News Corp. (NWSA)’s Fox and other television networks, presenting next season’s schedules to advertisers this week, are betting that sports coverage will boost ratings and get viewers to watch more programming live.
Fox is creating a Saturday prime-time sports block of programming next season, while NBC will air episodes of new dramas and comedies after Olympics coverage. CBS is airing the Super Bowl, the most-watched television event in the U.S., as well as a football playoff game in prime time.
The major broadcast networks are injecting sports into their nightly lineups to draw viewers ages 18 to 49, a group targeted by advertisers. Sporting events also tend to be watched live. That means viewers aren’t taping them on their digital video recorders and then fast-forwarding past the commercials.
“The stability of sports programming -- its DVR resistance and large dedicated audience -- becomes even more powerful as other forms of entertainment become more fractured,” said Mike Morris, an analyst with Davenport & Co., an investment firm in Richmond, Virginia.
The companies also are using sports coverage to draw attention to new comedies and dramas that will begin airing in September. While introducing a new scripted or reality program after the Super Bowl or another big game is common, networks are now giving sports a starring role throughout the season.
Broadcast and cable networks are releasing their 2012-2013 schedules in so-called upfront meetings with advertisers, letting them book advance commitments for the season.
CBS Corp. (CBS)’s broadcast network is expected to gain $2.78 billion in commitments, the most of the major networks, according to a May 11 report from Spencer Wang, an analyst at Credit Suisse Group AG in New York.
Walt Disney Co. (DIS)’s ABC will garner $2.35 billion in ad commitments ahead of next season, 2 percent more than a year earlier, while Comcast Corp. (CMCSA)’s NBC will receive $1.66 billion, Wang said. Fox, which airs two hours of prime-time programming each night instead of three, will collect $2.03 billion, he said.
Fox is creating a prime-time Saturday sports lineup that includes Nascar races, Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts and select college football games, Toby Byrne, president of Fox’s ad sales, told marketers at a presentation on May 14 in New York.
“We are making a bold move into prime time this year, with live sports taking over most of our Saturday nights,” Byrne said at the presentation.
During the past five years, 90 percent of the live sports Fox aired on Saturday nights won the time slot among viewers 18 to 49, Byrne said. The network has its pick of Saturday college football games from Pac-12 or Big-12 schools every week, he said.
Fox also will air Major League Baseball on Saturdays, according to Eric Shanks, co-president and chief operating officer of Fox Sports Media Group. The network carries the baseball playoffs and the World Series, as well as regular games.
“We see Saturday nights as the perfect home for quality sports programming, especially in spring and fall,” Shanks said in a statement. “We’ve been working hand-in-hand with our entertainment division and partners, and we’ve put together a solid schedule that gives us a consistent Saturday night franchise for the first time ever.”
‘Widest Possible Audience’
Sports also serves as a segue to other shows. NBC will air at least two episodes of new programs during its Olympics coverage starting July 27 to boost interest when the shows return in September, Bob Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment, said this week in an interview. He didn’t say which programs the network plans to air.
“We think it’s a really smart way to introduce the widest possible audience to our new shows,” Greenblatt said.
NBC’s schedule is designed to capitalize on the momentum created by the “Sunday Night Football” prime-time broadcast, the most-watched show of the past season. The network aims to funnel those viewers into Monday and Tuesday night programs, Greenblatt said at a presentation this week in New York.
Super Bowl Effect
CBS is poised to claim the most viewers in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic for the first time in 20 years, boosted by Super Bowl XLVII in February and a crucial prime-time National Football League playoff game.
The network, the most-watched in nine of the past 10 seasons, also is adding seven National Football Conference games starting in the 2014 season as part of a new nine-year $9.5 billion NFL broadcast pact. It’s already airing American Football Conference games.
ABC, the only major network without NFL games, relies on sister network ESPN to produce a Saturday college football lineup and coverage of National Basketball Association regular season and playoff games.
ESPN, which carries Monday Night Football, plans to help promote ABC’s new lineup, Ed Erhardt, the sports network’s president of marketing and advertising sales, said in an interview. ESPN, the most-watched U.S. network dedicated to sports, has reached an eight-year extension with the NFL that keeps Monday Night Football on the channel through the 2021 season.
Sports also carries strategic value to networks when they’re negotiating fees with pay-TV operators that want to carry the broadcaster’s signal, according to Davenport’s Morris.
Cable and satellite companies may be less willing to cut off those signals if that means losing feeds to eagerly anticipated games. For advertisers, sports has become a bulwark against time-shifted viewing and consistently draws younger audiences advertisers want to reach, Morris said.
“You want to sell cars and beer -- you’re getting a great captive audience with sports,” he said.