National Football League on television
The television rights to broadcast National Football League (NFL) games are the most lucrative and expensive rights of any American sport. It was television that brought professional football into prominence in the modern era after World War II. Since then, NFL broadcasts have become among the most-watched programs on American television, and the financial fortunes of entire networks have rested on owning NFL broadcasting rights. This has raised questions about the impartiality of the networks' coverage of games and whether they can criticize the NFL without fear of losing the rights and their income.
Since the 1960s, all regular season and playoff games broadcast in the United States have been aired by national television networks. Currently, the terrestrial television networks CBS ($3.73B), NBC ($3.6B) and Fox ($4.27B) — as well as cable television's ESPN ($8.8B) — are paying a combined total of US$20.4 billion to broadcast NFL games as per the current contract that ends in 2013. From 2014 to 2022, the same networks will pay $39.6 billion for the same broadcast rights. With the current concentration of media ownership in the U.S., the NFL thus holds broadcast contracts with four companies (CBS Corporation, NBCUniversal, News Corporation, and The Walt Disney Company, respectively) that control a combined vast majority of the country's media. League-owned NFL Network, on cable television, also broadcasts a selected number of games nationally. However, the league imposes several strict television policies to ensure that stadiums are filled and sold out, to maximize telecast ratings, and to help leverage content on these networks.
Under the current contracts, regionally shown games on Sunday afternoons are televised on CBS and Fox, which primarily carry games of AFC and NFC teams respectively (the conference of the road team determines the broadcaster of an interconference game). Nationally televised regular season games on Sunday and Monday nights are aired on NBC and ESPN, respectively, while the NFL Network televises Thursday night games during the regular season. During the postseason, NBC broadcasts the first two playoff games, while CBS and Fox airs the rest of the AFC and NFC games, respectively; the Super Bowl rotates annually between CBS, Fox, and NBC.
NFL preseason telecasts are more in line with the other major sports leagues' regular-season telecasts in that they are more locally-produced, usually by a local affiliate of one of the above terrestrial television networks. Some preseason games will air nationally, however.
Overview of schedule
The NFL regular season usually begins in September, and ends in December or early January. Each team plays 16 games during a 17-week period. Traditionally, the majority of each week's games are played on Sunday afternoon. The Sunday afternoon games are televised regionally, where the particular game available on local television will depend on where the viewer is located, and begin at either approximately 1 p.m. or 4 p.m. Eastern Time. In addition, there are usually single nationally televised games each on Thursday night, Sunday night, and Monday night. These primetime games are broadcast across the country over one national over-the-air broadcast or cable network, where there are no regional restrictions, nor any other competing NFL contest.
Scheduling during the NFL preseason is more lenient in that most games usually start based on the local time. Thus, games on the West Coast are usually played after 7 p.m. Pacific Time (10 p.m. Eastern Time). However, the handful of primetime, nationally televised preseason games are still played at approximately 5 p.m. Eastern Time.
Current broadcasting contracts
The television rights to the NFL are the most expensive rights of not only any American sport, but any American entertainment property. With the fragmentation of audiences due to the increased specialization of broadcast and cable TV networks, sports remain one of the few entertainment properties that not only can guarantee a large and diversified audience, but a live one.
The Super Bowl often ranks among the most watched shows of the year. Four of Nielsen Media Research's top 10 programs of all time are Super Bowls. Networks have purchased a share of the broadcasting rights to the NFL as a means of raising the entire network's profile.
As of the 2012 NFL season with the major networks investing more in audio description due to FCC guidelines ramping up the requirements of opening up the second audio program audio channel to access audio description (which is also used by some networks to provide Spanish language audio of their primetime programming), all of the NFL's broadcasting partners have added Spanish language audio commentary of games over the SAP channel, except for ESPN, which simulcasts Monday Night Football with Spanish commentary over ESPN Deportes and has since the move of MNF to ESPN in 2006.
Sunday regional games
Under the current contracts, the regional Sunday games (1 p.m. "early" and 4 p.m. "late" games Eastern time) are split into AFC and NFC "packages". Each package is held by a single network; as of 2013, CBS holds the AFC package, and Fox holds the NFC package. These packages consist of Sunday afternoon games during each week of the regular season, a single game for each network on Thanksgiving, wild card games, divisional playoff games and the respective conference championship game for each network.
The "AFC package" for CBS is summarized as the following:
- All afternoon games in which the visiting team is from the AFC
- If there are not enough games to broadcast, then a game in which the home team is from the AFC will be played (against the NFC); this has never happened.
The "NFC package" for Fox is summarized as the following:
- All afternoon games in which the visiting team is from the NFC
- If there are not enough games to broadcast, then a game in which the home team is from the NFC will be played (against the AFC); this has happened only once (Denver Broncos–Minnesota Vikings during Week 13 of the 2011 season). The NFL permitted the game's move from CBS to Fox due to the fact that Fox initially had just two games in the early (1p.m./ET) time slot under the NFL's flex schedule scenario.
In 1970, when the NFL and AFL merged, and home blackouts were put into place for AFC games (some AFL teams had lifted these during its run; as an example, most New York Jets' home games in 1968 and 1969 were telecast on WNBC-TV New York), this assured that all Sunday afternoon away games would be seen on the same network. The current package allows both CBS and Fox access to every stadium/market in the league for at least two games per season (unless an interconference game is chosen as a prime time national game). In 2003, both of the Miami Dolphins's home games against NFC teams were televised in prime time, a rare occurrence that prevented Fox from airing a game from Pro Player Stadium that season. This had also happened in 1997, though Fox was scheduled to broadcast the Chicago Bears' game from Miami until it was moved to Monday night due to its coverage of the World Series; ESPN was already planning to cover the Detroit Lions' game at Miami later on. In 2005, the Baltimore Ravens also had both of their interconference games aired in prime time instead, with the game against the Green Bay Packers on ABC and the contest against the Minnesota Vikings on ESPN. In 2013, the Atlanta Falcons will have both of their interconference home games aired in prime time instead, with the game against the New England Patriots on NBC's Sunday Night Football and the contest against the New York Jets on Monday Night Football.
Doubleheaders and single games
Three games (with some contractual exceptions, see below) are broadcast in any one market each Sunday morning/afternoon, with one network being allocated a "doubleheader" each week:
While the other network broadcasting either:
- A 1:00 p.m. ET (10:00 a.m. PT) game
- Or a 4:05 p.m. ET (1:05 p.m. PT) game
Sunday afternoon games in the Mountain and Pacific time zones are always scheduled for 2:05 or 2:25 p.m. Mountain Time and 1:05 or 1:25 p.m. Pacific Time. No 10:00 a.m. PT or 11:00 a.m. MT games are ever scheduled.
The state of Arizona lies entirely within the Mountain Time Zone, but does not observe Daylight saving time (excluding the Navajo Nation), so Arizona effectively runs on Pacific Daylight Time from mid-March until the first Sunday of November. Therefore, home games for the Arizona Cardinals are scheduled for 1:05 or 1:25 p.m. before the end of Daylight saving time, and 2:05 or 2:25 p.m. (Mountain Standard Time) after the end of Daylight saving time.
Since 1998, early games have the precise, official start time of 1:01 p.m. ET, which allows for one network commercial and the NFL broadcast copyright teaser animation. However, game times are generally advertised simply as 1:00 p.m. starts. In addition, the league revised the late games to start at 4:05 p.m. ET if it was the only game televised by the network that week and to start at 4:15 p.m. ET if it was part of a doubleheader. The additional 15 minutes for doubleheaders allowed the early games extra time to be shown to completion, and avoid continuing past the late game's scheduled kickoff. For single games, only 5 minutes were added to allow the network time for a short introduction (as three hours had passed since the pre-game show has aired) and one commercial break before kickoff. In those cases there is no need to avoid early-game overlap as there is no early game shown. In addition, it allows those games to end earlier.
Effective with the 2012 NFL season, the late game of a doubleheader has a 4:25 p.m. ET start time, in an effort to avoid cutting off early games with captivating finishes before they actually end. NFL research has found nearly 45 games in the early game window were cut off to viewers, particularly those in markets where their teams were in the late game window that day. The league hopes that the extra ten-minute period will eliminate at least two-thirds of such instances going forward.
During the first sixteen weeks of the schedule, both FOX and CBS are each given eight doubleheaders. The two networks alternate doubleheaders, but not necessarily week-in and week-out. The networks never run three consecutive weeks of doubleheaders. FOX insists on having a doubleheader on the Sunday it airs Game 4 of the World Series, and uses the featured 4:25 game as a lead in for the baseball playoffs.
Due to CBS' annual coverage of the U.S. Open tennis championships during the second Sunday in September, FOX has carried doubleheader coverage of the opening weekend since 1999 (excluding the 2000 season). This means that the three AFC West teams in the Mountain or Pacific time zones — the Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers — cannot play at home during the opening weekend, unless they are hosting an NFC opponent (which would be aired by FOX) or scheduled in prime time (regardless of opponent). The Broncos and Chargers are both scheduled at home in prime time during Week 1 of the 2013 season, with the Broncos hosting the Baltimore Ravens in the Thursday night kickoff game, and the Chargers hosting the Houston Texans on Monday Night Football. The Seattle Seahawks were subject to the same restriction in 1999 and 2001 as part of the AFC West, but with their move to the NFC West in 2002, their games now air primarily on FOX, and so can open at home against an NFC team (to host an AFC team requires the game be played at night). During the years that CBS carried NFC games, the San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Rams, and later the Phoenix Cardinals could not play at home against an NFC team in the afternoon during the same week of the U.S. Open tennis championships (their only options for hosting an NFC team were playing at night). After the 2014 U.S. Open, CBS will end its partnership with the tournament which will air exclusively on the ESPN family of networks; this will allow CBS to be able to have a doubleheader in week 1 of the NFL season in certain years, as the Broncos, Raiders and Chargers will now be able to host an AFC team on Sunday afternoon in week 1.
Restrictions on number of games aired
The NFL rules prohibit other NFL games from being shown on local television stations while a local team is playing a sold out, locally televised home game. The rules are designed to encourage ticket-holders show up at the stadium instead of watching another game on television. However, each network is guaranteed to have at least one game broadcast in every market, so some exceptions are granted to this rule. One such exception comes in Week 1 when CBS only has 1 p.m. games due to its U.S. Open tennis men's championship coverage, and does compete with locally broadcast home games on FOX.
When the home team is being shown on the network with the NFL single game, the doubleheader station can only air one of its games. When this happens, there are only two games shown in the market. However, when the home team is being shown on the network with the NFL doubleheader, all three games can air in the same market.
National broadcasts of marquee matches occur on Thursday, Sunday and Monday nights. NBC has broadcast rights to Sunday night games. These are televised under a special "flexible schedule" that allows Sunday afternoon games late in the season to be moved to prime time. NBC also has broadcast rights to the opening night kickoff game.
Other regular season nationally televised games include those on Thanksgiving. Afternoon Thanksgiving games mirror the aforementioned AFC and NFC packages. AFC away games are on CBS and NFC away games are on FOX. Since the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys — the traditional hosts of Thanksgiving Day games — are both NFC teams, one of the two games must be an intraconference game, and the other an interconference game. This setup provides one game each for FOX and CBS. From 2006–2011, a third game (no fixed teams) was established on the NFL Network. Starting in 2012, the third game is an NBC game, meaning in the future, rules may change to allow both Dallas and Detroit an intraconference games (one Fox, one NBC), provided the third game is an AFC game (CBS).
