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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, 21st Century Fox 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.
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 8 p.m. Eastern Time.
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 language commentary and graphics over ESPN Deportes and has since the move of MNF to ESPN in 2006. NBC's sister network Telemundo will begin to simulcast Sunday Night Football in Spanish in the 2014 season as part of the new television contract, and currently provides the branding for NBC's SAP Spanish commentary.
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:
The "NFC package" for Fox is summarized as the following:
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.
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:
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 were 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, beginning in 2015. This will enable CBS to air a late-afternoon game (4:05 p.m. or 4:25 p.m. ET) in Week 1 of the NFL season, which will also enable the Broncos, Raiders and Chargers to host an AFC team on a Sunday afternoon in Week 1.
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 to 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 (U.S Open tennis women's championship in 2013), 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.
Prior to the 2000 season, doubleheader rules were much more restrictive. Pre-2000, only one game from each network could be aired in a market where a home game was played, even if the home game was on the doubleheader network. Therefore, markets with two teams (such as New York) rarely got more than two games, since odds were that one of the two teams would be at home on any given Sunday.
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. (WCVB in Boston holds the rights to the NFL's syndicated package for Patriots games, 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 2013, although it should be noted that cable coverage of NFL Network has increased in the intervening period.
Beginning in 2012, there will be a Thursday night game every week of the season, for the exceptions of week 17 and the Christmas holiday if it involves week 16. 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 typically do not appear on the NFL Network package that season. The Lions and Cowboys are ineligible for appearing on the NFL Network, due to hosting Thanksgiving games every year, though the Cowboys played on Thanksgiving and in a Thursday night game in back-to-back weeks in the 2007 season. 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.
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.
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:
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:
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 often complicated television package is a significant factor in why the schedule for a particular season takes several weeks to develop.
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.
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. Both the Rams and Raiders usually had trouble selling out their respective stadiums during their time in Los Angeles, thus their home games were frequently blacked out anyway.
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.
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 blacked out 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) under syndicated exclusivity regulations as the league sells via broadcast syndication a package featuring that team's games. 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. Networks have the option of waiving protection to allow for a Sunday night airing, as happened with a game between the unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs and one-loss Denver Broncos in Week 11 of the 2013 season. The contest was protected by CBS, which would have to air it in the non-national 4:05 p.m. timeslot because the game was in Denver and the network did not have doubleheader rights that week. CBS thus allowed NBC to pick up the telecast for a nationwide broadcast.
FOX and CBS cannot protect games in week 17. In years when Christmas falls on Sunday (like in 2011) or on Monday (like in 2006), the NFL schedules its main slate of afternoon games on Christmas Eve (which would fall on Saturday or Sunday) without a prime time game, as NBC's game would be moved to Christmas night (see below). 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. Before that, NFL games were blacked out in the home team's market even if the game was a sellout. The NFL is the only major professional sports league in North America that requires teams to sell out in order to broadcast a game on television locally. Furthermore, the NFL is the only network that imposes an anti-siphoning rule in all teams' local markets; The NFL sells syndication rights of each team's Thursday and Monday night games to a local over-the-air station in each local market. The respective cable station must be blacked out when that team is playing the said game.
Although nationally-televised games in the other leagues are often blacked out on the national networks they are airing on in their local markets, they can still be seen on their local regional sports network that normally has their local broadcasting rights.
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:
Other instances used for commercial breaks (eight total required per half):
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.
The NFL, along with boxing and professional wrestling (before the latter publicly became known as a "fake" sport), was a pioneer of sports broadcasting during a time when baseball and college football were more popular than professional football. Due to the NFL understanding television at an earlier time, they were able to surpass Major League Baseball in the 1960s as the most popular sport in the United States.
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.
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.
Starting in 2014, changes to the NFL television contract allow either traditional Thanksgiving game to prime time (and NBC) and schedule an AFC game in either window to accommodate CBS, while Fox would get the other traditional game with Dallas or Detroit.
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.
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.
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.
Current Spanish-language broadcasters:
|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 ($0/yr)|
NBC (Wks 1, 12)
|This section needs additional citations for verification. (September 2008)|
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 21st Century Fox, 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 network also withdrew its partnership with the PBS series Frontline on the 2013 documentary "League of Denial," which chronicles the history of head injuries in the NFL, shortly after a meeting between ESPN executives and league commissioner Roger Goodell took place in New York City, though ESPN denies pressure from the NFL led to its backing out of the project.
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/totals outcome; example: "... and the game is over in more ways than one".) 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. Fox hired former NFL officiating director Mike Pereira in 2010, who relays rules interpretations from Los Angeles to the games that network covers, leaving their sideline reporters able to focus less on that role.
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
ESPN America had rights to show up to 6 games per week in most Europe but ceased operations on July 31, 2013 (except UK and Ireland). ESPN and/or NewsCorp-owned networks distribute NFL games to most other regions of the world.