Foot­ball’s to­tal blitz on TV

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar - Jon Wein­bach

“Amer­i­can Idol” fired judges, “The Tonight Show” is a punch line and view­ers keep splin­ter­ing across the chan­nel land­scape, but there’s at least one sure thing in the TV busi­ness: Foot­ball rules the air­waves in 2010.

In a strik­ing dis­play of rat­ings prow­ess, the open­ing games of the col­lege and pro foot­ball sea­sons drew record au­di­ences, fur­ther ce­ment­ing the sport’s po­si­tion atop Amer­ica’s sports­me­dia food chain.

Al­ready this month, NBC had the most-watched reg­u­lar-sea­son Na­tional Foot­ball League game ever shown in

Foot­ball,

prime time, and Fox’s rat­ings for the open­ing week­end of NFL games were the net­work’s best Week 1 num­bers since it be­gan show­ing pro games in 1994.

Through two weeks of the NFL sea­son, view­er­ship of CBS’ Amer­i­can Foot­ball Con­fer­ence games are up nearly 20% com­pared to last year, and NBC’s Thurs­day night sea­son opener be­tween New Or­leans and Min­nesota, which fea­tured half­time en­ter­tain­ment from the Dave Matthews Band and coun­try star Tay­lor Swift, at­tracted about 25 mil­lion view­ers and was the most-watched pro­gram on TV since the Os­cars.

As was the case dur­ing the salad days of “Idol” or “Who Wants to Be a Mil­lion­aire,” there ap­pears to be an in­sa­tiable TV ap­petite — this time, for foot­ball. There’s more pigskin on than ever, es­pe­cially col­lege ball, but in­stead of shrink­ing au­di­ences for in­di­vid­ual games, the orgy of cov­er­age is pro­duc­ing new rat­ings bench­marks, even for games that are hardly mar­quee matchups.

The ul­ti­mate sym­bol of foot­ball’s cur­rent TV clout might be the Sept. 6 game be­tween Boise State and Vir­ginia Tech, broad­cast by ESPN. While Boise State has be­come some­thing of a me­dia dar­ling in re­cent years and Vir­ginia Tech came into the game ranked No. 10 in USA To­day’s pre­sea­son poll of coaches, nei­ther team has nearly the na­tional fol­low­ing of stal­warts such as Notre Dame, Texas or USC, and the game kicked off at 8 p.m. East­ern time, in the wan­ing hours of La­bor Day week­end.

No mat­ter: Boise State’s thrilling 33-30 vic­tory, which ended near mid­night on the East Coast, was watched by nearly 10 mil­lion view­ers and was the most-viewed pro­gram of the day on all net­works — cable and broad­cast.

Col­lege foot­ball “is prob­a­bly the most mean­ing­ful reg­u­lar sea­son in the en­tire sports world, and that res­onates in­cred­i­bly well with peo­ple,” says ESPN Vice Pres­i­dent of Pro­gram­ming Dave Brown, who has been at the net­work for 23 years and helps man­age its col­lege foot­ball cov­er­age. “This is one sport that can turn on a dime ev­ery week­end.”

There’s no magic-bul­let the­ory to ex­plain the surg­ing view­er­ship: Few fans would ar­gue that we’re liv­ing in a golden age of foot­ball tal­ent. But ex­ec­u­tives across the TV and sports in­dus­tries cite at least three fac­tors: (1) The qual­ity of high-def­i­ni­tion broad­casts and the dra­mat­i­cally lower prices for HD sets, which has made home view­ing more ac­ces­si­ble and en­joy­able for a wider au­di­ence; (2) the pop­u­lar­ity of “fan­tasy foot­ball” is giv­ing more fans a rea­son to watch games they oth­er­wise would skip; and (3) pro and col­lege foot­ball have fewer — and hence more mean­ing­ful — games and are mostly played on one day of the week, mak­ing them eas­ier to fol­low in a short-at­ten­tion-span era, par­tic­u­larly com­pared with sports such as base­ball and bas­ket­ball, whose sea­sons are much longer and harder to fol­low for ca­sual fans.

If any­thing, the sport’s ap­peal on TV, par­tic­u­larly in the case of pro foot­ball, is af­fect­ing at­ten­dance at the ac­tual games. The NFL ex­pects over­all at­ten­dance to drop for the third con­sec­u­tive year, de­spite sev­eral teams mov­ing into larger fa­cil­i­ties in re­cent years. The league an­tic­i­pates that av­er­age game at­ten­dance will dip be­low 65,000 this sea­son, the low­est fig­ure since 1998, ac­cord­ing to an in­ter­view with NFL ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent Eric Grub­man pub­lished ear­lier this month in USA To­day.

On Satur­days in L.A., there’s a col­lege game on an ESPN-af­fil­i­ated net­work from dawn to near mid­night. Col­lege foot­ball is in ESPN’s cor­po­rate DNA: The sports­me­dia com­pany was founded, in part, to tele­vise Uni­ver­sity of Con­necti­cut foot­ball games, and back when ESPN was a cable up­start that aired re­runs of Aus­tralian Rules Foot­ball, Di­vi­sion I col­lege foot­ball was one of its only high-pro­file prop­er­ties. Now, of course, ESPN is a sprawl­ing con­tent be­he­moth that spans far be­yond TV, but col­lege foot­ball is still a huge pri­or­ity.

For the last five years, ABC has been broad­cast­ing games in prime time on Satur­day, though those tele­casts are branded as ESPN pro­duc­tions and largely fea­ture ESPN tal­ent. ESPN is also mak­ing a big­ger push for West Coast view­ers by putting more Pac-10 games than ever (four) in its ex­clu­sive Thurs­day night pack­age and show­ing two con­fer­ence games, in­clud­ing UCLA vs. Ari­zona State, on the Fri­day af­ter Thanks­giv­ing. ESPN is also giv­ing the league more na­tional ex­po­sure by show­ing sev­eral Pac-10 Satur­day night games, such as next week­end’s Stan­ford-Ore­gon tilt, af­ter the East Coast prime­time games.

While CBS has one Satur­day evening game as part of its me­dia deal with the pow­er­ful South­east­ern Con­fer­ence, the ABC Satur­day night pack­age is the only col­lege foot­ball se­ries that ap­pears weekly in prime time. The ABC games of­ten go head-to-head with other ESPN games, and the re­sults haven’t been en­tirely fa­vor­able for ABC — rat­ings for their Satur­day night games dipped slightly last year com­pared with 2008.

But the com­pe­ti­tion hasn’t hurt ESPN or ESPN2, each of whose view­er­ship num­bers in­creased slightly last year. “You gain more by hav­ing a big­ger pool of view­ers,” Brown says. “It’s been ad­di­tive rather than [ABC] suck­ing out view­ers from cable.”

The col­lege foot­ball me­dia land­scape also now in­cludes the lu­cra­tive Big Ten Net­work, which is co-owned by the ath­letic con­fer­ence and News Corp.’s Fox Sports Net­works unit. Launched in 2007 amid much naysay­ing, its suc­cess in at­tract­ing sub­scribers and fees — it now counts around 40 mil­lion sub­scribers and gen­er­ated nearly $183 mil­lion in sub­scrip­tions in 2009, ac­cord­ing to me­dia an­a­lyst SNL Ka­gan — has mo­ti­vated other con­fer­ences and even in­di­vid­ual schools, in­clud­ing the Uni­ver­sity of Texas, to ex­plore launch­ing their own net­works.

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