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TV networks say they're confident about NFL season

Networks including NBC, Fox and ESPN are telling advertisers as they trot out their fall lineups that they believe players and owners will come to agreement before September. Offstage, their tone darkens a bit.

May 17, 2011|By Joe Flint, Los Angeles Times
  • TV networks unveiling their fall lineups are reluctant to say what theyd do if the NFL dispute goes on. Above, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, top, is sacked by Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Ziggy Hood (96) in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl in February.
TV networks unveiling their fall lineups are reluctant to say what theyd… (Brian Snyder, Reuters )

Despite the lack of movement to resolve the labor dispute between the National Football League and its players, the major broadcast and cable networks that carry the games are expressing confidence that when September rolls around it will be business as usual.

This week in New York, networks including NBC, Fox and ESPN are telling advertisers to whom they are presenting their fall lineups that they believe the players and owners will strike a new deal on a collective-bargaining agreement before September.

"Optimistic" was how NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt described the mood of the network with regard to the NFL. Of all the networks, NBC has perhaps the most at stake. Its Sunday-night package of games is one of the ratings-challenged network's few bright spots and also serves as a platform for promoting the rest of its shows.

Executives from Fox and ESPN also gave assurances to the media and advertisers this week that a pact would be reached before any real damage was done. CBS will present its schedule to advertisers Wednesday.

The "What, me worry?" approach of the networks seems to fly in the face of current reality. On Monday, a federal appeals court sided with the owners in their request to delay an injunction that would have ended their lockout of players.

When the network brass are off the stage and away from media buyers, their tone darkens just a little. One sports chief of a football-carrying network who declined to speak for attribution because he, like the other network sports chiefs, was wary of publicly expressing anything less than blue-sky optimism said the first few weeks of the season could be delayed. Once the players go a while without paychecks, the executive added, he expects a quick resolution.

To be sure, it is in the best interest of the networks to put on a brave face in front of advertisers. That is why none are talking with any detail about what programming would be substituted for football.

Advertisers spend billions on the NFL every year. Though some of that money would end up in other shows, the bulk of those dollars would sit on the sidelines, media executives said.

ESPN Executive Vice President John Skipper said he keeps getting asked what the secret plan is when in reality "there is no plan to replace 'Monday Night Football,'" because it is irreplaceable.

That doesn't mean ESPN will run a test pattern for four hours on Monday evenings. But for now, Skipper said, he isn't trying to figure out what the network can throw on as a substitute because whatever it is, the ratings and advertiser demand won't be as high.

One thing you won't see is ESPN putting on college football to replace "Monday Night Football." Skipper said the logistics of such a move would be too difficult, and the network also needs the flexibility to drop whatever replacement plans are set up the minute the players and owners reach an agreement and the games resume.

"We got a lot of other stuff," Skipper said without elaboration.

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