NFL plan will keep nets on their game

Stations keep an eye on flexible sked

The NFL’s schedule released last week favors NBC, but its boost to the Peacock remains far from a sure thing.

So-called flex scheduling allows league’s new Sunday night partner to essentially snatch a game from Sunday afternoon nets Fox and CBS in the second half of the football season.

System is first for the NFL in which primetime slots are not fixed.

Fox and CBS will have what amounts to football immunity: Each will be able to protect a total of five games for their Sunday skeds over the course of the season.

But more than 80% of games from the season’s second half will still be in play. (NBC has a deadline of 12 days before most games to make a switch.)

Sunday afternoon networks have long resisted flex scheduling for primetime partners.

But with the current parity and unpredictability of the NFL, they may have had little choice. In the waning years of its “Monday Night Football” contract, ABC got stuck with games that looked good at the start of the season but turned out to be dogs.

NBC shelled out a stunning $600 million for fewer than 20 games in an unproven Sunday night slot, so “the league did their best to try to give them a good schedule,” said one sports exec. “Think about it: They paid $50 million more than ABC for a package that was probably losing more than $100 million a year. The NFL had to try something.”

The NFL took the position that the new sked allowed teams to “play their way onto primetime.”

But there was little doubt the changes left CBS and Fox out in the cold, since it meant those nets’ rich Sunday offerings could get poorer.

The changes don’t do much for ESPN, either. Net will lack a network-like pool of viewers because it is cable and gets a fixed schedule with no possibility of flexible scheduling.

But the flex scheduling might not be the magic bullet NBC hopes.

By assuring consequential games on Sunday night, move is likely to mask, at least in the short term, the ratings drop that prompted ABC to wave goodbye to “Monday Night Football.”

While flex scheduling could have moved the needle at a cable broadcast, it may have less of an effect on primetime ratings. Sunday night — for more than a decade a cable stronghold — has never been subject to the ratings scrutiny to which the Peacock and its lavish pre-game will be subjected.

Also, Sunday primetime is superhot these days, with hits such as “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Also, there is little evidence that auds prefer evening games to afternoons, especially after a long day of viewing. Sunday afternoon games frequently beat Monday night in the ratings.

In the long term, the draining away of good games could erode the Sunday-afternoon viewing tradition that has made the NFL television’s most popular sport.

Not helping will be a new slate of games on Thursdays and Saturdays to be aired by the NFL Network. While fixed, the NFL Net schedule includes marquee matchups like Giants-Redskins and the gem of the Thanksgiving troika: Broncos-Chiefs.

Scheduling of the NFL Net, which beat Comcast to the package in a shocker earlier this year, is a clever maneuver. The NFL Network is still not on a number of cable systems, most notably Time Warner.

While games in local markets will be available on over-the-air affiliates, it’s probably no accident that the NFL Network loaded its sked with teams that have a large national following, such as the Raiders, Steelers, Cowboys and Packers.

“The NFL Network is going to try to pressure those systems that don’t carry it to make a deal,” said one sports exec.

(John Dempsey contributed to this report.)