NFL takes on the World Series

'Sunday Night Football' package dominates fall sked

The arrival of Fox’s “American Idol” every January has come to represent a gut punch to competing networks, a heavyweight whose presence is felt across the primetime schedule. But the fall still belongs to the National Football League, and this year — as well as the next few seasons — the footprint of this perennial 800-pound gorilla could grow even larger.

The NFL already casts such a large shadow that it impacts other sports.

Baseball’s World Series, for example, will be nervous on Halloween night as it finds itself going up against the broadcast primetime game of the week for the first time. The NBA would have loved to have put its Christmas Day matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and LeBron James-led Miami Heat in primetime, but didn’t want to go against the Dallas Cowboys. And NASCAR is considering a schedule tweak so the end of its Sprint Cup Series races on Sunday afternoons in the fall don’t conflict with football.

Now, as the NFL ponders a future extension of its season from 16 to 18 games, even the Oscars, Golden Globes and Grammys are bracing for the ripple effects.

A schedule expansion by the NFL would likely push regular-season Sunday-night games into mid-January, and the biggest playoff games deeper into February. No kudocast would want to go up against those. Last year’s Super Bowl averaged a record 106.5 million viewers, and the conference championships two weeks earlier averaged 52.7 million.

“It’s obviously something we’re keeping a close eye on,” says Bruce Davis, exec director for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “Yes, it’s a concern for us.”

Dates for the Oscars and Grammys may be at the mercy of what the NFL decides. Since 1999, Oscar has held its kudocast on a Sunday. But if the Super Bowl locks in on the last Sunday in February, the Acad might be forced to go elsewhere, most likely back to Monday evenings.

“We’re always happy to talk to the sports entities, but this is a going to be a tough one,” Davis says. “It’s hard for them (the NFL) to take us into consideration.”

In recent years, the Super Bowl is traditionally the first Sunday of February, the Grammys the second and the Oscars the fourth. If the 18-game schedule is ratified — and according to ESPN, it’s a “fait accompli” with the only sticking point the determination of whether players’ salaries should increase — it would likely go into effect in the fall of 2012, and have repercussions for January and February 2013 programming.

The Grammys could end up on the same Sunday as earlier NFL playoffs games, but those are typically played earlier in the day and, barring an overtime game, wouldn’t directly conflict with the music awards. One of the conference championships typically airs in primetime, though, so that date — usually two weeks before the Super Bowl — is also a trouble spot.

Kudocasts that run in January and February have long tried to find a secure date and time that doesn’t overlap with other top programming, but the ever-increasing amount of award shows, midseason premieres and sporting events can make that nearly impossible.

The Golden Globes ratings hit an all-time high for NBC in 2004 when 26 million viewers tuned in, but fell drastically to 16 million the following year. The biggest reason for the falloff was ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” which launched the previous September and was a lead-out-of-the-game smash that stole away female demos who normally tune into the Globes.

On the front end of the NFL calendar, the Emmycast this year avoided a head-on collision with the NFL thanks to the annual rotation of the telecast across the big four broadcast networks. With both Emmy and the NFL on NBC this time around, the award show producers opted for a date well ahead of the start of “Sunday Night Football” on Sept. 12. In previous years, with the Emmycast on other networks, the impact was clear: Opposite “Sunday Night Football” from 2007-2009, the kudocast drew three of its four smallest audiences ever.

The NFL’s monolithic presence weighs heavily across the entire TV landscape.

Thanks in large part to successful runs by its most popular teams (think the Cowboys, Giants, Patriots, Steelers and whoever Brett Favre is playing for), ratings have risen to their highest levels in decades, at a time when ratings for TV’s top entertainment series have been on a steady decline. As a result, the NBC marquee showcase “Sunday Night Football” appears poised to challenge “Idol” as the coming season’s top-rated program. And ESPN’s “Monday Night Football,” already cable’s most-watched series of all time, figures to once again top most of its broadcast competish on that night.

In the DVR era, the two primetime pigskin showcases are an advertiser’s dream: Nearly all viewing is done live, and every demo is watching. There’s no reason to believe this upcoming season, which begins Sept. 9 when the Minnesota Vikings travel to New Orleans, will be any different.

“The NFL is strong in every respect,” says NBC scheduling topper Mitch Metcalf. “It’s a desirable audience in terms of every demo delivery, including upscale viewers. That’s why it’s so great.”

