National Football League on television
The television rights to broadcast National Football League (NFL) games are the most lucrative and expensive rights of any American sport. Television brought professional football into prominence in the modern era after World War II. Since then, National Football League 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. Until the broadcast contract ended in 2013, the terrestrial television networks CBS ($3.73B), NBC ($3.6B) and Fox ($4.27B) — as well as cable television's ESPN ($8.8B) — paid a combined total of US$20.4 billion to broadcast NFL games. From 2014 to 2022, the same networks will pay $39.6 billion for the same broadcast rights. The NFL thus holds broadcast contracts with four companies (CBS Corporation, Comcast, 21st Century Fox and The Walt Disney Company/Hearst Corporation, respectively) that control a combined vast majority of the country's television product. League-owned NFL Network, on cable television, also broadcasts a selected number of games nationally.
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 NBC, CBS and NFL Network share Thursday night games during the regular season. During the postseason, ESPN airs one game, NBC airs two, while CBS and Fox air the rest of the AFC and NFC games, respectively. The Super Bowl rotates annually among CBS, Fox, and NBC.
NFL preseason telecasts are more in line with the other major sports leagues' regular-season telecasts: preseason telecasts are more locally produced, usually by a local affiliate of one of the above terrestrial television networks. Some preseason games will air nationally, however. Under the NFL's anti-siphoning rules for cable games, these stations usually will air simulcasts of ESPN and/or NFL Network games in their local markets if the local team is playing.
Overview of schedule
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.
Current broadcasting contracts
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, either through a separate channel or over the SAP channel. ESPN 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 Spanish-language cable network mun2 (which rebranded as NBC Universo to take advantage of its NBC simulcast of Super Bowl XLIX on February 1, 2015) began to simulcast select Sunday Night Football games in the 2014 season as part of the new television contract, while sister Spanish-language broadcast network Telemundo provides the branding for NBC's SAP Spanish commentary. Fox's Spanish-language sports network Fox Deportes began broadcasting select Fox games, including the playoffs and Super Bowl XLVIII in Spanish during the 2013 season. CBS, which lacks any Spanish language outlets, still uses solely SAP for its Spanish simulcasts and relied on ESPN Deportes to simulcast Super Bowl 50 in Spanish.
Sunday regional games
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 2016, 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.
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 1990, both of the Indianapolis Colts's home games against the New York Giants and the Washington Redskins were played in prime time. The Indianapolis Colts were the first NFL team that played neither of its home interconference games in the afternoon since 1978, the first year all teams (except the four fifth-place teams) were guaranteed two interconference games at home. In 1992, both of the Houston Oilers's home games against the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers were played in prime time. In 1993, both of the Buffalo Bills's home games against the New York Giants and the Washington Redskins and both of the San Diego Chargers's home games against the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers were played in prime time. In 1999, both of the New England Patriots's home game against the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys were played on a Sunday nights. In 2001, the Jacksonville Jaguars's home game against the Green Bay Packers was played on a Monday night instead. 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 had 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. The Atlanta situation affected CBS affiliate WGCL-TV, which is the lowest-rated of the major network affiliates in the Atlanta market and has struggled to gain traction in the market since becoming the market's CBS affiliate following television realignment of the mid-1990s. In 2015, the Arizona Cardinals had both of their interconference home games aired in prime time instead, with the game against the Baltimore Ravens on Monday Night Football and the contest against the Cincinnati Bengals on NBC's Sunday Night Football, though CBS was scheduled to broadcast the Bengals-Cardinals game until it was moved to Sunday night (for the first time since 1997). Both of the Cardinals' interconference home games in 2016 will also be in primetime, with the New England Patriots game on Sunday Night Football and the New York Jets game on Monday Night Football, though CBS will air the team's game at San Francisco as part of that network's joint Thursday Night Football coverage with NFL Network. As such, barring a crossflex of a Cardinals Sunday afternoon game, CBS's solo production will have no Cardinals games for the second consecutive season (possibly the first time such a scenario occurred with one team in back-to-back years). Also, Fox will not broadcast any games from O.co Coliseum in 2016 (barring crossflexes) as both of the Oakland Raiders' interconference home games (versus the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers) were crossflexed to CBS, though Fox will air the team's road game at the New Orleans Saints which was crossflexed from CBS.
