THERE ARE CHANGES COM­ING.

League puts fans in lab to see what works as foot­ball seeks an­swers

The Hamilton Spectator - - FOOD - GERRY SMITH

If you no­tice more split-screens and fewer com­mer­cial breaks on NFL broad­casts this com­ing sea­son, credit the fans who served as foot­ball’s lab rats.

Last fall, just as TV rat­ings went into a tail­spin, the Na­tional Foot­ball League in­vited fans into a lab de­signed like a liv­ing room. Tech­ni­cians asked them to watch games, track­ing their eyes, heart rates and skin re­sponse. They saw dif­fer­ent ad for­mats, in­clud­ing split screens with com­mer­cials on one side and the field on the other.

The tests — the most ex­ten­sive ever by the league — are con­tribut­ing to big changes in how games will be broad­cast when the reg­u­lar sea­son starts Sept. 7 with a Thurs­day night matchup on NBC be­tween the Kansas City Chiefs and cham­pion New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots.

The goal is to keep view­ers en­gaged and pro­tect the $3.5 bil­lion in an­nual TV ad­ver­tis­ing taken in by NBC, CBS, Fox, ESPN and the NFL Net­work.

“It’s re­ally about the pace of the game and elim­i­nat­ing down­time,” Amanda Herald, the NFL’s di­rec­tor of me­dia strat­egy and busi­ness de­vel­op­ment, said in an in­ter­view. “I do think there will be a pos­i­tive im­pact.”

NFL TV view­er­ship fell about 8 per cent last year, ac­cord­ing to Nielsen data, hurt by weak matchups and com­pe­ti­tion from the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, along with neg­a­tive pub­lic­ity sur­round­ing con­cus­sions and player protests dur­ing the na­tional an­them. The av­er­age U.S. TV au­di­ence for a reg­u­lar sea­son game shrank to 16.5 mil­lion.

Mea­sur­ing fans’ phys­i­cal re­sponses to com­mer­cials — dubbed “bio­met­rics” — has been around for years and has its skep­tics. The idea is to un­der­stand not just what view­ers say in fo­cus groups but how TV shows or ads make them feel.

“We’re re­ally start­ing to study how peo­ple are watch­ing games,” Tod Lei­weke, the NFL’s chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer, said re­cently at an event hosted by GeekWire. “We’re go­ing into peo­ple’s homes and repli­cat­ing the game ex­pe­ri­ence and try­ing to watch ev­ery­thing from what their eyes are fol­low­ing to what their be­hav­iour is dur­ing com­mer­cials breaks.”

One big change is a cut in the num­ber of com­mer­cial breaks — to four per quar­ter from five. They’ll be longer so the net­works can still sell the same num­ber of com­mer­cials but less fre­quent. There will be 30 per cent fewer pro­mo­tional mes­sages, such as when CBS urges view­ers to stick around af­ter the game for “60 Min­utes.”

“When you have touch­down, com­mer­cial, kick­off, com­mer­cial, it be­comes un­watch­able,” said An­drew Donchin, chief in­vest­ment of­fi­cer at Dentsu Aegis Net­work in the U.S., whose clients in­clude Gen­eral Mo­tors.

The net­works will also ex­per­i­ment with dif­fer­ent types of com­mer­cials, ac­cord­ing to Herald. Some will be shown in split screen, with an ad on one side and what’s hap­pen­ing in the sta­dium on the other. Fox has ex­per­i­mented with split screens dur­ing NASCAR broad­casts. The NFL is al­low­ing liquor com­mer­cials this sea­son.

The league is also tweak­ing how games are run to speed them up. In­stead of re­view­ing plays on a side­line mon­i­tor, ref­er­ees will use a hand-held tablet while con­sult­ing with of­fi­cials in New York, in part to make de­ci­sions faster. Over­time will be cut to 10 min­utes from 15. The league has even re­laxed its rules on touch­down cel­e­bra­tions, al­low­ing for more cre­ativ­ity.

Over­all, games should be slightly shorter, Herald said.

In a nod to younger au­di­ences, the league also granted broad­cast­ers and tech com­pa­nies more rights to dis­trib­ute games over the in­ter­net. Ama­zon.com will stream Thurs­day night NFL games for the first time this sea­son, af­ter Twit­ter streamed them last year.

Broad­cast­ers, mean­while, have made some changes to their on-air tal­ent. At CBS, for­mer Cowboys quar­ter­back Tony Romo will take over as an an­a­lyst from Phil Simms. On Fox, for­mer Chicago Bears quar­ter­back Jay Cut­ler will start do­ing colour com­men­tary. On NBC, Mike Tirico will call Thurs­day Night games.

Higher rat­ings would be wel­come news for the broad­cast­ers, which spend bil­lions of dol­lars on long-term rights to air Amer­ica’s most pop­u­lar sport, be­liev­ing foot­ball will con­tinue to draw the large live au­di­ences that com­mand such heavy ad spend­ing. Last sea­son’s de­cline re­strained the an­nual price in­creases broad­cast­ers usu­ally de­mand for foot­ball ads, one ad buyer said.

Ac­cord­ing to Donchin, the ad­ver­tis­ing ex­ec­u­tive, the best an­ti­dote for flag­ging view­er­ship is good games, some­thing that was miss­ing early last sea­son. This year looks dif­fer­ent. In Week 2, NBC will air a prime-time re­match of the NFC cham­pi­onship game be­tween the Green Bay Pack­ers and At­lanta Fal­cons.

“It’s all go­ing to come down to match-ups,” Donchin said.

TOM PEN­NING­TON, GETTY IMAGES

Jay Cut­ler and Tony Romo won’t be the only new ad­di­tions to cov­er­age of NFL games this sea­son.

NAM Y. HUH, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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