The National Football League is pushing back the start of about 40 Sunday afternoon games after finding that television audiences were cut off from the conclusion of 44 early contests in the past three seasons.
Kickoff for the late afternoon double-header games on CBS Corp.’s CBS and News Corp.’s Fox will be moved to 4:25 p.m. eastern from 4:15 p.m. the league said in an e-mailed statement. Games in the 4:05 p.m. timeslot, not part of the double-header scheduled, are unchanged.
Former CBS Sports President Neal Pilson said the change is a “win-win” for the NFL and sports programming for the two networks because television viewership on Sunday increases as the day goes on. The 10-minute change also will benefit sports books, according to oddsmakers, and Pilson said it may have an adverse effect on local news programming, typically scheduled for later on Sunday evening.
“More people can now watch the end of the early games, and since the second group of games now starts later, you have a larger television audience for those games as well,” Pilson, president of Pilson Communications Inc., said in a television interview. “I don’t think the overall effect will be too large because this is just a portion of the NFL schedule.”
The move will allow more 1 p.m. eastern time games to be shown to their conclusion before networks have to switch to the opening of the second contest, the league said. A 4:25 p.m. start would have resulted in a 66 percent decrease in the number of games that were cut off from 2009 through last year, to 15.
One of those games came on Dec. 4, 2011, as Tim Tebow led the Denver Broncos to a game-winning field goal as time expired against the Minnesota Vikings.
It was the team’s fifth straight win, coming as so-called Tebow-mania was approaching its height. Those watching in New York, where Tebow now plays for the Jets, along with viewers in the Green Bay, Dallas, Phoenix, St. Louis and San Francisco markets, missed the conclusion because the Denver game ended four minutes after the late afternoon games kicked off.
Pilson said the move may have a negative effect on the after-football programs on CBS, which will be pushed back by the delay.
CBS has four hours of national programming after football, scheduled to start at 7 p.m. eastern, and then local affiliate news at 11 p.m. If games run past the start of national programming, everything is delayed.
“There is no plus for the local news,” Pilson said. “Local news could see a decrease in viewers if it is pushed too far into the evening.”
CBS said in a statement that the football overruns tend to help the rest of the night’s ratings. Viewer totals were higher on double-header weekends than when prime-time programming started directly at 7 p.m., according to a network statement.
“We know the shows will start late, and we plan to be extra aggressive in communicating the adjusted start times to the audience, both on-air and elsewhere,” the network said in the statement.
Fox’s football post-game show goes off the air at 8 p.m., allowing the network more room to absorb the later kickoffs. The network has only two hours of national programming, then local affiliate programming at 10.
Fox spokesman Lou D’Ermilio said the kickoff change will benefit fans that have invested time in watching early games and would like to see their conclusions.
$1 Billion Contracts
Last year both Fox and CBS signed nine-year contract extensions to air NFL games through the 2022 season. Both extensions are worth about $1 billion each, the Washington Post reported citing unidentified sources within the television industry.
The new schedule will increase the handle for sports books, according to Jeff Sherman, assistant manager of the Las Vegas Hotel and Casino’s sports betting.
“This will allow time for bettors to turn over their winning wagers to late games,” Sherman said in an e-mail. “This sometimes posed a problem with the 4:15 eastern start times.”
Sports books in Nevada took in $1.3 billion in college and professional football wagers in 2011, a 4.2 percent increase from 2010, according to the Nevada Gaming Control Board. NFL bets account for roughly 66 percent, or $858 million, of the state’s football handle, according to RJ Bell of Pregame.com.
The NFL accounted for the three highest-rated shows among adults 18-49 last season, according to Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research at Horizon Media, Inc. NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” was the highest rated among data from September through May, followed by Sunday games on Fox and CBS.
Fox averaged 20.1 million viewers for its games, while CBS averaged 18.4 million, according to Adgate. NBC’s prime time package averaged 21.5 million.
Pilson, who called the NFL the “largest ratings generator in the universe,” said that the league’s games and pre- and post-game shows consistently average a total of around 80 million viewers a week. He said there are roughly 100 million television households in America.
“Obviously there are people watching multiple games, but that is almost the totality of the country,” Pilson said. “There’s no other property whose ratings come close.”