Monday Night Football is currently aired on ESPN, and Thursday Night Football is broadcast on the NFL Network; however, in the markets of the participating teams, the respective cable channel is blacked out. The cable station's feed in the markets of the participating teams airs via broadcast syndication to an over-the-air station. Typically, the team's flagship station for the preseason games will hold such rights, as teams will usually sell the preseason and local ESPN/NFL Network games as one package. Only over-the-air stations in the market of the participating teams may bid on this syndicated package.
This led to controversy in 2007, when the New England Patriots were scheduled to play the New York Giants at Giants Stadium in their regular season finale on the NFL Network, in what was to be a chance to complete the first 16–0 regular season in NFL history. After the Senate Judiciary Committee threatened the NFL's antitrust exemption if it did not make the game available nationwide, the NFL relented and made the game the first in league history to be simulcast on three networks. The game aired on the NFL Network, as planned; on NBC, which would normally have the rights to prime time games; and, since the away team was an AFC team, on CBS. (The game also aired on ABC affiliate WCVB in Boston, as are all Patriots games broadcast on cable, causing this game to be available on 3 over-the-air stations in the Boston TV market). This however, did not lead to the NFL offering this package to other channels; the games remain on the NFL Network as of 2011.
Beginning in 2012, there will be a Thursday night game every week of the season, for the exceptions of weeks 16 and 17. Each game is aired on the NFL Network, for the exceptions of the Week 1 NFL Kickoff and Thanksgiving games, which are aired on NBC. The kickoff game for the 2012 season was pulled one day forward to a Wednesday in order to avoid conflict with President Barack Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention. Since the NFL tries to avoid scheduling Thursday night games which would require the visiting team to travel more than one time zone, the four teams in the Pacific Time Zone — the Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks — would have more limited scheduling options in years that the AFC West and NFC West divisions don't face each other in interconference play. Exceptions to the NFL's one-time zone rule include the Chiefs–Chargers and Cardinals–Rams games in 2012 (the latter game occurred during Daylight saving time, which Arizona does not observe), and the 49ers–Rams and Raiders–Cowboys games in 2013. As a result, all of the Thursday games that have involved the aforementioned west coast teams (since 2012) have been intra-division match-ups, for the exception of the Raiders–Cowboys game in 2013, which will occur on Thanksgiving. Teams that play on Thanksgiving in a given year cannot appear on the NFL Network package that season - the Lions and Cowboys will always be ineligible for appearing on the NFL Network due to hosting Thanksgiving games every year. The "one Thursday game per team" rule does not include the Kickoff Game, so teams that play in that game will play an additional Thursday game in a given season.
NFL Sunday Ticket
Satellite broadcast company DirecTV offers NFL Sunday Ticket, a subscription-based package that allows all Sunday afternoon regional games to be watched. The only exception is that Sunday Ticket is subject to the same blackout rules as broadcast networks. This package is exclusive to DirecTV in the US. In Canada, NFL Sunday Ticket is available on a per-provider distribution deal on both cable and satellite, because Canadian law generally prevents one provider from offering a package on an exclusive basis.
The NFL imposes several television and blackout policies to maximize ratings and optimize stadium attendances.
Sunday regional coverage
Regular season Sunday afternoon games (1:00 p.m. "early" and 4:00 p.m. "late") aired on CBS and Fox are distributed to affiliates by means of regional coverage. Each individual game is only broadcast to selected media markets.
Several factors determine which games are carried in each market. Each of the 32 NFL teams is assigned a "primary market." Most teams also have a selected number of secondary markets. Secondary markets can be of any size, and are typically defined by an area where any part of the market falls within 75 miles of an NFL stadium. Small markets that have no clubs tend to strongly associate with geographically-nearby or particularly relevant teams, but may fall outside of the 100 mile area are not necessarily considered secondary markets by the NFL. Generally, games are aired in the primary and secondary markets as follows:
- All away games are aired in the primary and secondary markets. This is a gesture to old policies based on the ability for fans to attend games. Away games were looked upon as too difficult to travel to and attend.
- All sold out home games are aired in the primary market. Games that do not sell out at least 72 hours prior to kickoff are subject to local blackout in the primary and all secondary markets. (see below)
- As stated above, no games are allowed to compete with a sold-out home game, as it encourages ticket-holders to attend the game instead of watch another game on television, but secondary markets are not subject to this rule, as it is less expected for fans from a market potentially 100 miles away to attend every game.
During the afternoon games, CBS and Fox may switch a market's game to a more competitive one mid-game, particularly when a game becomes one-sided. For this to occur, one team must be ahead by at least 18 points in the second half.
Due to the "Heidi Game", a primary media market must show its local team's game in its entirety and secondary markets usually follow suit for away games. Also, secondary markets (for home games) or any others where one team's popularity stands out may request a constant feed of that game, and in that case will not be switched.
If the local team is scheduled for the late game of a doubleheader, it has importance over any early game. If 4:25 p.m. arrives, and the early game is ongoing, the primary affiliate (all games) and secondary affiliates (road games) are required to cut off the early game and switch to the start of the local team's game. Additional affiliates, including secondary affiliates for home games, may also request to cut off an early game for a nearby team's late start. This is common in Texas where many affiliates which are not considered secondary markets by the NFL still switch out of early games in order to get to the start of a 4:25 Dallas Cowboys game.
When a local team plays the early game of a doubleheader, that game holds importance over any late game. If the local team's early game runs beyond 4:25 p.m., the primary and secondary markets stay on until completion, and the late game is joined in-progress.
For this reason, if two teams share a primary media market, their games are never scheduled on the same network on the same day (unless they play each other). Otherwise, the networks could theoretically have to cut away from one team's game to show the other. Currently, two pairs of teams are affected by this rule, and are subject to additional rules described below:
49ers and Raiders
The 49ers and Raiders are usually not scheduled at the same time, though this can mean that one of those teams will play a road game at 10:00 a.m. PT. To alleviate the conflicts, both teams will be scheduled for at least one prime time game, regardless of their records during the previous season.
- The following exceptions have been granted to this policy:
- During Week 15 of the 2009 season, the 49ers were originally scheduled to play at the Philadelphia Eagles in the early time slot, and the Raiders' game at the Denver Broncos was scheduled in the late time slot. However, a severe blizzard in the Philadelphia area forced the 49ers–Eagles game to be moved to the late time slot on only two days notice.
- In the 2011 season, the Raiders' Week 14 game at the Green Bay Packers was flexed from the early time slot to the late-afternoon time slot due to the fact that Green Bay was undefeated at the time and Oakland was in first place in the AFC West heading into the match-up, at the same time that the 49ers played at the Arizona Cardinals.
- In the 2012 season, the 49ers were scheduled to host the Arizona Cardinals during the final week of the season, at the same time that the Raiders played at the San Diego Chargers. In this case, the must-show rule trumped the exclusivity rule, resulting in both games being shown in the Bay Area at the same time.
- In the 2013 season, the Raiders will host the Broncos during the final week of the season, at the same time that the 49ers play at the Arizona Cardinals. Once again, the must-show rule will trump the exclusivity rule, resulting in both games being shown in the Bay Area at the same time.
- Under current television rules, and in order to circumvent television blackout policies, it is necessary for both teams to be given prime time games, regardless of the teams' performances in the previous season. Every season, both teams play at least ten games that cannot be played in the early time slot — eight home games for each team, road games against the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks for the 49ers, and road games against the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers for the Raiders. By scheduling a late game during the same week that the other team has an early game or a bye week, that leaves three weeks (four in years when the NFC West and AFC West play each other) where both Bay Area teams cannot be scheduled simultaneously in the late time slot, unless they're playing each other head-to-head, or if the aforementioned must-show/exclusivity rule occurs during the final week of the season. So between the two teams, they must play at least three prime time games every season.
- The 49ers' two interconference home games (with a visiting AFC team) are televised by CBS, and the Raiders' interconference home games (with a visiting NFC team) are on Fox, unless they are scheduled in prime time. These games must be late games, as they are played on the west coast. By rule, when one of the teams is playing an interconference home game, the other team cannot play a late game at the same time on the other network. Nor can they play an early game on said network, regardless of which network has the single game or the doubleheader.
- The only window that would be available for the Raiders in that situation would be an early game on Fox, likewise with the 49ers on CBS. However, the only two games where the Raiders are on Fox or the 49ers are on CBS are interconference home games. All home games in the Bay Area must be late games. Therefore, a conflict is found in both cases.
- One conflict can be solved by scheduling the 49ers' or Raiders' home game during the other team's bye week. The second conflict would have to be averted by scheduling one of the teams for national television (e.g. Thanksgiving, Thursday Night, Saturday Night, Sunday Night or on Monday Night Football).
- In 2010, the 49ers hosted the Denver Broncos and the Oakland Raiders, while the Raiders hosted the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks. With the Broncos–49ers game being played in London, England during Week 8 of that season, the game occurred in the early time slot, something that would have been prohibited, had the game been played in San Francisco. The Raiders hosted the Seahawks on that day, marking the first time the 49ers played on CBS and the Raiders played on Fox on the same day, though the Raiders game was blacked out anyway.
- In 2013, the 49ers will host the Indianapolis Colts and the Houston Texans. The former game is scheduled during the same week that the Raiders play at the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football, while the latter game is scheduled on NBC's Sunday Night Football. Conversely, the Raiders will host the Washington Redskins and the Philadelphia Eagles. The former game is scheduled during the same week that the 49ers play at the St. Louis Rams on Thursday Night Football, while the latter game is scheduled during the 49ers' bye week.
- If the 49ers or Raiders win the Super Bowl, the NFL may take advantage of the opportunity by scheduling an opponent from the opposite conference for the Kickoff Game at the beginning of the following season. If the 49ers host the Kickoff Game (on a Thursday night), the Raiders can possibly host a Week 1 season opener on Fox, unless the schedule of the Raiders' Major League Baseball counterparts, the Oakland Athletics, creates a conflict (the Raiders and Athletics share O.co Coliseum).
- Beginning in 2010, the NFL implemented intra-division scheduling only during Week 17 in order to discourage teams who have secured playoff berths from resting key players and phoning in games at the end of the season. All Week 17 games occur on Sunday, and the NBC Sunday Night flex-game for Week 17 is not determined until the final week of the season. Since the Kansas City Chiefs and St. Louis Rams are the only western division teams not in the Mountain or Pacific time zones, this originally meant that one Bay Area team would have to end their season at the appropriate Missouri division rival in the early time slot, while the other team plays in the late time slot. It was suggested that each team would alternate every other year between ending their season at the appropriate Missouri rival and in the late time slot. If the 49ers or Raiders were to get flexed to NBC in the final week, the team not playing on NBC would have had its game moved to 4:25 p.m. EST visiting the appropriate Missouri team and playoff positioning is on the line. However, both Bay Area teams have been simultaneously scheduled in the late-afternoon time slot during Week 17 of both the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
The often complicated television package is a significant factor in why the schedule for a particular season takes several weeks to develop.
Giants and Jets
In general, the league never schedules the Giants and the Jets to play their games at the same time, except for a head-to-head meeting. The league allowed two exceptions during the 2009 season due to unusual scheduling logistics. These exceptions marked the first times since the 1984 season that the Giants and Jets played games simultaneously.
- The aforementioned 49ers' and Raiders' late time slot requirement does not exist for the Giants and Jets. Both New York teams can play Sunday home games in either the 1:00 p.m. or the 4:00 p.m. time slots, because they are in the Eastern time zone.