The Seattle Seahawks did not appear on NBC in their inaugural season of 1976 despite not playing a single Monday Night game. Seattle's lone interconference game that season was at fellow expansion franchise Tampa Bay and televised by CBS, since Seattle played in the NFC West and Tampa Bay in the AFC West. In 1977, the Buccaneers did not appear on NBC (nor on ABC), as their only interconference game was at Seattle, which was televised by CBS. The Buccaneers and Seahawks swapped conferences in 1977, with Tampa Bay moving to the NFC Central and Seattle to the AFC West. Seattle returned to the NFC West in 2002.
After a Broncos-Vikings game was moved to Fox in 2011 because of Fox having a lack of games, the NFL permanently instituted a "cross-flex" policy in 2014 allowing Fox games to be moved to CBS and CBS games moved to Fox to protect each local market; this effectively guarantees each Fox and CBS affiliate in a team's primary market to carry at least one game from the team during the season. With CBS later also picking up most Thursday games, which are not designated by conference, CBS will air many more NFC games than Fox will air AFC games. For example, when Fox aired AFC game during week 6 of the 2014 season, CBS had already aired four NFC games to that point in the season (two on Thursdays and two on Sundays).
Doubleheaders and single games
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:
- A 1:00 p.m. ET (10:00 a.m. PT) game
- Or a 4:05 p.m. ET (1:05 p.m. PT) game
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, partly to avoid conflict with religious services in those cities.)
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.
Ever since 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.
Fox and CBS each have nine doubleheader weeks during the season, with both networks having one in the final week of the season. The other eight doubleheaders are alternated by network, 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 a World Series game (typically Game 4), and uses the featured 4:25 game as a lead in for the baseball playoffs (though in 2014, Fox did not have a doubleheader on the day it broadcast Game 5 of the 2014 World Series, for the first time since 2005).
Doubleheader allotments were often assigned with restrictions because of other network commitments. This happened during Finals Sunday of the U.S. Open tennis championships (September) (Week 1, for CBS 1975–1993, 1998–2014), or Major League Baseball playoffs in October (NBC, typically during League Championship Series from 1976 to 1989, and again in 1996 and 1997, World Series 1978 to 1984, when Sunday games were afternoon games, and CBS, League Championship Series, 1990 to 1993). During the restricted zones, the AFC West or NFC West (depending on the network with the restriction) teams in the Mountain or Pacific time zones cannot play at home during the weekend in question, unless they are hosting an interconference game, or scheduled in prime time (regardless of opponent). The rule was effectively eliminated by the new cross-flex rule in 2014, meaning the NFL could apply the new rule and assign games that would be on the restricted network to the other network. In 1991, during week 5, NBC did not allow their games to be played in the early slot (1 PM) in order to cover the final day of matches in golf's Ryder Cup in Kiawah Island, South Carolina. However, conference regulations such as those used in the past no longer apply as the NFL can apply cross-flexing rules to allow games where the NFC team is the visiting team to air on CBS at 1 PM.
Restrictions on number of games aired
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. The exceptions are usually when one of the two Sunday game networks has a 1 PM or 4:30 PM event, which has been used for tennis and baseball, and likely for the FIFA World Cup in 2022, and Week 17.
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.
The NFL also waives restrictions for London games, which start in the morning in the Eastern time zone. Currently, one game is designated regional and two are designated national.
On Week 17, both networks may air doubleheaders. Games assigned for local markets may involve playoff implications for the local team.
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 to be moved to prime-time beginning with Week 5 of the season. NBC also has broadcast rights to the opening night kickoff game.
