2005-06 season.
“The NFL has constructed for NBC Sunday Night Football, in its premiere season, the best schedule that any network has ever had,” NBC Universal Sports chairman Dick Ebersol told pundits at the Television Critics Association tour last month.
He added that things would get even better with flexible scheduling, something that ABC long had been championing as a means to improve MNF ratings. During all but one week of the second half of the season, NBC will be able to select a good game from either Fox’s or CBS’s stables. He said that last season, ABC’s MNF suffered from a series of mismatches late in the season that “cost them 5% or 6% of their rating.”
ESPN, which is paying $1.1 billion annually for MNF, also has high hopes for its new setting. As is the ESPN multiplatform way, the franchise will receive plenty of attention on all of the company’s platforms from ESPN Radio and the magazine, to ESPN 360 and Mobile ESPN, slicing and dicing content around the game.
ESPN DRAWS ON EXPERIENCE
On the linear side, vice president of programming and acquisitions Leah LaPlaca said ESPN’s broadcast team, which collectively has 188 years of NFL coverage experience, will start matters off with SportsCenter Special Edition: Monday Nigh Kickoff from 3 p.m.-5 p.m.
The show will include live segments from the host city. Around the Horn and Pardon the Interruption follow, with the latter being held in the MNF market. From there, it’s on to NFL PrimeTime (6 p.m.-7 p.m.) and MNF Countdown in the stadium (7 p.m.-8:30 p.m.)
As for the game itself, ESPN is manning the booth with Mike Tirico, Joe Theismann and PTI host and Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser. “Tony will bring a unique journalist and everyman’s perspective to Monday Night Football,” said LaPlaca.
After the game, Stuart Scott will anchor SportsCenter from 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. in the MNF city each week.
But aren’t the network and its varied arms risking Monday night madness overkill?
“That’s the way our fans consume media. There are so many different touchpoints,” said LaPlaca.
She added that coverage would also reflect some insights about the home town: “We want to play up the host city. It won’t be a travelogue, but we want to give some local flavor.
ESPN also figures to put some affiliate touches in place. The network is evaluating plans to involve the local cable operator or DirecTV in some markets.
All of those elements, ESPN believes will translate into superior ratings.
“It’s not apples to apples because we’re on cable,” said LaPlaca, pointing to the 20 million home deficit from the broadcast universe. “But it’s the best NFL schedule we have had and we’re going to do better than ESPN did on Sunday nights.”
In 2005, ESPN’s Sunday night NFL games accounted for 13 of cable’s top 14 shows.
Ad agency executives said the network is selling an 8.8 cable rating into the marketplace. Last season, ESPN averaged a 7.1 on Sunday nights.
Ebersol at TCA said NBC SNF “will be a double-digit-rated show without any doubt. It will be in the top 10.”
Although ratings long have been trending downward — hitting a nadir with a 10.8 national household mark last season — MNF remained among broadcast top 10 shows for the 14th consecutive year.
Sports market watchers believe both properties will score.
“Monday Night Football is ingrained in viewers’ NFL experience, so ESPN will do well. NBC’s over the air package will benefit from more viewers on Sunday night,” said sports consultant Mike Trager. “It’s a win-win for the league with both packages.”
“Yes, ESPN will do somewhat better on Mondays than Sundays. You know it and other parts of The Walt Disney Co. will be promoting the change on all of their platforms,” noted Pilson.
For its part, the NFL Network had to start a promotional campaign a little earlier than it wanted in late July when it placed ads letting consumers know that Time Warner was planning to drop the service in Adelphia markets on Aug. 1. NFL Network also plans to run throughout the season a campaign pointing out operators that don’t carry it.
NFL Network executives believe that the service deserves an increase in rate fee and expanded basic positioning, based on 52 preseason games, the addition of the eight live contests, beginning on Nov. 23, and in a league first, a weekly quartet of 90-minute versions of top games from Sunday,
“We have significantly increased the value of our product,” said Adam Shaw, senior vice president of distribution, who declined to discuss new rates for the network. “Many affiliates have recognized that value, and we’re continuing to try to work with others.”
Affiliate executives said NFL Network is seeking between 70 cents and 90 cents per subscriber per month, up from its old price of 20 cents to 25 cents monthly.
NFL NETWORK TALKS
DirecTV, EchoStar Communications Corp., AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc., as well as “hundreds” of other smaller distributors are on board for the package that includes the live games. Shaw noted that NFL Network expects the contests to be on “Comcast as part of a larger agreement” it is nearing with the nation’s biggest cable operator.
Comcast officials declined to comment.
Shaw said that “very preliminary discussions” have been initiated with Cablevision Systems Corp, and work is just beginning to get the games on systems owned by Cox Communications Inc. Charter Communications Inc. also remains outside of the NFL Network’s huddle at this point.
Shaw said that he anticipates that in addition to the NFL Network’s own marketing initiatives that the satellite and telco players likely will begin to use the service in their own ads.
“We are one of the principal network differences in the marketplace,” he said, adding that cable operators may also continue to tout the programmer’s significant video-on-demand highlights package as a competitive advantage over direct-broadcast satellite.
He also views the dispute with Time Warner with some sense of irony. “Being on the front page of some newspapers is creating greater awareness for those who might not have known about NFL Network,” said Shaw, noting that the parties are continuing to negotiate.
“We have interest in the network, but we don’t have a contract. We’re of the mind that it should be on a sports tier and that not all of our subscribers should have to pay for it,” Time Warner senior vice president of corporate communications Mark Harrod said early last Tuesday. “They believe it belongs on a standard tier.”
Observers believe those minds will ultimately reach an accord.
“Time Warner is doing what it thinks is right for itself and the cable industry, which doesn’t want to see another big sports network trying to launch,” said Lee Berke, principle of LHB Inc. “But there is a lot more than just eight games. It’s tough to try and stop the NFL.”
Trager agrees, but doesn’t necessarily see an accord being struck anytime soon. “There’s some negotiating space here. Things will get crucial when they get closer to Thanksgiving and the start of the eight-game package,” he said.