- However, unlike the 49ers and Raiders, both New York teams cannot play home games on the same day due to playing their home games at MetLife Stadium. When both teams are scheduled at home during the same week, one team will play on Sunday, while the other will play a Thursday or Monday game in prime time. Therefore, the same conflict presented by the interconference home games still exists, as having one team play a home interconference game would mean that if the other team is also scheduled for a home interconference game during the same week, it would have to occur on a different day in order to circumvent the blackout policy. Unless one of the teams was involved in the International Series, this arrangement is impossible.
- In 2013, the Giants will host the Denver Broncos and the Oakland Raiders. The former game is scheduled during the same week that the Jets play at the New England Patriots on Thursday Night Football, while the latter game is scheduled during the Jets' bye week. Conversely, the Jets will host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New Orleans Saints. The former game is scheduled during the same week that the Giants play at the Dallas Cowboys on NBC Sunday Night Football, while the latter game is scheduled during the Giants' bye week.
- Because the league does not generally schedule simultaneous games for the Giants and Jets, the only way three Sunday afternoon games can be shown in the New York primary media market is if one team has a prime time game or bye while the other team plays its game on the network that has the scheduled doubleheader, or if the teams play head-to-head either on the network with the scheduled doubleheader or in prime time. Theoretically, a non-sellout blackout could allow alternative games to be shown, but the Giants and Jets have continuously sold out since 1975 and 1977, respectively, making this scenario unlikely.
- In the 2012 season, the Giants hosted the Philadelphia Eagles on the final week of the season at the same time the Jets played at the Buffalo Bills. Since neither game was flexed out of the 1:00 p.m. EST time slot, the must-show rule trumped the exclusivity rule in this case, and both games were shown in the New York Area simultaneously.
Although in close proximity, the Washington Redskins and Baltimore Ravens are served by separate media markets, and so they can play at the same time. If one team is at home and the other is on the road, both games have aired in each market on a few occasions. However, this policy is not consistently applied in either city.
When the Rams and Raiders shared the Los Angeles market from 1982 to 1994, the NFL was more lenient on its shared media markets policies. Like San Francisco today, the Rams or Raiders would frequently be scheduled for a 10 am PT start for away games. But the league also scheduled some of their home games at the same time. For example, during Week 17 of the 1994 season, their last respective home games in Los Angeles, both the Washington Redskins at Rams game and the Kansas City Chiefs at Raiders game were played at 1 p.m. PT. Likewise, the late Sunday afternoon games during Week 11 of the 1993 season included both the Kansas City Chiefs at the Raiders and the Atlanta Falcons at the Rams.
Sunday bonus coverage
When a media market's regionally televised game ends before the others, the network (CBS or Fox) may switch to "bonus coverage" of the ending of another game. However, the league imposes two restrictions that are designed to maximize the ratings of the late games on the doubleheader network, which tend to record the most NFL viewers during the day, often beating the audience for Sunday night games.
First, bonus coverage offered after any early time slot games cannot be shown past the start of the late time slot (either 4:20 ET for the doubleheader network or 4:25 ET for the non-doubleheader network). This prevents people from continuing to watch the bonus coverage instead of seeing the beginning of the late doubleheader network's game (which is usually either their local team or the network's featured game). Again, the networks may show highlights of the game, and usually will at the earliest opportunity. The network broadcasting the single game will sometimes show each play as soon as it ends as part of its post-game show. A station originally getting the game featured during bonus coverage will stay with it unless they are leaving to show a local team.
Second, bonus coverage cannot be shown after a late game on the single-game network because it will run in opposition to the ending of the late doubleheader network's game(s) and NBC's pre-game show. However, the single-game network usually schedules most of its top games in the early 1:00 ET time slot (except for west coast teams' home games, and possibly either a Giants or Jets game), so this does not tend to be a major issue.
If the doubleheader network's games all finish before 7:30 ET, it is supposed to conclude the post-game show within 10 minutes to protect NBC's pre-game show. If any games finish after 7:30, the post-game program can run until 8:00 ET. However, this restriction seems to apply to game footage only; on several occasions Fox has run its post-game offering to 8:00, despite all games ending before 7:30, by airing only panel discussions and interviews in the latter portion of the show. On the other hand, CBS rarely airs any post-game show after its doubleheaders or 4:05 single-games. This is because 60 Minutes is one of its signature shows, and CBS makes every effort to start it as close to 7:00 or 7:30—its traditional airtime—as possible.
Local simulcasting of cable games
To maximize TV ratings, as well as to protect the NFL's ability to sell TV rights collectively, games televised on ESPN or the NFL Network are simulcast on a local broadcast station in each of the primary markets of both teams (the Green Bay Packers have two primary markets, Green Bay and Milwaukee, a remnant of when they played some home games in Milwaukee each season, see below). This station does not need to have affiliate connections with a national broadcaster of NFL games, though owned-and-operated stations of ABC and Hearst Television (even those Hearst stations not affiliated with ABC) have first right of refusal due to both ESPN and ABC's common ownership by The Walt Disney Company (Hearst holds a 20% stake in ESPN). In recent years, the ABC O&Os have passed on airing the game, opting instead to air the network's Monday night schedule which includes the successful Dancing with the Stars. In other markets, stations who are the affiliates of MyNetworkTV or The CW (and, in at least one case, an independent station) have out bid more established local broadcasters in some markets. However, the home team's market must be completely served by the station and that broadcast can only air if the game is sold out within 72 hours of kick-off (see below).
On November 8, 1987, the very first NFL game ever aired on ESPN was played between the New England Patriots and New York Giants. Technically, the game was only simulcast in the Boston market, with a separate broadcast produced for the New York market by ESPN sister property WABC-TV – at the time, WABC's union contract prohibited non-union workers (like those of ESPN) from working on live events broadcast on the station. This marked the only time since the AFL-NFL merger that a regular season game was locally produced for TV. The WABC broadcast featured WABC's own Corey McPherrin doing play-by-play, and Frank Gifford and Lynn Swann from Monday Night Football doing color commentary.
Since the 2006 season, the NFL has used a "flexible scheduling" system for the last seven weeks of the regular season when there is a Sunday night game. This is because by week 11, there are a number of teams that have been eliminated or nearly eliminated from playoff contention. Flex-scheduling ensures that all Sunday night games have playoff significance, regardless of whether or not both teams are competing for a playoff spot. Two examples of this type of flexing involved the Carolina Panthers in 2008 and 2009. In the first instance, the Panthers and New York Giants saw a late season game flexed due to the winner of that matchup clinching the NFC's top seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The next season, an out-of-contention Panthers team hosted the 11–2 Minnesota Vikings, who had a chance to improve their playoff positioning and take the top seed in the NFC playoffs; hence, this game was flexed despite Carolina's 5–8 record. Sometimes, games will be flexed due to a team's success; for instance, the 2007 matchup between the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium was flexed due to the Patriots' potential run at an undefeated regular season that they eventually completed.
This system also allows teams that enjoy unexpected success to acquire a prime time spot that was not on their original schedule. Thanksgiving games and all games airing on cable channels (Monday, Thursday, and Saturday games) are fixed in place and cannot be changed, as are games during Christmas weekend whenever Christmas Day falls on a Sunday, as it was in 2011 (most games are played on Christmas Eve Saturday instead). It also increases the potential for teams to play on consecutive Sunday nights, as the 2007 Patriots, 2007 Washington Redskins, the 2008 Giants and 2012 49ers did (the Patriots hosted the Philadelphia Eagles the week following the second matchup with the Bills as scheduled, the Redskins were flexed into a matchup with the Giants and played the Vikings in a regularly scheduled matchup the week after, and the Giants hosted the Panthers one week after playing the Dallas Cowboys in Texas Stadium, the 49ers played the Seahawks in Seattle one week after playing at the Patriots).
Under the system, most Sunday games in the affected weeks in the Eastern and Central time zones will tentatively have the start time of 1:00 p.m. ET (10:00 am PT). Those played in the Mountain or Pacific time zones will have the tentative start time of 4:05/4:25 p.m. ET (1:05/1:25 p.m. PT). Also, there will be one game provisionally scheduled for the 8:20 p.m. ET slot. On the Tuesday twelve days before the games (possibly sooner), the league will move one game to the prime time slot (or keep its original choice), and possibly move one or more 1:00 p.m. slotted games to the 4:00 p.m. slot.
Fox and CBS each may protect a total of five Sunday afternoon games, not more than one per week, during weeks 11–16 and NBC selects which game they want to air. For example, in 2011, NBC wanted a late season game between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots which featured Tim Tebow as the Broncos quarterback. CBS protected the game and NBC got a game featuring the San Diego Chargers instead. FOX and CBS cannot protect games in week 17. In years when Christmas falls on Sunday (like 2011) the NFL schedules most games for Saturday December 24 and then schedules a Sunday night game for NBC on Christmas night. Thus, flexible scheduling can not occur in week 16; NBC is then given flexible scheduling in week 10 instead.
During the last week of the season, the league could re-schedule games as late as six days before the contests so that as many of the television networks as possible will be able to broadcast a game that has major playoff implications, and so that several division races or Wild Card spots are on the line at the same time. The week 17 game on Sunday night is decided exclusively by the NFL; networks cannot protect or choose during the final week. For this final Sunday Night contest, the league prefers to flex-in a matchup in which at least one team must win in order to qualify for the playoffs, regardless of what happens in the other week 17 games. Since 2010 when the NFL began scheduling only divisional matchups in week 17, it is possible an intradivisional game that appeared on national TV previously could be selected again. The NFL will only select such a game if there is no other suitable option. This example happened in the 2011 season concerning matchups between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants. In week 14, both teams played a game with major playoff implications that could have all but eliminated the Giants from playoff contention with a loss. Instead, that game marked the start of a four-game winning streak to end the season which included a game where the Giants eliminated the Eagles from playoff contention (despite a win over the Cowboys) with a win over the New York Jets. This win flexed the following week's matchup, where the Giants hosted the Cowboys, into NBC's slot.
Individual teams may make no more than four appearances on NBC during the season. Only three teams may make as many as six prime time appearances (Sunday night, Monday night, Thursday night, and Saturday night combined). The remaining teams may make a maximum of five prime time appearances. In addition, there are no restrictions amongst intra-division games being "flexed."
Since 1973, the NFL has maintained a blackout policy that states that a home game cannot be televised locally if it is not sold out 72 hours prior to its start time. Prior to 1973, all games were blacked out in the home city of origin regardless of whether they were sold out. This policy, dating back to the NFL's emerging television years, resulted in home-city blackouts even during championship games. For instance, the 1958 "Greatest Game Ever Played" between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants was unavailable to New York fans despite the sellout. (Many fans rented hotel rooms in Connecticut to watch the game on Hartford TV, a practice that continued for Giants games through 1972.) Similarly, all Super Bowl games prior to 1973 were unavailable in the host city's market.
The policy was put into effect when, in 1972, the Washington Redskins made the playoffs for only the second time in 27 seasons. Because all home games were blacked-out, politicians – including devout football fan President Richard Nixon — were not able to watch their home team win. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle refused to lift the blackout, despite a plea from United States Attorney General Richard Kleindienst. Kleindienst was to suggest that the United States Congress re-evaluate the NFL's antitrust exemption.
Rozelle agreed to lift the blackout for Super Bowl VII on an "experimental basis." But Congress intervened before the 1973 season anyway, passing Public Law 93-107, which eliminated the blackout of games in the home market so long as the game was sold out by 72 hours before game time. The league will sometimes change this deadline to 48 hours if there are only a few thousand tickets left unsold; much more rarely, they will occasionally extend this to 24 hours in special cases.
