As expected, NFL Network has bolstered its primetime game roster, adding five Thursday Night Football contests in the 2012 campaign.
Commissioner Roger Goodell, speaking at his state of the NFL address to the media in Indianapolis on Friday before Super Bowl XLVI, said the NFL Network will air 13 Thursday Night Football telecasts, kicking off in the second week of the season and extending through the 15th week of the schedule, minus the Thanksgiving night game, which has migrated to NBC. All told, NFL Network will lift its live game roster to 13 next season, up from the eight it had been televising.
The additional contests are coming out of the game packages held by CBS and Fox. The switch will also diminish the number of contests available on DirecTV's out-of-market Sunday Ticket offering.
Goodell also announced that NFL Network will offer a Spanish-language version of the NFL Red Zone, its ad-hoc scoring and highlights channel for Sunday afternoon games that shows all scoring plays and action within the 20-yard-line, the so-called Red Zone. A spokesman said NFL Network has yet to sign up any charter affiliates for the new service, whose English-language counterpart counts 125 TV distributors around the country.
The vast majority of Red Zone affiliates, including Comcast, Dish Network and Verizon FiOS, position it on sports tiers. It's unclear if the Spanish-language service would be similarly situated, or become part of Hispanic packages.
The increase in the number of Thursday Night Football telecasts follows the new multibillion TV deals the pro football league signed with broadcasters CBS, Fox and NBC in December, covering the 2014-22 seasons (ESPN's nine-year, $15.2 billion was announced in September.) However, NBC, which opens the NFL season with a Thursday night contest, will gain the Thanksgiving night telecast, starting next season.
At the time of the deal announcements, the NFL indicated that it had the capability to expand NFL Network's lineup. NFL Media COO Brian Rolapp, in an interview with Multichannel News in December, said there was "no plan for a surcharge for our affiliates."
Led by its Thanksgiving telecast of the first-ever coaching battle between brothers -- John Harbaugh's Baltimore Ravens topped Jim's San Francisco 49ers 16-6 before a record 10.7 million, NFL Network averaged a record 6.2 million viewers for its eight-game package in 2011. That audience figure excludes those watching the contests in the home markets of the participating clubs, Since its rookie season with game coverage in 2006, TNF has doubled average viewership from its inaugural season average of 3.1 million viewers.
Over the years, NFL Network has aired games that ran into the season's final (17th) and 16th weeks, as well as on Saturday nights. Under next year's schedule, NFL Network and the league will feature better scheduling continuity.
With the combination of new games and Spanish-language RedZone service, NFL Network, which has reached its high-water distribution mark with nearly 60 million subscribers, has added more content to its quiver and its ongoing battle to secure carriage with two prominent holdouts: the nation's No. 2 cable operator Time Warner Cable and the New York DMA's pre-eminent provider, Cablevision Systems Corp. Goodell alluded to both in his Feb. 3 address.
"The network continues to do an incredible job of promoting our sport, our game. It's giving fans the opportunity 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to get NFL football. They've shown their demand for that, they've shown how much they want to see football," he said. "Every cable operator other than the two have seen that that is good for their customers. We'll continue to work with them, we'll continue to try to get an agreement but the market has spoken: the NFL Network is here and it's going to continue to grow."
According to the Associated Press, Goodell, as he has in the past, sidestepped a query on Feb. 3 in Indianapolis about expanding the regular season schedule, noting it would have to be evaluated along with the players.
Bumping the regular-season from 16 to 18 games could occur with the 2013 season. At that point, the league is likely to revise its quest to drop a pair of preseason contests, a move it does not need approval from the NFL Players Association to enact. However, proposals about increasing the regular- season schedule and the chance that players could be exposed to more injuries were major sticking points during the NFL lockout.
Adding two more games and maybe an additional bye-week, though, could result in the NFL, perhaps adding a Thursday night TV package -- something that has drawn the interest of FX, Turner Sports and NBC Sports Network -- to the one held by NFL Network.
In announcing the new NFL schedule, Goodell said "we're going to be playing Thursday night games from week two through week fifteen. This will result in every team appearing on a Thursday football game and every team having a primetime appearance throughout the season. We think that is great for the fans, we think it is great for the teams because everyone will get that primetime exposure, and we think it is great for the network."
There have been rumblings among the teams about the physical, traveling and game-planning difficulties of finishing a game on Sunday and then having to engage again just four days later.