Although it hasn't reached deals with a number of key distribution holdouts, last week was a very good one for NFL Network.
The National Football League-owned channel, heading into its coverage of the Dec. 19 meeting between the Dallas Cowboys and the unbeaten New Orleans Saints, which many expect will become the service's most-watched telecast ever, closed three more distribution deals and recorded its biggest ratings win of the season to date.
The service scored an 8.0 coverage-area rating and 6.2 million cable viewers with its Dec. 17 telecast of the unbeaten Indianapolis Colts extending their 2009 mark to 14-0 and a league record 23-straight regular-season wins with their 35-31 triumph over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
That was NFL Network's third-best cable rating and second most-watched telecast ever, according to Nielsen data.
The magnitude of the game aside, NFL Network no doubt lifted its ratings performance with a multimedia campaign encompassing national print, (USA Today and The Wall Street Journal), local newspapers and radio, national radio (XM), TV (tune-in promos on Comcast, DirecTV and Dish Network) and online, with copy touting “Two Nights. Two Undefeated Teams. One Network.”
NFL Network also used the moment to hammer home the point that the service is still not carried by Time Warner Cable, Cablevision Systems and Charter Communications.
A Dec. 17 ad running in The New York Times screamed in block capitals: “ATTENTION. Time Warner and Cablevision Customers: You May Be Denied Two Teams Chasing the Perfect Season.”
Other newspapers that featured the ads in their editions that day included the Los Angeles Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Buoyed by Comcast's migration of the service to Digital Classic from its sports tier, the top operator's second-highest level of service, and the launch of its scoring channel NFL RedZone, NFL Network now counts some 55 million cable, satellite and telco video subscribers.
The channel still lacks distribution deals with the aforementioned trio of cable operators, though, as well as Suddenlink Communications.
“We think it's an excessive amount of money for eight out-of-market games,” Time Warner Cable spokeswoman Maureen Huff said.
The monthly license for NFL Network properties is reportedly upward of 70 cents per subscriber.
The day before the Colts-Jaguars kicked off, NFL Network did complete three distribution passes, to Massillon Cable TV, Knology and Grande Communications.
All told, NFL Network officials say, the programmer has hundreds of distribution deals.
Massillon is now offering the standard-definition version of NFL Network on its “Basic Plus” level of service, comprising more than 50 channels, while NFL Network HD is one of 15 Basic Plus channels offered to customers at no extra charge.
NFL HD and NFL RedZone are now also part of its eight-network HD Essentials package.
Knology and NFL Network reached a multiyear extension that saw the distributor add the channel's eight-game primetime slate in time for Indy-Jacksonville. NFL Network is now available to Knology customers on the Digital Preferred package in Alabama (except Dothan), Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee.
HD customers in Pinellas County, Fla., can also view NFL Network in HD. Knology basic and HD customers in Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota already had access to the NFL Network live games via its 2007 acquisition of PrairieWave Communications
Grande on Dec. 16 also said it reached a multiyear renewal with NFL Network, which includes carriage of the primetime slates. Grande customers in Austin, Corpus Christi, Midland, Odessa, San Antonio, San Marcos, Waco and suburban Dallas, Texas, markets figured to have keen interest on Saturday night when America's Team takes on Drew Brees and crew in NOLA.
Many expect that the match-up between the 13-0 Saints and America's Team, which sits at 8-5 and second place in the National Football Conference's East division, will break NFL Network's all-time viewership mark: the 10.1 million cable watchers who witnessed the Nov. 29, 2007, game between Dallas and Green Bay.
The total audience that night reached 12.1 million, when over-the-air viewing from stations in those DMAs was factored in.
Indy-Jacksonville topped NFL Network's coverage of Denver Broncos-New York Giants on Thanksgiving night, which stuffed 6.1 million cable watchers and 8 million overall, as the channel's top game in 2009, heading into its marquee contest on Saturday night.