Alternatively, some NFL teams have arrangements with local television stations or businesses to purchase unsold tickets. Teams themselves are allowed to purchase remaining non-premium tickets at 34 cents on the dollar (the portion subject to revenue sharing) to prevent a blackout. Tickets in premium club sections have been excluded from the blackout rule in past years, as have unused tickets allocated to the visiting team. The Jacksonville Jaguars have even gone further and closed off a number of sections at their home EverBank Field to reduce the number of tickets they would need to sell. EverBank Field is one of the largest in the NFL, as it was built to also accommodate the annual Florida-Georgia game and Gator Bowl and was expanded for Super Bowl XXXIX even though it draws from one of the smallest markets in the league. The NFL requires that closing off sections be done uniformly for every home game, including playoff games, in a given season. This prevents teams from trying to sell out the entire stadium only when they expect to be able to do so.
The NFL authorized a new rule loosening the league's blackout restrictions during the 2012 offseason. For the first time in NFL history, the new rule will no longer require a stadium to be sold out to televise a game; instead, teams will be allowed to set a benchmark anywhere from 85 to 100 percent of the stadium's non-premium seats. Any seats sold beyond that benchmark will be subject to heavier revenue sharing. While most teams are participating in the new blackout rules, four teams, the Buffalo Bills, the Cleveland Browns, the Indianapolis Colts and the San Diego Chargers, are retaining the previous blackout rule, as the new rule would require the teams to pay a higher percentage of gate fees to the NFL's revenue fund.
The NFL defines a team's market area as "local" if it is within a 75-mile radius of the team's home stadium. Therefore, a blackout affects any market where the terrestrial broadcast signal of an affiliate station, under normal conditions, penetrates into the 75-mile radius. These affiliates are determined before the season, and do not change as the season progresses. Some remote primary media markets, such as Denver and Phoenix, may cover that entire radius, so that the blackout would not affect any other affiliates. However, in some instances a very tiny portion of a distant city's market area can be within the 75-mile radius of a different city, thus leading to blackouts well beyond the targeted area. The most notable example is the Syracuse market's blackout of Buffalo Bills games because a small section of the town of Italy of Yates County containing a handful of people lies within the 75-mile radius of Ralph Wilson Stadium while the entirety of the remainder of the Syracuse market lies outside of it. At the time Yates County was part of Syracuse DMA but it was switched to Rochester DMA because of exurb expansion with more and more immediate Rochester area employees living in Yates County and traveling to the Rochester for events. Despite this, the league still enforces Bills blackouts for Syracuse.
The NFL does allow in some cases for secondary markets to go beyond the 75 mile radius in part to help draw fans to attend the game. Some of these exceptions are in Charlotte where many of its secondary markets lie outside the 75 mile radius (Raleigh). Others include San Diego, primarily due to Los Angeles (116 miles from San Diego) having not had an NFL team since 1994, as southern parts of the Los Angeles market are within San Diego's 75-mile radius.
An exception to the 75-mile rule is the Green Bay Packers' market area. It stretches out to both the Green Bay and Milwaukee television markets. (The team's radio flagship station is in Milwaukee, and selected Packer home games were played in Milwaukee until 1994.) Unofficially, and to a smaller extent, it also reaches the Escanaba/Marquette, Michigan market due to the presence of translator and satellite stations as well as extended cable coverage of Green Bay stations north into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. However, blackouts have never been required; the Packers' home stadium, Lambeau Field, boasts a five-decade long streak of sellouts. The Denver Broncos, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Washington Redskins also have sellout streaks that predate the current blackout rules, and so have not had any of their home games blacked out since 1972 (each of these teams also have long waiting lists for season tickets).
Similarly, no Super Bowl has ever been unavailable in the market of origin since the new blackout rules came into effect. Every Super Bowl except the first was a sellout, and, with the game's high-profile status, a television blackout is highly unlikely for the foreseeable future (though a blackout of a different kind occurred in Super Bowl XLVII).
No opposing games
Another policy to encourage sellouts is that no other NFL game can air opposite the local club's broadcast on the primary market's affiliate due to NFL rules or due to a blackout.
- If a local club's broadcast is at home in the early game of a doubleheader, the other network (which shows the single game) may only show a game during the late time slot.
- If a local club's broadcast is at home in the late game of a doubleheader, the other network (which shows the single game) may only show a game during the early time slot.
- If a local club is playing at home, and the broadcast is shown by the single game network, the other network (which shows the doubleheader) may only air one game in that market; either early or late (the slot which the local club is not playing).
- If a local club is playing away, and the broadcast is shown by the single game network, the other network (which shows the doubleheader) may air both of their games.
If a local club is playing on the road on the doubleheader network, the other network can air its single game in the same timeslot opposite the local club's game. However, most affiliates opt against it because such an action usually ensures low ratings. The "no opposing game" policy is a key reason why single game fixtures on the east coast are occasionally scheduled for the late time slot.
This rule does not apply in Week 1 when the US Open Tennis Championships Men's Final is on CBS at 4:30 p.m.: CBS affiliates may broadcast games opposite a team that has a home game on Fox at the same time in Week 1.
Each TV market, including one hosting a game that is not sold out, is assured of at least one televised game in the early and late time slots, one game on each network, but no network doubleheader in the home market of a game that is not sold out.
- If a blackout is in the early game of a doubleheader, the network may not air a game in the late game slot.
- If a blackout is in the late game of a doubleheader, the network may not air a game in the early game slot.
- If a blackout is in the early game slot and shown by the single game network, the network must show another game in the early or late game slot.
- If a blackout is in the late game slot, shown by the single game network and is the only game in the late game slot, the network must show a game during the early game slot.
The New York and San Francisco Bay Area media markets typically get fewer doubleheaders than other markets as each has two teams, and one of them is at home virtually every week. The main exception is when one of the teams is idle, has its home game televised on the doubleheader network, or is chosen for a prime time game. This policy affects only the club's primary market, not others with signals that penetrate inside the 75-mile radius. It also does not affect viewers of NFL Sunday Ticket in the primary market; all other games remain available.
If a home game is unavailable locally because it is not sold out before the 72-hour deadline, one of the following things will happen:
- If the blacked out home game is a nationally televised game on a broadcast network, such as NBC Sunday Night Football, where no other NFL games are played at the same time, all local stations inside the 75-mile radius must broadcast alternative programming (the stations have to program the time themselves, since other affiliates are showing the game). This scenario is unlikely to happen given that Sunday Night games are scheduled to have highly anticipated contests featuring teams in good form. Thus the chances of a home crowd not selling out during the first half of the season, when there is still hope for a team to rebound after a poor start, are remote. Roughly halfway through the season NBC and NFL are given the option to "flex" games in and out of the prime time slot. Therefore, if a late season match features an out-of-form home team and thus would be unlikely to sell out, it will be moved to Sunday afternoon in favor of a better game (a prime example being in 2010 when the Chargers-Bengals game was moved to the afternoon in favor of the Vikings-Eagles game, which ended up being played on Tuesday due to severe weather in the Philadelphia area; the Bengals game ended up being blacked out, and thus WKRC-TV and two other nearby CBS affiliates could not carry the game).
- If the blacked-out nationally televised game is on a cable television network such as ESPN or the NFL Network, all cable and satellite television providers in the affected markets must black out the cable network's signal to customers in the affected markets during the game (this is a condition of the channels' agreements with both the league and the providers). In addition, the game is not simulcast on a local broadcast station in the blacked-out markets. Local stations would still be able to show highlights on their newscasts after the game has concluded. In areas where the game is blacked out, ESPN and the NFL Network would generally offer alternate programming (ESPN traditionally switches to a simulcast of ESPNews); local stations originally scheduled to carry the game would either show their own alternate programming or, if a network affiliate, show the normal network schedule for that night. During the pre-season, blacked out games can be aired in full, but only on tape delay (generally after late newscasts).
- If the blacked-out home game is played on a Sunday afternoon, all local stations inside the 75-mile radius must show a different NFL game during that time slot—the network typically chooses the game. Also, NFL Sunday Ticket cannot telecast the game into that area. As stated earlier, the doubleheader network can broadcast only one game into that team's primary market (usually the No. 1 game), which is designed to prevent people from opting to watch the other televised NFL games instead of attending their local team's game. Again, the secondary markets would still carry a doubleheader. Sometimes, the networks will switch time slots so that the doubleheader network can still show its featured 4:25 p.m. game.
- The NFL Mobile app for mobile devices periodically checks the user's location in order to enforce blackouts, and will not show a blacked-out game if the device is being used in the game's home market. Transmissions are also blacked out if the mobile device is currently within or near the home stadium.
Critics claim that these blackout policies are largely ineffective in creating sold out, filled stadiums. They contend that there are other factors that prevent sellouts, such as high ticket prices and low enthusiasm for a losing team. Furthermore, blackouts hurt the league; without the television exposure, it becomes more difficult for those teams with low attendance and few sellouts to increase their popularity and following as the exposure decreases.
Conversely, the NFL has sold out well over 90 percent of games in recent seasons. Additionally, many teams sell out their entire regular season schedule before it begins (usually through season-ticket sales), and so there is no threat of a blackout in those markets.
In 2005, for the first time in its history, the NFL lifted the blackout policies for a team: the New Orleans Saints. Due to damage by Hurricane Katrina, the Saints split their home games between Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Tiger Stadium at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and the Alamodome in San Antonio. Baton Rouge is a secondary Saints market and is subject to blackouts when games at the Superdome carried by over-the-air networks do not sell out, since CBS affiliate WAFB and Fox affiliate WGMB penetrate within 75 miles of the Superdome, even though the city limits of Baton Rouge are more than 75 miles from the Superdome (the Baton Rouge DMA is not blacked out when Saints games televised by ESPN or the NFL Network do not sell out).
San Antonio is an unofficial secondary market for the Dallas Cowboys (in that the Cowboys games are routinely televised in that area, but the area is not within the 75 mile blackout radius), and two of three 2005 Saints games played at the Alamodome were not broadcast anywhere in Texas, as the start times for the Cowboys and Saints games conflicted on those dates. The only game of the San Antonio dates not to sell out, in week 4 against Buffalo, was televised locally by CBS (on KENS-TV) as the Cowboys had a late game that day at Oakland. (San Antonio Fox affiliate KABB, therefore, never broadcast a Saints home game in San Antonio, as the Cowboys and Saints are in the NFC, and the Cowboys have a larger following in Texas.)
The blackout policies extend even to the Pro Bowl; if that game is not sold out, it is unavailable in the home media market. From 1980 through 2009, and also in 2011, 2012 and 2013, the game was played in Honolulu, making the applicable market the entire state of Hawaii. The 2014 Game will be played there as well. The 2010 game was played in the Miami area.
Due to decreasing ticket sales, the league significantly softened its blackout policy in 2009. Though the traditional rules still apply, the league is using some of its new media features to provide access to untelecasted games. For instance, the league will not subject its "RedZone" channel to any blackouts. In addition, complete live games will be made available for free online on the Monday (except Monday Night Football), Tuesday, and Wednesday following the game if the game is blacked out, using the league's Game Rewind package.
Teams and year of last blackout/non-sell out
- Packers (1959)†
- Redskins (1965)†
- Broncos (1969)†
- Steelers (1972)†
- Giants (1975)
- Jets (1977)
- 49ers (1981)
- Bears (1984)
- Cowboys (1990)
- Patriots (1993)
- Browns (1995)
- Titans (1997)
- Vikings (1997)
- Dolphins (1998)
- Eagles (1999)
- Colts (2002)
- Panthers (2002)
- Seahawks (2002)
- Saints (2004)
- Cardinals (2005)
- Falcons (2007)
- Chiefs (2009)
- Jaguars (2009)
- Rams (2009)
- Lions (2010)
- Bengals (2012)
- Bills (2012)
- Buccaneers (2012)
- Chargers (2012)
- Raiders (2012)
As of the 2012 season, the Houston Texans (founded in 2002) and Ravens (1996) have never had a blacked out game.