Other regular season nationally televised games include those on Thanksgiving. Until the 2014 cross-flexing regulations, afternoon Thanksgiving games mirrored the aforementioned AFC and NFC packages, with AFC away games carried on the AFC network (CBS since 1998) and NFC away games carried on the NFC network (Fox since 1994). Since the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys — the traditional hosts of Thanksgiving Day games — are both NFC teams, one of the two games was an intra-conference game, and the other an interconference game. This setup provides one game each for Fox and CBS. From 2006 to 2011, a third game (no fixed teams) was established on the NFL Network. Starting in 2012, the third game is an NBC game. In the future, the NFL may use flexible scheduling to allow the Lions or Cowboys to host a prime-time game, provided an Eastern time zone team is given the early (12:30 p.m.) slot.
The NFL's anti-siphoning regulations affect both Monday Night Football and half of Thursday Night Football, which air on cable (ESPN and NFL Network, respectively). In the markets of the participating teams, the respective cable channel is blacked out. ESPN games air 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, local ESPN, and if the CBS affiliate in that market declines the option, the NFL Network games as one package. Only over-the-air stations in the market of the participating teams (with the Green Bay Packers having two such markets) may bid on this syndicated package. Starting in 2014, CBS affiliates in the primary markets in question have the primary option to NFL Network-only games; if the local affiliate declines the option (as was in Cincinnati), the NFL will implement the same syndicated package rule. In 2016 with the TNF package split between CBS and NBC, this now depends on which network produces the game for NFL Network.
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.
Since 2012, a Thursday night game went into effect during every week of the season, for the exception of Week 17. Each game is aired on the NFL Network, with the exceptions of the Week 1 NFL Kickoff and Thanksgiving Day games, which are aired on NBC. The season-kickoff game for the 2012 season was moved up a day — to a Wednesday, in order to avoid conflict with President Barack Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention. Since 2014, Thursday night games have been predominately intra-division contests. Since the NFL tries to avoid scheduling Thursday night games during the season which would require the visiting team to travel more than one time zone (excluding the Week 1 Kickoff), the five teams in the Pacific Time Zone — the Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, Los Angeles Rams, 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. There have been some notable exceptions: the Kansas City Chiefs, who are based in the Central Time Zone, play against either the Raiders or Chargers; the Rams, who were based in St. Louis until 2015, played against the 49ers in 2013; though the Arizona Cardinals are based in the Mountain Time Zone, they effectively observe Pacific Daylight Time until the first weekend of November due to not observing Daylight saving time, and played at the St. Louis Rams early in the 2012 season; the Raiders played at the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving in 2013.
Until 2014, teams that played on Thanksgiving in a given year typically did not appear on the NFL Network package that season, with the exception of 2007, when the Cowboys played the Green Bay Packers on week after their traditional Thanksgiving game. The Cowboys and Detroit Lions were ineligible for appearing on the NFL Network, due to hosting Thanksgiving games every year. However, the Cowboys played a Thursday night game at the Chicago Bears in 2014, one week after both teams played on Thanksgiving, while the Lions hosted a Thursday night game against the Packers in 2015, one week after their traditional Thanksgiving game. The "one Thursday game per team" rule does not include the Kickoff Game, so teams that play in that game will play at least one additional Thursday game in a given season.
In 2014, CBS had simulcast Thursday night games between Weeks 2–8 and televised one of two Saturday games in Week 16, and each Thursday night game was an intra-division game, except for the Packers–Seahawks Week 1 NBC kickoff and the Cowboys–Bears game in Week 14. The two Saturday games in Week 16 — Eagles–Redskins and Chargers–49ers — aired beginning at 4:30 p.m. ET. The 4:30 p.m. ET game was televised by the NFL Network, while the other began shortly after 8:00 p.m. ET, and aired on CBS.
NFL Sunday Ticket
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.
Sunday regional coverage
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:
- All away games are aired in the primary and secondary markets. This is a gesture to old policies based on the ability for fans to attend games. Away games were looked upon as too difficult to travel to and attend.
