The NFL Network is ready for some football.
After spending much of its energy battling cable operators for carriage, the NFL Network is hitting the sweet spots of its year this week, when it begins to air its slate of eight regular-season football games.
“This is where it gets exciting,” said Kim Williams, chief operating officer of the NFL Network. “We talk about the games throughout the season, but it’s a whole ’nother ballgame when you actually air the ballgame.”
This season, NFL Network is starting earlier than it did last year, when its debut game telecast took place on Thanksgiving Day.
The new schedule “extends our season,” Ms. Williams said.
All but one of the games it televises will be on Thursdays. Last season, three were on Saturday nights.
“This allows us to build some habit in terms of tuning in for Thursday night football,” Ms. Williams said. “It’s hard to teach audiences to start tuning into football on different nights.”
Although Thursdays are competitive—think “Grey’s Anatomy” and “CSI”—it’s a big night for both viewers and advertisers, she said.
Ms. Williams added that because the games are broadcast by local stations in the competing teams’ home markets, the network gets added exposure in those markets—which is important in those where NFL Network gets no carriage from operators like Time Warner Cable or limited coverage from operators like Comcast, which has the network on a higher-priced sports tier.
The NFL Network’s distribution peaked at 44.1 million last year before Comcast downgraded the network, leaving it in about 40 million homes. NFL Network has been adding subscribers and was back at 42 million homes by the end of the summer, according to the network.
The inability of many viewers to watch games on NFL Network has led to consumer frustration, congressional ire and a complaint to the Federal Communications Commission. NFL Network charged that cable operators were discriminating against an independent channel and retaliating because Comcast had attempted to acquire the eight-game package and put it on its own channel.
Last week, 12 U.S. senators, including Arlen Specter, R-Pa., sent a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell complaining that the league was not allowing enough fans to see games when they air on NFL Network.
“This is a step toward pay television. And it’s a step toward compelling people to get the NFL channel,” Mr. Specter told the New York Times.
Last season NFL Network was pressured into allowing its last game of the year, with the New England Patriots looking to go undefeated, to be simulcast by CBS and NBC in order to let more people see it.
“We are disappointed that, rather than building on this success, the NFL will return to restricting games,” the senators’ letter said.
The NFL responded with a statement saying, “The goal of our NFL Network games is to show games to a national audience.
“However, that goal has been undercut by several of the largest cable operators,” the league said. “The Federal Communications Commission Media Bureau earlier this month ruled that we indeed had demonstrated that our discrimination charge had merit and rejected the arguments of Comcast, the nation’s largest cable operator based in Pennsylvania. The FCC Bureau also found merit in our complaint that Comcast retaliated against NFL Network, thereby also punishing consumers.”
Ms. Williams said getting into a battle at the FCC with Comcast and other operators isn’t the league’s first choice.
“We’re in the business of conducting business with our partners, not necessarily filing FCC complaints against them,” she said. “But it got to a point where it was hard to ignore.”
Ms. Williams said carriage talks with operators are ongoing and that she is hopeful.
As the network gets closer to airing live games, which draw huge interest among subscribers, “Those discussions tend to happen a little more frequently, and maybe with a little more seriousness.”
Distribution talk sometime overshadows the NFL Network’s programming.
“Despite the fact that we may be available in fewer homes, more and more people are tuning in and they’re tuning for longer periods of time and they’re tuning in more often,” Ms. Williams said. “That’s a metric that’s pretty important to me. Despite what might be happening on the distribution front, the people who do find us, like us, stay and visit us more often, which kind of supports the theory that it’s content that people want to see.”
During this season’s games. Bob Papa will handle the play-by-play, replacing Bryant Gumbel. Cris Collinsworth is the analyst.
A three-hour pregame show, “NFL Total Access on Location,” is on tap to follow “Team Cam,” a show that relies on cameras posted with all 28 NFL teams.
This season, NFL Network decided to invest in its Sunday programming, launching “NFL GameDay Morning,” which airs live Sundays at 10 a.m. ET. The show is hosted by Spero Dedes and features former All-Pros Marshall Faulk and Warren Sapp as analysts and correspondent Adam Schefter.
“NFL GameDay Final” airs after the final gun on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.”
In October, the network’s average household impressions were up 21% on Sundays from a year ago. Overall, total-day impressions are up 3% and prime-time impressions were up 10% in October.