† – Games were always blacked out locally before 1973; the dates for the Packers, Redskins, Broncos, and Steelers refer to the last non-sellout.
The league also designates "secondary markets," usually adjoining primary markets (generally areas within 75 miles of a stadium but not having their own team) that are also required to show the local team. Generally, these secondary markets must show the away games but are not obligated to telecast the designated team's sold out home games.
Their decision on whether to show home games typically depends on whether the NFL-designated local team is perceived to be the most popular in the market. For example, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania is a secondary market to the Baltimore Ravens. Therefore the CBS station in Harrisburg, WHP-TV, must show all Ravens away games.
However, since there are many Pittsburgh Steelers fans in the region, when the Ravens are home at the same time the Steelers are playing, that station shows the latter. Harrisburg is thus considered a battleground territory for the Steelers–Ravens rivalry.
The same applies for the Orlando, Florida metropolitan area, as its local CBS affiliate WKMG broadcasts both Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars games. In some cases, the NFL has the two teams play at different times to accommodate the entire state of Florida (but only when CBS has the doubleheader, or if one of the teams is on Fox). WKMG lobbied to carry a Dolphins game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2005, but the NFL refused – as Orlando is officially a Jaguars secondary market, the station had to carry the Jaguars game at Pittsburgh.
Two-team secondary markets
There are rare instances where a market will have two teams claiming their territory.
For instance, Youngstown, Ohio lies roughly halfway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, is within the 75-mile radius for both cities and is considered a battleground territory in the Browns–Steelers rivalry. Therefore, local CBS affiliate WKBN-TV must show whichever team is playing an away game. If one game is on CBS while the other is on Fox, both games will air. (WKBN also owns low-powered Fox affiliate WYFX-LD and simulcasts WYFX on its second digital subchannel in HDTV along with the main WKBN channel.)
If both the Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers are scheduled to play at the same time on CBS or Fox and the location of the game does not matter, WKBN/WYFX will air the Browns game. The fan base is evenly split between those two teams, with the San Francisco 49ers also having a small following due to team owners John and Denise DeBartolo York being based out of the Youngstown suburb of Canfield, Ohio.
Similar issues concerning the same market teams happens on the Wheeling, West Virginia CBS affiliate WTRF, who runs CBS on its main subchannel, with a Fox affiliate on its first subchannel ("Fox Ohio Valley"). At times, WTRF will run a Fox broadcast game on the subchannel opposite a Browns or Steelers home game that aired on the CBS channel regardless, and vice versa. It's interesting to note that Wheeling is near the 75-mile radius border of the Pittsburgh market to where they would be regulated.
"Unofficial" and "temporary" secondary markets
Many markets serve as "unofficial" secondary markets for the league's various teams due to rooting interest in those markets. As they are not designated by the NFL as official secondary markets, they technically are not required to air any games, but will do so to please the fanbases. For example, in Texas, virtually all CBS and Fox stations carry the Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys, respectively when those teams are on different networks. However until 2010, KTVT in Dallas rarely aired Texans games unless it had no other option. But for the 2011 season, it carried most Texans games, except for a handful of conflicts. KRIV in Houston always airs Cowboys games if it is not prohibited from doing so by NFL rules.
The New England Patriots, especially since Tom Brady became quarterback, also have almost all of New England as unofficial secondary markets (Providence is an official secondary market). Not only do all or almost all CBS or Fox (depending on the game carrier) affiliate in New England carry Patriots games, but also their preseason network covers the entire region. Hartford is close to New York, and sometimes has aired a New York Jets game instead. However, this rarely occurs.
The New York Giants have most of the markets in upstate New York (with the exception of Western New York, which belongs to the Buffalo Bills) as unofficial secondary markets. Albany is considered an official secondary market of the Giants. Also, the Burlington, Vermont Fox affiliate WFFF-TV has become an unofficial market for the Giants, preventing the Patriots from having full control over all New England markets. An example of this occurred on September 27, 2009, when the Giants hosted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Patriots hosted the Atlanta Falcons, both at 1:00 ET. WFFF-TV, which covers most of the state of Vermont and also extreme northern New York, broadcast the Giants game, confirming its dedication to showing the Giants whenever they play on the network. Boston's WFXT generally carries Fox's New York Giants Sunday-afternoon games other than those that cannot be carried on the station because the New England Patriots are playing a home game at the same time. Providence's WNAC carries Fox's Giants' games unless Fox is broadcasting a Patriots' home game at the same time the Giants are playing.
Since 1995, the San Francisco 49ers have had most of California from the Oregon-California border south to Los Angeles as an unofficial secondary market, although the Los Angeles area is a secondary market for the San Diego Chargers. (Sacramento is an official secondary market to both the 49ers and the Raiders.)
An oddity of "temporary" secondary markets has occurred in Wisconsin due to a rooting interest in one particular player. After the 2007 season, quarterback Brett Favre departed the Green Bay Packers for the New York Jets. Thus, CBS affiliates WFRV in Green Bay (a former CBS O&O) and WDJT-TV in Milwaukee were able to ask for as many Jets games as CBS and the NFL could offer to their viewers. In 2009, when Favre moved to an NFC North division rival, the Minnesota Vikings, Fox affiliates WLUK-TV Green Bay and WITI Milwaukee requested as many Vikings games on their stations as possible. This also occurred in 2011 in Seattle where the market was able to broadcast Tennessee Titans games because former Seahawks QB Matt Hasselback started for the Titans and locally born and raised and former University of Washington QB Jake Locker was drafted in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft by the Titans. Given these two fan favorites the local CBS affiliate (KIRO-TV) requested to air as many of these games as possible.
In all other markets, the networks are the sole arbiters of the telecast matches. However, they usually make their decisions after consulting with all of their local affiliates. On rarer occasions, some affiliates are offered a choice of a few games for a given time-slot, if there is no game that stands out as appropriate. In those cases, some stations have allowed the viewers to vote online for their preferred game.
For example, during Week 3 of the 2010 season, viewers of Fox affiliate KMSS in Shreveport, Louisiana took part in an online vote where fans could choose between the Dallas Cowboys-Houston Texans game and the Atlanta Falcons-New Orleans Saints game. The station is situated in the Ark-La-Tex region, where both the Saints and Cowboys have significant fan bases, due to the Shreveport market being situated on the northern border between Louisiana and Texas, including Texarkana, and the southwest corner of Arkansas. The poll concluded with viewers choosing the Falcons v. Saints game, even though Shreveport is closer to Dallas than New Orleans.
Networks, however, have the ability to override a station's request; WIVB-TV, for instance, requested a New England Patriots-Denver Broncos game in December 2011, due to the fact that the hometown Buffalo Bills faced both teams in the upcoming weeks and because of the high-profile showdown between Tim Tebow and Tom Brady; they instead received a New York Jets-Philadelphia Eagles game.
During each half of a network-televised game, there are ten prescribed commercial breaks following the official kickoff. Two are firmly scheduled, and eight others are worked in during breaks in the play.
Pre-scheduled commercial breaks:
- The end of the first (or third) quarter
- The two-minute warning of the second (or fourth) quarter
Other instances used for commercial breaks (eight total required per half):
- A timeout called by either team
- Instant replay stoppage
- Game stoppage after a score
- Game stoppage after a kickoff or punt (excluding the opening kickoff of each half)
- Game stoppage after a turnover
- Injury timeout
Two commercial breaks during the typical 12-minute halftime period are considered separate.
Networks are more apt to front-load their commercials in the first and third quarters, to prevent an overrun in the second and fourth quarters respectively. However, in the event that at least one early-window game is running long (after 4:25 p.m. ET) on the doubleheader network, the network will normally hold its commercials for the late window until all audiences have joined the late games, to ensure maximum coverage for its advertisers. In the rare event that the first quarter of a late game ends before all early games on that network have ended, the network may either take a break consisting entirely of network promos / PSAs, or not take a break at all during the between-quarters timeout, and those commercials are rescheduled for later in the game.
If a team calls a timeout and the network decides to use it for a commercial break, a representative from the broadcast crew stationed on the sidelines wearing orange sleeves makes a crossing motion with his hands to alert the officials. The referee declares it a "two-minute timeout."
Once a broadcast has fulfilled the 8 "random" breaks, game stoppages are no longer needed for commercials. The orange sleeve will hold his hands down in a twirl motion to alert the officials. If a team calls a timeout, the referee will declare it a "30-second timeout." Once any timeout in a half is declared a 30-second timeout, all remaining timeouts will be of the same duration.
Since the 10 total commercial breaks for the second half are to be finished prior to the end of regulation, commercial breaks are rarely needed in overtime situations, apart from a break immediately after the end of regulation. Commercials for these purposes are sometimes pre-sold on an if-needed basis (such as the specialized AIG "overtime" ads often seen during the early 2000s). In many cases, overtime periods are conducted without any commercials. By definition, a game that has entered overtime is tied, and so the game is still undecided, thus increasing the appeal of the given game. This also allows the extended broadcast to finish in a timely manner. In cases of long overtime periods, networks have been known to have a commercial break during a lengthy injury time out. During postseason play, the very rare instances of double overtime will feature a commercial between periods.
From infancy to national success
NBC was the first major television network to cover an NFL game, when on October 22, 1939, it broadcast a match between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Brooklyn Dodgers; the network was still only in its infancy, with only two affiliates, the modern day WRGB (now a CBS affiliate) in Schenectady and W2XBS in New York City. Portions of that game still survive via films, but the film is not footage from the telecast.
Regular broadcasts of games began after World War II and the first NFL championship to be televised was the 1948 match between the Eagles and Cardinals.
In 1950, the Los Angeles Rams and the Washington Redskins became the first NFL teams to have all of their games—home and away—televised. In the same year, other teams made deals to have selected games telecast. The DuMont Network then paid a rights fee of US$75,000 to broadcast the 1951 NFL Championship Game across the entire nation.
From 1953 to 1955, DuMont also televised Saturday night NFL games. It was the first time that NFL fixtures were broadcast live, coast-to-coast, in prime time, for the entire season. The broadcasts ended after the 1955 season, when the DuMont Network folded. DuMont was a less than ideal partner for NFL broadcasts: with only eighteen affiliates in 1954, it was dwarfed by the amount of coverage the "Big Four" (later the East Division of the Canadian Football League) had with its contract on NBC, which had 120 affiliates at the time.
By 1955, NBC became the televised home of the NFL Championship Game, paying $100,000 to the league. The 1958 NFL Championship Game played at Yankee Stadium between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants went into sudden death overtime. This game, since dubbed the "Greatest Game Ever Played," was watched widely throughout the country and is credited with increasing the popularity of professional football in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
CBS began to televise selected NFL regular season games in 1956.
By 1959, big-market teams such as the Bears and Giants had all their games televised, but small-market ones like the Packers and 49ers still did not. Upon becoming NFL commissioner, Pete Rozelle worked to ensure that every team got all its games on TV.
War with the AFL
When the rival American Football League (AFL) began in 1960, it signed a 5-year television contract with ABC. This became the first ever cooperative television plan for professional football, through which the proceeds of the contract were divided equally among member clubs. ABC and the AFL also introduced moving, on-field cameras (as opposed to the fixed midfield cameras of CBS and the NFL), and were the first to have players "miked" during broadcast games. As the AFL also had players' names stitched on their jerseys, it was easier for both TV viewers and people at the games to tell who was who.
