When it comes to NFL, TV executives put on brave face

May 18, 2011

NFL players association members arrive for negotiations with NFL in Washington Mar 11 2011

Shrewd? Prescient? Delusional? Tough to know, but top TV executives this week all seemed relatively confident — even off the record — when asked about the chances that NFL games would be played this fall.

The background, of course, is that NFL team owners and players are at odds over salary caps and other issues, raising the possibility of a lockout and the cancellation of some or all of the 2011 football season. Very bad news, if you’re a fan or a network executive.

As Yinka Adegoke and Liana Baker wrote in a piece this spring, “It is difficult to overstate the importance of the NFL to the revenue and profits of broadcasters like CBS Corp, Walt Disney’s ESPN, Comcast Corp’s NBC and News Corp’s Fox.”

Consider this:  The broadcast and cable networks that share the NFL rights sell about $3 billion in advertising time for games each season. That’s $3 billion that’s up for grabs.

As TV executives made the rounds this week to introduce their 2011-12 prime-time schedules, they couldn’t escape the 800-pound linebacker in the room. It’s noteworthy that all of them — even if they were privately sweating — put on a brave face. Here’s a taste…
“They’re going to play,” said John Skipper, who oversees content for ESPN. “I don’t know when they are going to play, but eventually they will play, and we will show it on Monday nights.”

If you really want brass, check out the what Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt had to say over at NBC, which counts on the NFL for blockbuster ratings every Sunday night.  “We’ve obviously pretty close to what’s going on with this situation. We’re feeling pretty optimistic that football will be there. Worst case scenarios is we might have delay of games for a few weeks, in which case we’ve got a contingency plan to produce several high quality live event reality type shows that will fill out Sunday. But we’re feeling pretty good about where we’re going to be with the NFL.”

And Fox? A bit more wishy-washy, but hardly any signs of panic. “I think they’re planning for there to be an NFL season and at the same time working on contingencies if there’s not,” said Fox Networks Entertainment Chairman Peter Rice.

No doubt these guys are putting the best spin possible on the situation — particularly when they are addressing the press or hundred of their most important advertising clients. Still, as Greenblatt said, they are pretty close to the situation. So you may want to keep your Sunday afternoons free this fall.

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