- All sold out home games are aired in the primary market. Games that do not sell out at least 72 hours prior to kickoff are subject to local blackout in the primary and all secondary markets. (see below)
- As stated above, no games are allowed to compete with a sold-out home game, as it encourages ticket-holders to attend the game instead of watching another game on television, but secondary markets are not subject to this rule, as it is less expected for fans from a market potentially 100 miles away to attend every game.
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.
Shared media markets
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:
49ers and Raiders
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 following exceptions have been granted to this policy:
- During Week 15 of the 2009 season, the 49ers were originally scheduled to play at the Philadelphia Eagles in the early time slot, and the Raiders' game at the Denver Broncos was scheduled in the late time slot. However, a severe blizzard in the Philadelphia area forced the 49ers–Eagles game to be moved to the late time slot on only two days notice.
- In the 2011 season, the Raiders' Week 14 game at the Green Bay Packers was flexed from the early time slot to the late-afternoon time slot due to the fact that Green Bay was undefeated at the time and Oakland was in first place in the AFC West heading into the match-up, at the same time that the 49ers played at the Arizona Cardinals.
- Starting in 2012, there have been a number of times that the Raiders and 49ers have both played late games on Sunday. Whenever this happens, the must-show rule trumps the exclusivity rule, resulting in both games being shown in the Bay Area at the same time.
- 2012 Week 17 (December 30): 49ers hosted Arizona Cardinals, Raiders played at San Diego Chargers.
- 2013 Week 17 (December 29): Raiders hosted Denver Broncos, 49ers played at Arizona.
- 2014 Week 9 (November 2): 49ers hosted St. Louis Rams, Raiders played at Seattle Seahawks.
- 2014 Week 17 (December 28): 49ers hosted Cardinals, Raiders played at Broncos.
- 2015 Week 15 (December 20): 49ers hosted Cincinnati Bengals, Raiders hosted Green Bay Packers.
- 2015 Week 17 (January 3): 49ers hosted Rams, Raiders played at Kansas City Chiefs.
- 2016 Week 15 (December 18): 49ers played at Atlanta Falcons, Raiders played at San Diego Chargers.
- 2016 Week 16 (December 24): 49ers played at Los Angeles Rams, Raiders hosted Indianapolis Colts.
- 2016 Week 17 (January 1): 49ers hosted Seattle Seahawks, Raiders played at Broncos.
- Under current television rules, and in order to circumvent television blackout policies, it is necessary for both teams to be given prime time games, regardless of the teams' performances in the previous season. Every season, both teams play at least ten games that cannot be played in the early time slot — eight home games for each team, plus road games against its western divisional opponents: the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers for the Raiders (for a total of ten games), and all of the NFC West teams for the 49ers (for a total of eleven). By scheduling a late game during the same week that the other team has an early game or a bye week, that leaves three weeks (four or five in years when the NFC West and AFC West play each other) where both Bay Area teams cannot be scheduled simultaneously in the late time slot, unless they're playing each other head-to-head, or if the aforementioned must-show/exclusivity rule occurs. So between the two teams, they must play at least three prime time games every season.
- The 49ers' two interconference home games (with a visiting AFC team) are televised by CBS, and the Raiders' interconference home games (with a visiting NFC team) are on Fox, unless they are scheduled in prime time. These games must be late games, as they are played on the west coast. By rule, when one of the teams is playing an interconference home game, the other team cannot play a late game at the same time on the other network. Nor can they play an early game on said network, regardless of which network has the single game or the doubleheader.
- The only window that would be available for the Raiders in that situation would be an early game on Fox, likewise with the 49ers on CBS. However, the only two games where the Raiders are on Fox or the 49ers are on CBS are interconference home games. All home games in the Bay Area must be late games. Therefore, a conflict is found in both cases.