As of the 1961 season, CBS held the rights to all but one of the NFL's teams; the Cleveland Browns had a separate contract with Sports Network Incorporated (SNI) to carry their games over a regional network. However, the Browns and SNI were forced to break their deal when the NFL and CBS devised their own revenue sharing plan after CBS agreed to telecast all regular season games for an annual fee of $4.65 million. CBS' fee later increased to $14.1 million per year in 1964, and $18.8 million per year in 1966.
With NBC paying the AFL $36 million in 1965 to televise its games, and the intensified battle over college prospects, both leagues negotiated a merger agreement on June 8, 1966. Although they would not officially merge into one combined league until 1970, one of the conditions of the agreement was that the winners of each league's championship game would meet in a contest to determine the "world champion of football."
The first ever AFL-NFL World Championship Game was played on January 15, 1967 between the NFL champion Packers and the AFL champion Chiefs. As CBS held the rights to nationally televise NFL games and NBC had the rights to broadcast AFL matches, it was decided that both would cover that first game. The next three AFL-NFL World Championship Games, later renamed the Super Bowl, were then divided by the two networks: CBS broadcast Super Bowls II and IV while NBC covered III.
Post AFL-NFL Merger
When the AFL and the NFL officially merged in 1970, the combined league divided its teams into the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC). It was then decided that CBS would televise all NFC teams (including playoff games) while NBC were responsible for all AFC teams. For interconference games, CBS would broadcast them if the visiting team was from the NFC, and NBC if the visitors were from the AFC. The two networks had a rotation policy for the Super Bowl.
ABC also agreed to televise one regular season game per week on Monday night. ABC aired its first edition of Monday Night Football on September 21, 1970. MNF pushed the limits of football coverage with its halftime highlights segment, occasional banter from Howard Cosell and Dennis Miller, and celebrity guests such as John Lennon, Arnold Schwarzenegger and President Clinton. During its 36-year run on ABC, Monday Night Football consistently ranked among the most popular prime time broadcasts each week during the season.
As the league's broadcasters, ABC, CBS, and NBC had their own talent. Announcers such as Cosell, Frank Gifford, and Al Michaels (from ABC); Pat Summerall and John Madden (from CBS); and Curt Gowdy, Dick Enberg, Marv Albert, Jim Simpson, Kyle Rote and Jim Lampley (from NBC), all had their own unique analysis of the game. Individual networks had distinctive innovations in their coverage. For example, CBS' The NFL Today was the first pre-game show to have a female co-host (Phyllis George). On December 20, 1980 NBC made history by broadcasting a game between the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins with no announcers. NBC has also tried one-announcer football when Dick Enberg called the New York Jets' visit to Cleveland Browns on December 12, 1981 without his regular colleague Merlin Olsen in accompaniment. NBC instead pre-recorded interviews with players and coaches from both teams which filled in the parts where Olsen would have spoken. On December 27, 1987, NBC introduced the first female play-by-play football announcer in Gayle Sierens, who partnered with Dave Rowe in a game between the Seattle Seahawks and Kansas City Chiefs which in its own way, set the mold for female sportscasters of today. It is still the only time a female has called play-by-play on an NFL game.
In 1978, the NFL increased its revenue from both ticket sales and TV by expanding the regular season from 14 games to 16. Furthermore, the playoff format was expanded from 8 teams to 10 teams, enabling the league to give another post-season game each to CBS and NBC. This was partially due to the league's 1976 expansion to 28 teams.
Meanwhile, the Super Bowl became a yearly ratings blockbuster, allowing the broadcasting network to generate millions of dollars in advertising revenue. Four of the ten highest rating television broadcasts of all-time (in the U.S.) are Super Bowls. When the league signed a new 5-year TV contract with the three networks in 1982, it allowed ABC to enter into the Super Bowl rotation; Super Bowl XIX was ABC's debut. Since then, the network that televises each Super Bowl is determined by the contracts that the league negotiates with all of its broadcasters. Each network broadcaster generally gets one Super Bowl before any received a second. This process repeats before any network airs a third event, although the TV contracts usually expire by that time.
Expansion to cable and satellite TV
Cable TV became commonplace during the 1980s, and the NFL was eager to exploit that opportunity in 1987.
ESPN became the first cable network to broadcast regular season NFL games. Chris Berman helped redefine the pre- and post-game shows when he launched NFL Countdown and NFL Prime Time, and they have since become the top-rated pre- and post-game shows on television. The cable network's contract to show ESPN Sunday Night Football was one of the turning points in their growth, transforming them from a small cable network to a marketing empire.
When ESPN first started televising NFL games in 1987, it only broadcast Sunday night games during the second half of the season. Meanwhile, ABC, CBS, and NBC maintained their rights to Monday Night Football, the NFC, and the AFC, respectively.
By 1990, Turner's TNT network started to broadcast Sunday night games for the first half of the season. The combined 1990 contracts with ABC, CBS, ESPN, NBC, and TNT totaled $3.6 billion ($900 million per year), the largest in TV history. One major factor in the increased rights fee was that the league changed the regular season so that all teams would play their 16-game schedule over a 17-week period. ABC was also given the rights to televise the two Saturday games on the opening weekend of the postseason. This was made possible after the league expanded its playoff format to include more teams.
TBS had also broadcast the infamous 1982 "strike" games. The NFLPA called for a players' strike three weeks into that season which reduced it to nine games. In October, two "all-star" exhibition games were held with generic NFC and AFC teams in Los Angeles and Washington DC and aired on TBS. Ratings and attendance at both games was minimal.
In 1994, the league signed an exclusivity agreement with the direct broadcast satellite (DBS) service DirecTV to launch NFL Sunday Ticket, a satellite television subscription service that offers every regular season NFL game.
NFL leaves CBS after 38 years
When new contracts were signed in December 1993, CBS (which had been home to NFC games for 38 years) lost their rights to the fledgling Fox Network, and it just so happened that CBS also lost its MLB coverage (which it never recovered) after that same year. Fox offered a then-record $1.58 billion to the NFL over four years, significantly more than the $290 million per year offered by CBS. Fox was only seven years old and had no sports division, but it began building its own coverage by hiring many former CBS personalities such as Summerall and Madden.
Fox's NFL rights ownership made the network a major player in American television by attracting many new viewers (and affiliates) and a platform to advertise its other shows. In the meantime, CBS lost several affiliates (mainly owned by New World Communications in NFC markets) to Fox, and ratings for its other offerings languished. To this day, CBS admits it has never recovered from the loss of affiliates, primarily in Atlanta, Detroit, and Milwaukee, where it was dropped to lower-powered UHF affiliates unable to be received in some areas.
Due to satellite television, the NFL Sunday Ticket in local markets, and rules of the time, satellite subscribers were required to use antennas to pick up local affiliates. CBS was devastated by the loss of over-the-air availability of these stations in the outer reaches of some markets. Since 1994, the situations in Milwaukee and Atlanta have improved due to committed station ownerships and acquisition of high-profile syndicated programming, along with the digital transition equalizing the field into being received via UHF-only, while CBS's Detroit station continues to struggle for relevancy and exists mainly as an automated pass-through for CBS programming, along with shows from the network's syndication arm, CBS Television Distribution.
ABC, NBC, TNT and ESPN renewed their contracts in the meanwhile. TNT was able to get a stipulation that the Atlanta Falcons, based in Turner's home of Atlanta, be featured on TNT once a year, regardless of the previous season's record.
NBC temporarily loses the NFL
Meanwhile, NBC's rebound in the overall ratings in both the 1980s and 1990s after years at the bottom of the ratings were partly attributed to its continuing coverage of the NFL. With television contract re-negotiations in early 1998 ushering in the era of multi-billion dollar broadcasting agreements, an era of pro football broadcasting was about to end. CBS, stung by Fox's surprise bid four years earlier, aggressively sought to reacquire some broadcasting rights. CBS agreed to pay $4 billion over eight years ($500 million per season) to air AFC games.
NBC, meanwhile, had indicated a desire to bid for Monday Night Football rights in 1998, but gave up when the financial stakes increased sharply. Thus, after six decades, NBC, the network that had shaped television broadcasts of football, lost its rights, thus marking the beginning of a slow decline for its sports division, culminating in the unproductive 2004–05 prime time season, when NBC carried no major sporting championships during prime time (NBC had already lost Major League Baseball broadcasting rights in 2000 and National Basketball Association rights in 2002; they had acquired National Hockey League rights in 2004, but that league was in lockout, and furthermore, it was the least popular of the major leagues at the time).
NBC's attempts to replace the NFL with other professional football, including the XFL in 2001 and the Arena Football League coverage from 2003 to 2006, proved to be very unsuccessful. Like CBS before it, NBC would later decide that not having NFL rights did too much damage to its overall ratings to justify foregoing the high rights fees required.
The other networks also signed eight-year deals in 1998. Fox extended its NFC deal by agreeing to a $4.4 billion contract ($550 million per season). ABC retained its longtime rights to Monday Night Football by also paying $4.4 billion over eight years. ESPN agreed to a $4.8 billion ($600 million a season) deal to become the sole cable broadcaster of NFL games, marking an end to the league's association with TNT. As with previous TV contracts, the coverage of the Super Bowl was divided between the broadcast networks.
Thursday Kickoff Game
In 2002, the NFL began scheduling a Thursday night special opening "Kickoff" game, taking place on the Thursday after Labor Day leading into the opening Sunday slate of NFL games. The event includes a pre-game concert and other televised festivities. The first series of these events were held in New York and Washington, DC respectively, to celebrate both cities' resilience in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks. The 2002 San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants game was held on September 5 and televised on ESPN. The 2003 edition featured the Washington Redskins hosting the New York Jets on September 4, 2003, and the game was televised by ABC. Since 2006, NBC has televised the Kickoff game (see below).
Starting in 2004, the NFL began awarding the opening game to the defending Super Bowl champions as the official start of their title defense. The unfurling of the team's Super Bowl championship banner in their stadium has become a centerpiece of the opening ceremonies.
In 2012, the kickoff game between the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys aired on Wednesday, September 5, to avoid conflict with the final night of the Democratic National Convention in which incumbent president Barack Obama delivered his acceptance speech for the party nomination.
Financial losses lead to another realignment
Recently, the NFL's TV broadcasters have suffered annual financial losses because advertising revenue is unable to keep up with the rising costs of broadcast rights.
Nevertheless, the current broadcast contract, which began in 2006, resulted in a sizable increase in total rights fees. Both Fox and CBS renewed their Sunday afternoon broadcast packages through 2011, in both cases with modest increases. Furthermore, the league and DirecTV signed a five-year extension to their exclusivity deal on NFL Sunday Ticket.
Despite relatively high, if declining, TV ratings, ABC decided to end its relationship with the NFL after losing significant money on Monday Night Football. In addition to the fees, part of this decision may have been the result of a resurgent ABC prime time entertainment schedule during the 2004–05 season, particularly on Sunday evening with Desperate Housewives; thus ABC would be unable to satisfy the league's reported preference for a Sunday night game on broadcast television as opposed to Monday.
Because of that, Monday Night Football moved from ABC to ESPN, which are both owned by The Walt Disney Company. The cable network paid $1.1 billion per year from 2006 to 2014 for the rights. Unlike the broadcast networks, however, ESPN can generate revenue from subscription sales, in addition to traditional commercial breaks (ESPN's subscriber fees are the highest of any American cable network, more than four times that of second-place TNT). The cable network's coverage begins at 1:00 p.m. ET with SportsCenter Special Edition: Monday Night Kickoff. The 2009 edition saw the game itself start at 8:30 p.m., with Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski, and Jon Gruden in the broadcast booths.
