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TV execs cheer NFL's return

With the league's labor lockout now essentially over, the networks can resume using the highly rated games to promote their programming, even as the price for airing them spirals ever higher.

July 26, 2011|By Scott Collins, Los Angeles Times
  • Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews (52) congratulates safety Nick Collins (36) after he scored on an interception against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first quarter of Super Bowl XLV.
Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews (52) congratulates safety… (Tom Fox, MCT )

"It's time … to get back to football!"

NBC was scheduled to air a 15-second promo Monday that celebrated the end of the four-month NFL lockout — without actually mentioning the labor strife that threatened to delay or cancel the upcoming season. An old pregame clip showed a staffer tugging on the jersey of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers before releasing him to cheering throngs at Lambeau Field. An excited voice-over made the annual return of the sport sound as if the legendary Vince Lombardi had been resurrected to coach the team again as well.

You can hardly blame relieved TV executives for dancing like fans wearing No. 1 foam fingers — even if the return of America's most popular sport puts them on an inevitable collision course with the league that runs it. Football has become a major tentpole for the networks that share them — broadcasters CBS, Fox and NBC, plus cable's ESPN and satellite provider DirecTV — and the loss of games this fall would have thrown programming plans into disarray and endangered lucrative advertising.

"Like every NFL fan around the world today, we are elated that the lockout has come to an end and the 2011 season will kick off as scheduled," Fox Sports Media Group Chairman David Hill said in a statement Monday. An NFL spokesman confirmed that the planned regular-season games will come off without a hitch, although next month's preseason Hall of Fame Game had already been canceled.

Last fall was the NFL's most-watched season ever, with NBC's "Sunday Night Football" the No. 1 program in prime time, averaging 21.4-million total viewers, according to the Nielsen Co. The league receives more than $4 billion annually from its TV rights contracts alone, including the estimated $600 million NBC pays for those Sunday night games.

And what do the networks get for those megabuck investments? A guaranteed audience that keeps growing — something no other form of programming can promise these days. Football boosted NBC's overall prime-time ratings by more than 14% last season to an average of 7.1-million viewers, even though its games ran only through December.

Comcast-owned NBC had perhaps the most to lose from a busted NFL season. Football is keeping the No. 4 network reasonably competitive as it seeks to refashion its programming brand with new management. And the network is also airing the Super Bowl — destined as always to be the year's most-watched TV event and a crucial promotional platform — on Feb. 5 from Indianapolis.

"We are excited to get back to football," NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus said in a statement. "From 'NFL Kickoff' to Super Bowl XLVI, each and every week 'Sunday Night Football' will feature strong rivalries and compelling matchups."

But as the hoopla over the lockout's end fades, questions linger about TV's future with the NFL — by far the richest pro sports league in the world.

TV executives and cable operators have griped for years about the high price of licensing games from the league, and the current ratings trends suggest that those negotiations will get no easier any time soon. ABC lost money on "Monday Night Football" before pushing the game to its sister network ESPN a few seasons back. But in the past, both CBS and NBC returned to airing games after trying to go without rich NFL deals and seeing ratings fall.

Lately, fans have buzzed about a proposal that could put Thursday games — eight of which currently air on the league-owned but little-seen NFL Network — on a major outlet. The league has pushed to get the network into more than its current 60 million or so homes but has been hampered by pricing squabbles with cable operators.

A bigger audience for Thursday matchups could instantly transform what has traditionally been a highly competitive night for broadcasters. Of course, it might also run the risk of making viewers tired of football.

But looking at the overall ratings trends, experts think there's little chance of that.

As Andy Billings, a sports media expert at the University of Alabama, put it: "For over a decade, people have questioned whether the NFL has peaked in terms of popularity. Each time the answer has been no and this season's ratings could be even higher."

Billings points out that last year, the Super Bowl set ratings records again — even though both teams (the Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers) hailed from media markets outside the top 20.

That proves that it's not really about local fan bases any more. "The NFL brand," Billings said, "is what is selling."

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