- One conflict can be solved by scheduling the 49ers' or Raiders' home game during the other team's bye week. The second conflict would have to be averted by scheduling one of the teams for national television (e.g. Thanksgiving Day, Thursday Night, Saturday Night, Sunday Night or on Monday Night Football).
- In 2010, the 49ers hosted the Denver Broncos and the Oakland Raiders, while the Raiders hosted the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks. With the Broncos–49ers game being played in London, England during Week 8 of that season, the game occurred in the early time slot, something that would have been prohibited, had the game been played in San Francisco. The Raiders hosted the Seahawks on that day, marking the first time the 49ers played on CBS and the Raiders played on Fox on the same day, though the Raiders game was blacked out anyway.
- In 2016, the Raiders will host the Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers. Both games are cross-flexed to CBS in the late time slot while the 49ers are scheduled on the road in the early time slot, and televised by Fox. Conversely, the 49ers will host the New England Patriots and the New York Jets. Both games occur during weeks in which the Raiders either play on a Monday or a Thursday night. In addition, Oakland had its road game at the New Orleans Saints in Week 1 cross-flexed to Fox because the two Fox games aired on CBS.
- If the 49ers or Raiders win the Super Bowl, the NFL may take advantage of the opportunity by scheduling an opponent from the opposite conference for the Kickoff Game at the beginning of the following season. If the 49ers host the Kickoff Game (on a Thursday night), the Raiders can possibly host a Week 1 season opener on Fox, unless the schedule of the Raiders' Major League Baseball counterparts, the Oakland Athletics, creates a conflict (the Raiders and Athletics share Oakland Alameda Coliseum).
- Beginning in 2010, the NFL implemented intra-division scheduling only during Week 17 in order to discourage teams who have secured playoff berths from resting key players and phoning in games at the end of the season. All Week 17 games occur on Sunday, and the NBC Sunday Night flex-game for Week 17 is not determined until the final week of the season. Since the Kansas City Chiefs and the then-St. Louis Rams were the only western division teams not in the Mountain or Pacific time zones, this originally meant that one Bay Area team would have to end their season at the appropriate Missouri division rival in the early time slot, while the other team plays in the late time slot. It was suggested that each team would alternate every other year between ending their season at the appropriate Missouri rival and in the late time slot. If the 49ers or Raiders were to get flexed to NBC in the final week, the team not playing on NBC would have had its game moved to 4:25 p.m. EST visiting the appropriate Missouri team and playoff positioning is on the line. However, both Bay Area teams have been simultaneously scheduled in the late-afternoon time slot during Week 17 since 2012, and it has been suggested that the NFL will allow the teams to play simultaneously with one team hosting and the other team on the road during the final week given that the interest level is generally at the lowest during the final week of the season unless the team is battling for a playoff spot.
- Beginning in 2014, a new flexible-scheduling policy was implemented to allow CBS and Fox to "cross-flex," in which games involving a visiting AFC team would be switched to Fox, and for Fox games with a visiting NFC team to be switched to CBS. This would allow for one Bay Area team to be scheduled on the road in the 1:00 p.m. ET slot, while the other Bay Area team hosts an inter-conference game in the 4:05 or 4:25 p.m. ET slot, which is the case with the aforementioned 2016 inter-conference matchups.
Giants and Jets
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.
- The aforementioned 49ers' and Raiders' late time slot requirement does not exist for the Giants and Jets. Both New York City teams can play Sunday home games in either the 1:00 p.m. or the 4:00 p.m. time slots, because they are in the Eastern time zone.
- However, unlike the 49ers and Raiders, both New York teams cannot play home games on the same day due to both teams playing their home games at MetLife Stadium. When both teams are scheduled at home during the same week, one team will play on Sunday, while the other will play a Thursday or Monday game in prime time. Therefore, the same conflict presented by the interconference home games still exists, as having one team play a home interconference game would mean that if the other team is also scheduled for a home interconference game during the same week to circumvent the blackout policy. Unless one of the teams was involved in the International Series, this arrangement is impossible.