Meanwhile, NBC, after losing the AFC package to CBS in 1997, was able to reclaim some broadcast rights with a deal worth an average of $650 million per year to air the Sunday night package from 2006 to 2014 (not much more than what ESPN used to pay for the same rights). This new deal includes the Super Bowl in 2009 and 2012. NBC's coverage also includes two preseason games (including the annual Hall of Fame Game), the first two Wild Card playoff games of each post-season, and the annual Thursday opening Kickoff Game, similar to ABC's broadcast rights package. The major difference was that the NFL allowed NBC flexibility in selecting games in the latter part of the season. ABC did not have the right to be flexible with their Monday Night Football schedule and picked matchups based on a team's record in the previous season (as NBC does), which often led to teams with losing records playing each other on Monday night later in the season. The moves were intended to break NBC out of its ratings slump; however, as of 2010, this has not happened, and although NBC Sunday Night Football is the network's top rated program and in the top 30 for viewing audience, it has not lifted the rest of the schedule, which remains firmly in fourth place and losing large sums of money, so much so that the network had to cut an hour of prime time programming from its weeknight schedule in favor of a somewhat lower budget talk show, which lasted five months.
Coverage of NBC Sunday Night Football starts at 8:15 p.m. ET with Al Michaels serving as the play-by-play announcer, Cris Collinsworth as color commentator, and Michelle Tafoya as the sole sideline reporter. Each telecast begins with a pre-game show airing at 7 p.m. ET entitled Football Night in America, hosted by Bob Costas.
In addition, for the first three years of the contract, the network that carried the Super Bowl also broadcast the Pro Bowl on the Saturday night following the championship game. In 2007, CBS broadcast both games, followed by Fox in 2008, and NBC in 2009. In 2010, the Pro Bowl was played the weekend before the Super Bowl, broadcast by ESPN. The 2010 deal was meant as a one-time situation to protect the Winter Olympics in Vancouver that started the next week (as well as the NBA All-Star Game and the Daytona 500), but the NFL played the 2011 game (and will play the 2012 game) in Honolulu the week before the Super Bowl.
The NFL Network was created by the league in 2003 and given a separate package of broadcast games. The eight-game package consisted of prime time games which in 2006 and 2007 began airing from Thanksgiving to the end of the regular season. Five games aired on Thursday nights and three on Saturday nights, the latter beginning Week 15 of the season. Starting in the 2008 season the ratio and dates of the games changed: now there are seven Thursday night games beginning in the first week of November and continuing to Week 16. There is only one Saturday night game, airing during Week 15 or 16 (usually 16, but when Saturday is Christmas Eve, it airs in week 15). The NFL could theoretically decide to sell this package to another network should NFL Network broadcasts not generate enough revenue. NFL Network will also carry several preseason games. The introduction of the NFL Network games also marked the end to late-season Saturday afternoon regular season games on the networks that aired Sunday afternoon games: CBS, Fox and NBC.
As a result of the 2006 contracts with television networks and the increased concentration of media ownership in recent years, the NFL now holds broadcast contracts with the companies that control all of the nationwide American broadcast networks and the vast majority of the major cable networks. This has resulted in a monopoly on the ability to broadcast professional football games on television; the United Football League lost its agreement with Versus when its parent company purchased NBC and was not able to secure television contracts since the purchase until 2012, when the UFL signed with the CBS Sports Network. The Canadian Football League and Arena Football League have resorted to airing its games on NFL Network, despite its ownership by a competing league.
2011 and beyond
ESPN renewed its contract with the NFL in 2011, which extends broadcast rights to the NFL through the 2021-22 NFL season. ESPN increased the purchase price for the eighteen-game package, which will include the Pro Bowl beginning in 2015. Cable television operators condemned the new contract, noting that ESPN has the highest retransmission consent fees of any national cable television channel, nearly five times higher than the nearest competitor (TNT), and raises fees on an annual basis. Nevertheless, the other networks had intended to follow suit by renewing their contracts through 2021-22, increasing their price to over $1 billion per year. The remaining networks announced they had indeed renewed with the NFL on December 14, 2011. Both the new ESPN and broadcast deals take effect in 2014-15 and will continue through Super Bowl LVI in 2022.
As for the rest of the changes, they consist of the following:
- NFL Network will televise 13 Thursday Night Football games from Week 2 through Week 15 not including the Week 12 Thanksgiving night game on NBC. All teams will play one nationally televised Thursday game during the season and 26 teams (all except the Dallas Cowboys and the Detroit Lions who always play on Thanksgiving, whoever their opponents are in a given year, and the two teams that play in NBC's Thanksgiving game) will appear on the NFL Network's Thursday Night Football. The Kickoff Game does not count towards each team's allotment of one Thursday game per year.
- Saturday night will return to the other networks as a "flex night" to accommodate holidays and other scheduling conflicts; ESPN used a Saturday game (Falcons at Lions) on December 22, 2012 to avoid playing a game on Christmas Eve as it was forced to do in 2007.
- Flexible scheduling will begin earlier in the season and will allow games to be shifted between Fox and CBS as well as to NBC. This will also help the mandate all 32 teams will appear on CBS and Fox at least once each year if possible.
- Beginning in 2014-15, NBC will only televise one Wild Card Weekend game, choosing instead to add a divisional round game, both of which will be on Sunday evenings, which will start shortly after the end of the second divisional round game. The network that loses a divisional round game to NBC will air both Wild Card games of their conference. If NBC chooses an NFC divisional round game, then Fox airs both NFC Wild Card Weekend games, and if NBC chooses an AFC divisional round game, then CBS airs both AFC Wild Card Weekend games.
- NBC's Spanish-language channel Telemundo will begin a Spanish language simulcast of Sunday Night Football. (Prior to this, Telemundo had aired Spanish commentary on the second audio program of the main NBC channel, but not on Telemundo itself.)
- NBC Sports Network will begin airing a competing Sunday morning pregame show going against ESPN Sunday NFL Countdown in 2014-15.
- ESPN will regain exclusive rights to the Pro Bowl, should the game be continued (the league has considered discontinuing the contest), beginning in 2014-15.
In addition to that, all of the networks will be afforded the rights to stream games on the Internet via the TV Everywhere initiative, but not to mobile devices (as Verizon Wireless, through its NFL Mobile app, maintains exclusivity on that medium); the streaming rights are effective immediately, as NBC and Verizon will both carry Super Bowl XLVI online for the first time ever. NBC will pay an annual rights fee of $950 million for its broadcast rights; CBS $1 billion, and Fox $1.1 billion.
The style of pro football broadcasting has seen several changes since the 1990s, including female hosts and sideline reporters, visual first-down markers, advanced graphics, new multi-camera angles, and high definition telecasts. The most recent contract extensions have, for the first time, allowed the networks to broadcast games on the Internet.
Thanksgiving Day games
The Detroit Lions have hosted a game every Thanksgiving Day since 1934 (with the exception of 1939–1944 due to the "Franksgiving" confusion and World War II), and they have been nationally televised since 1962. In 1966, the NFL introduced an annual game hosted by the Dallas Cowboys, which has been played every year except in 1975 and 1977 when the St. Louis Cardinals hosted a match instead. However, St. Louis football fans, used to the traditional "Turkey Day Game" between Kirkwood High School and Webster Groves High School as the only local match on Thanksgiving, did not respond well to an NFL fixture on the same day, and thus Dallas resumed hosting the game in 1978.
When the AFL began holding annual Thanksgiving Day games, the league chose a different model, circulating the game among several cities. During the 1967–69 seasons, two Thanksgiving AFL games were televised each year.
After the 1970 merger, the NFL decided to keep only the traditional Detroit and Dallas games. Due to the broadcast contracts in place since 1970, three NFC teams play on Thanksgiving, as opposed to only one AFC outfit. During even years, the Lions play their Thanksgiving game against an AFC team, and thus are televised by the network holding the AFC package (NBC and later CBS); the Cowboys host an NFC team and are shown by the network with the NFC package (CBS and later Fox). During odd years, Dallas hosts an AFC team and Detroit plays an NFC opponent (usually another NFC North team, and often the Green Bay Packers, who draw high TV ratings). Every decade or so, this even-odd rotation is reversed, Detroit hosting an NFC team in even years and an AFC team in odd years, Dallas hosting an AFC team in even years and an NFC team in odd years. Detroit is always the early broadcast and Dallas the mid-afternoon broadcast.
When the league created its new TV package for the NFL Network in 2006, a third Thanksgiving game was added, a prime time game hosted by one of the remaining 30 NFL teams each year. While the first game featured two AFC teams, conference affiliation has varied since. Starting in 2012, the prime time Thanksgiving game has aired on NBC.
The NFL, if it wanted to, could conceivably move the either Thanksgiving game to prime time (and NBC) and schedule an AFC game in either window to accommodate CBS (an 11:30 AM kickoff if it was the Dallas game, but the AFC intraconference game could also be put into the noon slot), while Fox would get the other traditional game another NFC team.
Christmas and Christmas Eve games
In recent years, the NFL has generally scheduled games on Christmas only if it falls on a day normally used for games (Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday). If Christmas falls on a Sunday, as it will in 2016, most of the games are likely to be played on the preceding day, Saturday, December 24, (with no games that night) with one or two games are scheduled for Christmas Night to be broadcast nationally. As in the 2006 and 2011 seasons, there have been 14 such contests on each Christmas Eve.
The first NFL games played on December 25 came during the 1971 season. The first two games of the Divisional Playoff Round that year were held on Christmas Day. The first game that day was between Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings. The second of the two contests played that day, the Miami Dolphins versus the Kansas City Chiefs, ended up being the longest game in NFL history. The league received numerous complaints due to the length of this game, reportedly because it caused havoc with Christmas dinners around the nation. As a result, the NFL decided to not schedule any Christmas Day matches for the next 17 seasons.
In 1976 and 1977, the last two years before the advent of the 16-game schedule and expanded playoffs, the NFL came up with different approaches to avoid Christmas play. In 1976, when Christmas fell on a Saturday, the league moved the start of the regular season up one week to Sunday, September 12. The divisional playoffs were held on the weekend of December 18 and 19, leaving the conference championship games on Sunday, December 26. Super Bowl XI was played on January 9, 1977, the earliest it has ever been held. In 1977, with Christmas on Sunday, the NFL split the divisional playoffs, and for the only time since the AFL-NFL merger, each conference held both divisional playoff games the same day (AFC Saturday, December 24 and NFC Monday, December 26), ostensibly not to give one team a two-day rest advantage over the other for the conference championship games. Since two of the venues were in the Western United States, it was not possible to have regional coverage in both time slots on either day.
The NFL continued to avoid Christmas even after it started to increase the regular season and the playoffs. The league expanded to a 16-game regular season and a 10-team playoff tournament in 1978, but it was not until 1982 that the regular season ended after Christmas, due to the players' strike. In 1989, the NFL tried another Christmas Day game, with the Cincinnati Bengals hosted by the Minnesota Vikings, but it was a 9:00 p.m. ET Monday Night Football contest, thereby not conflicting with family dinners. In the years since, the NFL has played an occasional late-afternoon or night game on the holiday but there has not been a Christmas Day game starting earlier than 5:00 p.m. ET since 1971.
There have also been several games played on Christmas Eve over the years, including an Oakland Raiders-Baltimore Colts playoff contest in 1977 which culminated in a play known as "Ghost to the Post". These games have typically been played during the afternoon out of deference to the holiday.
