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NFL’s Network Forward Pass

Apr 25, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The aftershocks from last week’s seismic shifts in National Football League television rights will be felt for years to come in terms of programming lineups, economic models and advertising revenues.

With the announcement that ABC was ending its more than three-decade relationship with “Monday Night Football” and that NBC would be taking on a regularly scheduled Sunday night game, speculation about the ripple effects ran high.

Industry insiders say ABC and NBC have opportunities to devise clever scheduling plays. They also, however, must combat major challenges that ensue from such a radical change.

“It’s a year and a half away, but that will go by in the blink of an eye,” said Mitch Metcalf, NBC’s executive VP of program planning and scheduling, about Sunday night football on his network. “The chance to be back in the game with a premiere telecast on Sunday night, and the flexible schedule in the latter part of the season, presents a wonderful opportunity in the fourth quarter to bring in a great audience.”

Lyle Schwartz, managing partner at Mediaedge:cia, New York, said NBC made a smart move programming-wise when it came to picking up football. NBC, which was No. 1 for the 2003-04 season in adults 18 to 49, is currently in fourth place in the demo for the current season, thanks to an “American Idol”-fueled Fox, a solid performing CBS and a resurgent ABC.

In a deal announced April 18 by the National Football League, ABC’s corporate parent Walt Disney Co. will move “MNF” from the broadcast network to Disney’s cable sports channel ESPN beginning Mondays in fall 2006. Sources say Disney paid about $1 billion for the deal (TelevisionWeek, April 18). ESPN’s “MNF” agreement covers eight seasons. The 17 games per season will have an earlier start, at 8:40 p.m. (ET).

Meanwhile NBC, which gave up its NFL package in 1998 after citing high costs, has signed for six seasons with the NFL. Sources said the network will pay $600 million per year for the rights. NBC will show 16 Sunday night games per season as well as the Thursday night season opener, two playoff games and three prime-time pre-season games. NBC also will televise the Super Bowl in 2009 and 2012.

With this season’s highly competitive Sundays in particular, Mr. Schwartz said NBC is still likely to need a strong alternative like football come 2006. ABC’s rookie 9 p.m. drama “Desperate Housewives” is the top series for the season in adults 18 to 49, while the network’s new 10 p.m. medical series “Grey’s Anatomy” has been a top 10 player in the demo. CBS has also remained competitive with its drama “Cold Case” and its Sunday TV movies, while Fox often outpaces NBC in the demo with its “Simpsons”-led comedy block. “It fills a major hole on NBC’s schedule,” he said of football, “and NBC has a lot of holes to pay attention to. This fills a major hole, albeit just for 17 weeks.”

Andy Donchin, director of national broadcast for Carat, said football is a good counterprogramming move on Sundays.

“NBC will have a male-dominated show to compete with the female-dominated ‘Desperate Housewives,'” Mr. Donchin said.

In addition, NBC’s ability to start games at 7 p.m. (ET) can take advantage of an audience that is already spending Sunday afternoon watching football on CBS and Fox.

But finding the right kind of lineup to go on Sundays starting in January is not going to be an easy task for NBC. When “MNF” concluded at midseason, ABC traditionally has replaced the high-rated, male-skewing football block with a hodgepodge of programming that couldn’t hold a candle to the network’s fourth-quarter ratings.

“If you ask people what’s on [in January] after ‘Monday Night Football,’ no one knows,” said Brad Adgate, media analyst for Horizon Media, a firm that counts NBC among its clients. “It’s hard to replace a top 10 show like that.”

Mr. Metcalf said NBC is well aware of the Sunday night challenges once football concludes.

“We are going to make every effort to creatively program the entertainment portion and not program it as an afterthought,” Mr. Metcalf said.

In contrast, ABC is facing its own opportunities and challenges with Monday’s football moving off its air to ESPN. In a statement, Steve McPherson, president of ABC Entertainment, said, “This announcement gives us time to strategically develop content for and schedule our new approach to Monday night.”

Mr. Donchin said ABC is in a much better position than it has been in recent history in terms of being able to program Monday nights with series programming.

“You never would have thought this a year ago, but ABC has a lot to play with,” he said, referring to “Housewives,” “Anatomy,” Wednesday night drama “Lost” and the surprise reality hit “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” Mr. Adgate said ABC’s ability to shore up so many problem time periods this season allows ABC to focus on building a night of programming on Monday, either with new series, or by moving one or two successful series onto the Monday schedule permanently in 2006.

ABC has found some success with a reality block on Monday nights, but there is always a risk of creating a new night of programming in a time period viewers have been conditioned to expect sports for 35 seasons.

But one ABC executive said creating a fall schedule without “MNF” shouldn’t be that daunting.

“We schedule Mondays every year except for 17 weeks of the season,” the executive said.

In one fell swoop, NBC has changed the dynamics of its selling ability with national advertisers.

Some media buying executives say NBC can immediately charge advertisers nearly the price ABC was getting for its “Monday Night Football” package-about $300,000 for a 30-second commercial. That is more than double the price NBC currently gets for its Sunday prime-time programming.

NBC’s “Crossing Jordan” gets about $164,000 for a 30-second spot; “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” does about $194.000; and “American Dreams” pulls in $94,000, according to media buying executives.

Last year ABC’s “Monday Night Football” earned its lowest total viewer number ever, averaging 16.3 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. ESPN’s Sunday night game averages about 7.5 million to 8 million viewers.

When the new contracts start up in 2006, media analysts forecast a nightly switch in viewership will occur.

“Sunday night is going to get ‘Monday Night Football’ ratings, and Monday night is going to get Sunday night ratings,” said Larry Novenstern, senior VP and director of national broadcast for Deutsch Inc.

Mr. Novenstern said NBC should easily best ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” numbers-if for no other reason than NBC has a bigger potential audience. NBC has a TV household universe of 110 million homes while ESPN has 85 million.

And unlike ESPN or ABC, NBC can pick its own games, so that it can program more highly competitive match-ups to boost ratings.

For their part ABC stations seem to be getting the short end of the football stick.

Two years ago, ABC stations negotiated with the network for a four-year deal where stations would contribute $32 million a year to the network to help with programming cost for “MNF.” While this was helpful to ABC, it did little to make a dent in the $150 million to $200 million financial deficit the network was incurring to run “MNF.”

Mr. Adgate said if NBC’s ability to make the Olympics profitable is any guide, the network should be able to make football work without incurring a $150 million deficit.

“It will be interesting to see how they handle football,” he said of NBC. “ABC really took a bloodbath. The question is, can NBC take the model they have with the Olympics and see if they can make a profit?”

ABC stations also will miss the extra advertising dollars from local advertising sales from “MNF.” ABC stations got two local minutes an hour in the game to sell to local advertisers-inventory that typically was priced much higher than ABC’s regular entertainment programming.
“Are we sad? Yes,” said Deb McDermott, president of Young Broadcasting and chair of the ABC Affiliates Board. “We understand and respect their decision. There will be gains and losses. The good news is that we will get our local news back.”

For years, ABC stations complained the late 9 p.m. start of the “MNF” game forced local stations, especially in East Coast markets, to air their local newscasts at 12:30 a.m. or later instead of their scheduled time at 11 p.m. That meant lower ratings and lower local advertising revenues.

“It’s going to be better for our newscasts,” Ms. McDermott said. “We’ll now have a 52-week presence.”

Jon Lafayette and Wayne Friedman contributed to this report.