- In 2016, the Jets will host the Seattle Seahawks and the Los Angeles Rams. The former game was scheduled during the same week in which the Giants played the Minnesota Vikings on Monday Night Football, while the latter game is scheduled during the same week in which the Giants play the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday Night Football. Conversely, the Giants' other interconference home game, vs. the Baltimore Ravens, was scheduled during the same week in which the Jets played on Monday Night Football.
- Because the league does not generally schedule simultaneous games for the Giants and Jets, the only way three Sunday afternoon games can be shown in the New York primary media market is if one team has a prime time game or bye while the other team plays its game on the network that has the scheduled doubleheader, or if the teams play head-to-head either on the network with the scheduled doubleheader or in prime time. Theoretically, a non-sellout blackout could allow alternative games to be shown, but the Giants and Jets have continuously sold out since 1975 and 1977, respectively, making this scenario unlikely.
- In the 2012 season, the Giants hosted the Philadelphia Eagles on the final week of the season at the same time the Jets played at the Buffalo Bills. Since neither game was flexed out of the 1:00 p.m. EST time slot, the must-show rule trumped the exclusivity rule in this case, and both games were shown in the New York area simultaneously.
- In the 2013 season, the Giants hosted the Washington Redskins on the final week of the season at the same time the Jets played at the Miami Dolphins. Like the previous season, neither game was flexed out of the 1:00 p.m. EST time slot; since that occurred, the must-show rule trumped the exclusivity rule, and both games were shown in the New York area simultaneously.
- As is the case with the 49ers and Raiders, a new "cross-flexing" policy implemented in 2014 would allow for one New York team to play on the road in either the 1:00, 4:05 or 4:25 p.m. ET slot (CBS or Fox), while the other New York team hosts an interconference opponent.
The often complicated television package is a significant factor in why the schedule for a particular season takes several weeks to develop.
Primary/secondary market conflicts
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 both teams play at the same time on opposite networks with at least one at home, both games have aired in each market on a few occasions. Because Washington is an official secondary market for the Ravens but Baltimore is not an official secondary market for the Redskins, most of the cases of both games involve a Ravens away game being aired opposite a Redskins home game.
Similarly, the San Diego Chargers and Los Angeles Rams gained this status after the Rams' 2016 return to Los Angeles. Because Los Angeles is an official secondary market for the Chargers but San Diego is not an official secondary market for the Rams, both games have aired in Los Angeles on occasion.
Rams and Raiders in Los Angeles
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.
Sunday bonus coverage
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.
Local syndication of cable games
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, and including their one independent station in the Tampa-St. Petersburg market) 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).
Under the agreement for the 2014 season between CBS and the NFL Network for Thursday Night Football simulcasts during the first half of the season, local rights to such games that are not carried by CBS are awarded to the markets' CBS affiliates, rather than syndicated. If the CBS affiliate opts out of the deal, the NFL will offer the package by syndication, typically with the Monday Night package. The CBS/NFL Network deal was extended for the 2015 season on January 18, 2015. For the 2016 season, two midseason TNF games were NFL Network-exclusive but produced by NBC; the NBC affiliates in those markets with teams competing carried those games in-market.
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. 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 and on the doubleheader network, the late game that is designated as the national game (airs in the majority of markets nationally), 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 to Sunday night, 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, 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 regional 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 2016) or on Monday (like in 2017), 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, Sunday Night game flexible scheduling can not occur in week 16; NBC is then given flexible scheduling in week 10 instead. However, the other two types of flexible scheduling changes—moving a game from early to late, or changing networks—is still possible during such weeks. The NFL went around the flexible scheduling procedure prohibition in the 2016 NFL season where Christmas falls on a Sunday by scheduling two Sunday games at 4:30 and 8:30 PM ET, respectively.
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 (not counting the Thursday Night Football games aired and/or produced by NBC). 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."