New Year's games
The NFL never stages games on New Year's Day if it is not a Sunday, deferring to the numerous New Year's Day college football bowl games traditionally held on that day. However, when New Year's Day falls on a Sunday, the traditional bowl games are moved to Monday, January 2 (which becomes a federal holiday), allowing NFL games to be played on the 1st. The AFL played its first league championship game on January 1, 1961. Thereafter, pro football has been played on New Year's Day in 1967 (the 1966 NFL and AFL Championship Games), in 1978 (the 1977 NFC and AFC Championship Games), in 1984 (the 1983 NFC and AFC Divisional Playoff Games), in 1989 (the 1988 NFC and AFC Divisional Playoff Games), in 1995 (the second half of the 1994 NFC and AFC Wild Card Games), and in 2006 and 2012 (the final weekend of the 2005 and 2011 regular seasons).
In years when January 1 falls on a Monday, a regular slate of NFL games will be played on New Year's Eve. Under current schedule arrangements, the regular season can end no later than January 3, and the league finishes its regular season on a Sunday, without a Monday Night Football game in the final week.
- The NFL scheduled Monday Night Football games on Labor Day in the past, but has not done so since 2000. Games continue to be scheduled on Columbus Day.
- The NFL only plays on Halloween or Veterans Day if the holiday falls on a day in which football is normally played (Thursday, Sunday, or Monday).
Monday Night Football
Between 1970 and 1977, and again since 2003, there has been no Monday night game during the last week of the season. From 1978 until 2002, a season-ending Monday night game was scheduled. The 2003 revision permits the NFL to have all eight teams involved in the Wild Card playoffs to have equal time in preparation, instead of the possibility of one or two teams having a shorter preparation for their playoff game if they were picked to play on Saturday, instead of Sunday. This scenario, in which a team finishing its season on Monday night had a playoff game the following Saturday, never occurred.
In 2006, ESPN opened the season with a Monday Night Football doubleheader, with a 7:00 p.m. game and a 10:30 p.m. both shown in their entirety nationwide. The doubleheader during the first week of the season has continued ever since.
- 1994–2021: (NFC)
- NFL Network
- DuMont Television Network
List of NFL television contracts
- Since 1982
|Period||AFC Package||NFC Package||Sunday Night||Monday Night||Thursday Night||Total Amount|
|1987–1989||NBC||CBS||ESPN (2nd half)||ABC||ABC||$473 million/yr|
|1990–1993||NBC||CBS||TNT (1st half)
ESPN (2nd half)
|1994–1997||NBC||Fox ($395 million/yr)||TNT (1st half)
ESPN (2nd half)
|1998–2005||CBS ($500 million/yr)||Fox ($550 million/yr)||ESPN ($600 million/yr)||ABC ($550 million/yr)||ESPN||$2.2 billion/yr|
|2006–2013||CBS ($622.5 million/yr)||Fox ($712.5 million/yr)||NBC ($650 million/yr)||ESPN/ESPN Deportes ($1.1 billion/yr)||NFL Network (2nd half) ($0/yr)||$3.085 billion/yr|
|2014–2021||CBS ($1.0 billion/yr)||Fox ($1.1 billion/yr)||Comcast:
|ESPN/ESPN Deportes ($1.9 billion/yr)||NFL Network (League)
NBC (Wks 1, 12)
- ESPN's Sunday Night Football contract included selected Thursday and Saturday night games in December. Through 2001, the contract included one Thursday night game in October (the weekend of Games 1–2 of the World Series), in lieu of the Sunday night game that weekend. In 2002, the night game was eliminated altogether for that weekend, and replaced with the NFL Kickoff game. In 2003, the NFL Kickoff game moved to ABC (to replace the Week 17 Monday night game), and ESPN filled the void with another late-season Saturday night game.
- ESPN's contract runs through 2013, after which a new contract will continue with ESPN until 2021. NFL Network was last known to be planning to continue the current arrangement through the 2012 season. The CBS, Fox and NBC packages were originally scheduled to expire in 2011, but all were extended to the same 2013 expiration date. A new contract will extend the broadcast rights through 2021-22.
- There are currently two exceptions to the NFL Network's exclusive Thursday rights. The Kickoff Game, despite being held on Thursday, has been carried on NBC since 2006. The Thanksgiving night game was originally part of the NFL Network's package but was sold to NBC, where it will air beginning in 2012.
- As the NFL Network is owned by the league, there was no rights fee paid for the 8-game package.
- NFL Sunday Ticket's package on DirecTV brings in another $700 million annually not counted in this listing.
Leverage over the networks
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The NFL's status as a prime offering by the networks has led some to conclude that unbiased coverage of the league is not possible, although this may be true of most sports. However, with the current concentration of media ownership in the U.S., the league essentially has broadcast contracts with four media companies (CBS Corporation, NBCUniversal, Fox's parent company News Corporation, and ESPN's parent company The Walt Disney Company) that own a combined vast majority of the American broadcast and cable networks. ESPN attempted to run a dramatic series showing steamier aspects of pro football, Playmakers, but canceled the series after the league reportedly threatened to exclude the network from the next set of TV contracts.
The NFL has a strict policy prohibiting networks from running ads during official NFL programming (pre- and post-game studio shows and the games themselves) from the gambling industry, and has rejected some ads from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Commissioner Roger Goodell explained in 2007 that it was inappropriate for the sport to be associates with sports betting. Additionally, the networks and their announcers cannot discuss or run graphics showing point spreads during NFL shows (Al Michaels, among other announcers, has been known to allude to them on-air, particularly at the end of the game where a seemingly insignificant score can have a major effect on the point-spread outcome.) Most teams also insert similar clauses into their radio contracts, which are locally negotiated. The NFL injury report and required videotaping of practice are intended to prevent gamblers from gaining inside information. In contrast, fantasy football is often free to play.
At the start of the game, a teaser animation is displayed on all broadcasts. "Name of broadcaster welcomes you to the following presentation of the National Football League" (or similar phrasing) is announced, while at the end of the game, the message is "Name of broadcaster thanks you for watching this presentation of the National Football League" (or similar phrasing). This announcement is designed to separate game coverage from news, sports analysis, or entertainment programming not under the NFL contract and ownership. Since 1998, the NFL has owned the rights to game broadcasts once they air—a copyright disclaimer airs either before the start of the second half or after the first commercial break of the second half, depending on the broadcaster ("This telecast is copyrighted by the NFL for the private use of our audience [and] any other use of this telecast or [of] any pictures, descriptions or accounts of the game without the NFL's consent is prohibited"). Only the NFL Network can re-air games and they choose a few each week.
Further, the NFL imposes restrictions on sponsored segments during game coverage; this does not apply to national or local radio broadcasts. These are permitted only prior to kick off, during halftime, and following the game (once the "...welcomes you to the following presentation.." notice appears, the restrictions take effect until half-time, and again until the game ends); however, these segments (and other programming with title sponsorships, particularly halftime and post-game shows or other sports properties) can be advertised a couple of times during game coverage, and "aerial footage" providers (i.e. sponsored blimps) may be acknowledged, usually once an hour as is standard in other sports. Other acknowledgments (including HDTV or Skycam-type camera sponsorships) are limited to pre-kickoff and post-game credits. This is done so that, while competitors of the NFL's official sponsors may advertise on game broadcasts, they will not potentially become synonymous with the league through in-game and/or title sponsorship.
Finally, sideline reporters are restricted as to whom they can speak to and when (usually a head coach at halftime, and one or two players before and after the game ends). Information on injured players or rules interpretations are relayed from NFL off-field officials to the TV producers in the truck, who then pass it along to the sideline reporters or booth announcers. Thus, CBS opted in 2006 to no longer use sideline reporters except for some playoff games. ESPN followed suit by reducing the roles of their sideline reporters in 2008.
The NFL owns NFL Films, whose duties include providing game film to media outlets for highlights shows after a 2–3 day window during which outlets can use original game broadcast highlights.
Current NFL broadcast deals
- Australia – One HD, ESPN Australia, Fox Sports Australia
- Austria – Puls 4 one 4 p.m Sunday game every week
- Belgium – Sporting Telenet
- Brazil – ESPN Brasil (Pay TV) airs the Thursday, Sunday and Monday Night games, and two Sunday afternoon games, one at 1:00 p.m and one at 4:00 p.m . TV Esporte Interativo (FTA) airs the Thursday and Sunday Night games, and one of the 4 p.m games at Sunday afternoon.
- Canada – CTV and TSN own most broadcast rights, with 1:00 p.m. Sunday games airing on CTV and TSN2, and the Sunday Night Football and Monday Night Football games airing on TSN. Rogers Sportsnet and Citytv own rights to the 4:00 p.m. and Thanksgiving Day games and to those games broadcast by the NFL Network (this covers all of the Bills Toronto Series games, as Rogers is the company leasing the Bills from Ralph Wilson for the series). RDS carries games in the French language. U.S. network television feeds may also be available, often from multiple markets, on cable and satellite (and via terrestrial broadcast in the border lands); all games are subject to simultaneous substitution. Because of much of Canada's proximity to the United States, blackout restrictions and secondary market rules apply (for instance, CTV flagship CFTO-DT/Toronto cannot show Bills home games if the game is not sold out). Most of Canada's pay-TV providers also provide access to Sunday Ticket, which is not allowed provider exclusivity in Canada due to CRTC regulations.
- Denmark – TV2 Sport, TV3+
- Finland – Nelonen Pro 1, Nelonen Pro 2
- France - BeIN Sport provides at least three live regular season games a week, on Sunday, Monday, and Thursday nights. The channel also airs delayed games all along the week.
- Germany – ESPN America and Sport 1+ air most of the games during regular season and usually choose what is considered the top game of the time slot on Sunday Night Football. ESPN America also airs the games on Thursday Night Football and Monday Night Football for which Sport 1+ doesn't own any rights. Both channels however are premium channels. Das Erste owned the rights for airing the Super Bowl from 2004-2011. The rights then went back to Sat.1 who aired the Super Bowl pre-2004.
- Hungary – Sport 1
- Continental Europe (Except Spain, UK, Ireland and Scandinavia) – ESPN America
- Iceland – ESPN America
- Italy – ESPN America provided by Sky Italia has rights to cover 5 live games per week and 2 delays on Monday afternoon. Sportitalia has FTA rights to show 1 live match per week (typically Sunday 1 p.m. ET game)
- Japan – NHK, NTV, Gaora
- Latin America – ESPN Latin America, FOX Sports
- Mexico – Televisa, TV Azteca, SKY México (Sunday Ticket)
- Middle East and North Africa – ESPN America Provided by Arab Radio and Television Network ART, ShowSports, Fox Sports
- New Zealand – ESPN Australia
- Norway – Viasat Sport, NRK
- Philippines – Solar Sports
- Romania – Sport 1
- Spain – Digital+
- Sweden – TV10, Viasat Fotboll HD
- Thailand – True Vision
- Turkey – Fox Sports, ESPN America
- UK/Republic of Ireland – Sky Sports has live coverage of the 1:00 p.m and 4:00 p.m Sunday games, Thursday games and play-off games including the Super Bowl and airs extensive highlights packages, along with providing Red Button access to the NFL RedZone Channel on both Sky and Virgin Media. Channel 4 has the live rights to show Sunday Night Football games while the BBC took over the rights to show Monday night games from September 2012. The BBC also shows highlights packages of the annual NFL game played in London and the playoffs, and broadcasts the Super Bowl live.
- Russia – NTV Plus
ESPN and/or NewsCorp-owned networks distribute NFL games to most other regions of the world.
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