There is one potential wrench in the NFL’s game plan, however.

The 18-game schedule is being negotiated as part of the collective bargaining agreement between NFL players and owners, and such contracts have often become contentious and led to work stoppages. There’s no telling yet if the league is headed toward any sort of hangup with the new players’ contract, but if games were to be canceled, the programming going up against the NFL in primetime only stands to benefit.

Any extra games the NFL adds are likely to pump up the annual fee paid by the TV rights holders (CBS, NBC, Fox and ESPN), which are currently ponying up about $4 billion annually. The network partners each renewed through the 2013 season, and further negotiations won’t take place until after the basic agreement has been settled.

Historically, ratings for the NFL coming off a work stoppage do return — gradually — to pre-strike levels and there’s little fan fallout on the television side.

With that kind of resiliency and loyal following, it’s no wonder the NFL feels confident going into its first direct matchup with baseball’s World Series. In previous years, the NFL would take Sunday night off when the World Series is slated. Not anymore.

Both “Sunday Night Football” and the World Series will likely feel the effects from a ratings standpoint during their Halloween night showdown, but the NFL probably figured it has the goods (a matchup of Pittsburgh and New Orleans, two recent Super Bowl winners and cities with relatively little interest in the World Series) to go up against baseball, and didn’t want to slow the “Sunday Night” momentum by taking a week off. In fact, both leagues had a chance to blink and re-sked their games when they discovered what the other had planned. But neither backed down.

“Our feeling is that we schedule our games when we schedule our games, and expect a large audience who’ll be excited about the World Series,” says MLB spokesman Matt Bourne. “We know other things are going on. We would love for it to have no competition, but that’s not realistic.”

Says Eric Shanks, the new president of Fox Sports, which airs both football and baseball’s World Series: “You have to adjust yourself to the new world. This won’t be the last time this happens. The World Series has performed amazingly well against tough competition in the past and we’re as confident as we’ve ever been.”

Asked whether there was any sort of unwritten “gentleman’s agreement” between the NFL and MLB to not schedule games vs. one another, one exec says he believes none has ever existed. In 2010 — an ultra-competitive period in TV history where there are more options for the viewer than ever before — old arrangements often don’t matter anymore.

NBC will clearly be using the hefty Sunday presence of the NFL to promote its weeklong primetime schedule, most prominently “The Event,” for which the Peacock has high hopes. The skein is a serial ensemble starring Jason Ritter that’s looking to tap into a post-“Lost” and “24” audience.

Problem is, “The Event” will air at 9 p.m. Mondays, up against ESPN’s “Monday Night Football,” and many football fans watching NBC on Sunday may tune in to the ESPN game on Monday.

Metcalf says the network can make it work. “That assumption (that football fans will watch the game on both Sunday and Monday) is not exactly the case,” he says. “What we saw with the launch of ‘Heroes’ in 2006 is that we can do extremely well at 9 o’clock with a serialized drama.”

CBS will be interested to see if “Sunday Night Football” continues its ratings dominance. It’s keeping its breakout reality hit “Undercover Boss” in the same Sunday slot in which it aired late last season.

“The NFL is a tough draw, and we certainly know that, having the NFL during the day on Sunday,” says CBS scheduling topper Kelly Kahl. “But during any given time, there are plenty of people looking for something else to watch.”

Fox is in a precarious position. While the net clearly wants to see the World Series outperform the Steelers-Saints game on Oct. 31, it doesn’t want to disparage the NFL — which helped put it on the map as a major network in 1994, when it bought the Sunday football package that CBS had owned. While the network has an agreement with MLB to air the World Series, it also hold the rights to National Football Conference games as well.

Advertisers are betting that the World Series, in general, will be OK. Fox has already sold out ad inventory for the first five games, including the fourth game that faces off against the NFL.

The NFL’s Sunday-night package was the top-rated among all nets in 15 of 16 games last season, and an expansion to 18 games isn’t likely to dilute its viability. One reason for football’s huge popularity is that unlike baseball 162-game schedule, each NFL game has huge ramifications and the networks always play up those do-or-die elements.

Adding two games to create an 18-game sked wouldn’t change that.

“It’s the scarcity of NFL games that makes each one feel like an event,” says CBS’ Kahl. “Every game is important.”

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