Beginning in 2014, the NFL will also be able to "cross-flex" games between Fox and CBS, enabling CBS to televise NFC away games (including NFC vs. NFC contests), and Fox to broadcast AFC away games (including AFC vs. AFC contests). The league can also "cross-flex" some of these games before the start of the season. For example, in 2014, the Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons game in Week 17, originally a 1 PM Fox game, was cross-flexed to 4:25 PM on CBS. Despite the two teams' losing records, they were playing a game where the winner would become the NFC South champion and host a first-round playoff game. As Fox already had crucial NFC North games with playoff implications, and CBS did not have any games with such assigned to 4:25 PM (games with AFC playoff implications had been assigned to 1 PM), the NFL reassigned the game to CBS at 4:25 PM to give affiliates a game with playoff implications at the time.
Saturday NFL games
Since the 1970 AFL–NFL merger, the NFL has taken an informal approach to scheduling games on Saturdays after the end of the college football season, with the scheduling policy changing many times. From 1970 to 2005, both of the Sunday broadcast networks were given at least two Saturday afternoon national broadcasts in December, with ESPN also airing one Saturday game in primetime from 1998 to 2005.
In 2006, the schedule was cut to three Saturday games, which aired in primetime and were televised on the NFL Network in December. In 2008, this was changed to only one Saturday game, still aired in primetime on the NFL Network, which was the policy through 2011. For the 2012 season, ESPN aired the lone Saturday game in primetime. No Saturday game was scheduled in 2013, the first time since the 1970 merger that the NFL did not play any regular season games on Saturday.
In 2014, the NFL returned to Saturdays with a Week 16 doubleheader, with the Saturday afternoon game airing on the NFL Network and a Saturday night game airing on CBS. CBS Sports produced coverage for both games. In 2015, this schedule was modified again to one Saturday night game during both Week 15 and Week 16, these games were cable-only and produced by CBS. In 2016, Christmas falls on a Sunday so the regional slate of week 16 games will air on Saturday afternoon, with a national game also airing that night, along with a national week 15 Saturday game the previous week, with CBS and Fox producing the regional games and NBC producing the national games for cable.
Several notable games have taken place on Saturdays, including the New England Patriots' historic comeback from a 22-3 deficit in the fourth quarter against the New York Giants in 1996, a game the same season between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Jets in which the Eagles won in dramatic fashion over the 1-13 Jets to keep their playoff hopes alive (they would eventually qualify), the final game at Three Rivers Stadium featuring the Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins in 2000, another Patriots-Giants matchup in 2007 which saw the Patriots complete a 16-0 season and was simulcast on three networks, a 2012 game between the Detroit Lions and the Atlanta Falcons in which Calvin Johnson of the Lions set the NFL record for receiving yards in one season, and a 2015 game between the Eagles and the Redskins to decide the NFC East champion.
(Under Federal law, in order to maintain its antitrust exemption, the NFL is not permitted the "telecasting of all or a substantial part of any professional football game on any Friday after six o’clock postmeridian or on any Saturday during the period beginning on the second Friday in September and ending on the second Saturday in December in any year from any telecasting station located within seventy-five miles of the game site of any intercollegiate or interscholastic football contest[.]" 15 U.S.C. § 1293)
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, although INDYCAR still requires a blackout of one event—the Indianapolis 500—in the local market.
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.
In the other leagues, nationally televised games are often blacked out on the national networks they are airing on in their local markets, but they can still be seen on their local regional sports network that normally has their local broadcasting rights.
Until September 2014, the NFL blackout rules were sanctioned by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which enforced rules requiring cable and satellite providers to not distribute any sports telecast that had been blacked out by a broadcast television station within their market of service. On September 9, 2014, USA Today published an editorial from FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, who stated that "sports blackout rules are obsolete and have to go", and that he was submitting a proposal to "get rid of the FCC's blackout rules once and for all", to be voted on by the agency's members on September 30 of that year. On September 30, 2014, the Commission voted unanimously to repeal the FCC's blackout rules. However, the removal of these rules are, to an extent, purely symbolic; the NFL can still enforce its blackout policies on a contractual basis with television networks, stations, and service providers – a process made feasible by the large amount of leverage the league places on its media partners.
Ultimately, no games would be blacked out at all during the 2014 season. On March 23, 2015, the NFL's owners voted to suspend the blackout rules for the 2015 NFL season, meaning that all games will be televised in their home markets, regardless of ticket sales. The blackout rule was again suspended for the 2016 NFL season.
However, the NFL's syndication exclusivity rule is still in effect for the 2015–16 season.
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:
- The end of the first (or third) quarter
- The two-minute warning of the second (or fourth) quarter
Other instances used for commercial breaks (eight total required per half):
- A timeout called by either team
- Instant replay stoppage
- Game stoppage after a score
- Game stoppage after a kickoff or punt (excluding the opening kickoff of each half)
- Game stoppage after a turnover
- Injury timeout
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 staged 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.
Thanksgiving Day games
Thanksgiving Day contests have been held since before the league's inception. The Detroit Lions have hosted a game every Thanksgiving since 1934 (with the exception of 1939–1944 due to the "Franksgiving" confusion and World War II), and they have been nationally televised since 1953. The first color television broadcast of an NFL regular season game was the 1965 Thanksgiving contest between the Lions and Baltimore Colts. 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, fans both inside and outside St. Louis did not respond well to an NFL fixture on Thanksgiving, 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 was 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. A separate contract also liberated CBS from its usual conference affiliation on Thursdays; thus, the 2014 and 2015 contests were all NFC contests, with the AFC completely shut out of the holiday.
Christmas and Christmas Eve games
In recent years, the NFL has generally scheduled games on Christmas only if it falls on a day normally used for games (Saturday, Sunday, Monday). If Christmas falls on a Sunday, as it will in 2016, most of the games are to be played on the preceding day, Saturday, December 24, with two games 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.
New Year's games
The NFL never stages games on New Year's Day if it is not a Sunday. Historically, this was in deference to the numerous college football bowl games traditionally held on New Year's Day; in recent years, New Year's Day has consistently fallen in the last week of the NFL's regular season, and the league's policy is to play all of the last games of the week on one day (Sunday, which, if it falls on January 1, typically prompts the bowl games on that day to be postponed until the following Monday, January 2) to ensure an equal amount of rest heading into the playoffs. In years when January 1 falls on a Monday, all 32 teams will play on New Year's Eve.
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), with scheduling likely for 2017 and 2023.
- The NFL scheduled Monday Night Football games on Labor Day in the past, but has not done so since 2000, as it was determined that games during the Labor Day weekend were the lowest-rated of the season. Games are always scheduled on Columbus Day, a federal holiday not universally celebrated by all states.
- The NFL only plays on Halloween or Veterans Day if the holiday falls on a day in which football is normally played (Thursday, Sunday, or Monday).
Monday Night Football
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.
Since 2006, ESPN has 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.
NFL network broadcasters
Current English-language broadcasters:
- 1956–1969: (NFL – Sundays & several Mondays)
- 1970–1993: (NFC – Sundays, Thanksgiving, one Saturday)
- 1998–2005: (AFC – Sundays, Thanksgiving, one Saturday)
- 2006–2013: (AFC – Sundays, Thanksgiving)
- 2014–2022: (NFL – Sundays [mainly AFC], Thanksgiving, most AFC playoff games, Super Bowl every three years)
- NFL Network
Current Spanish-language broadcasters:
- NBC Universo
- 2014–2021: NBC simulcasts, including all playoff games
- Fox Deportes
- 2014–2021: Select Fox simulcasts, including all playoff games
- ESPN Deportes
- 2006–2021: ESPN/ABC simulcasts, including ESPN's wild card game, plus Super Bowls in CBS-covered years
- DuMont Television Network
List of NFL television contracts
- Since 1982
- All dollar amounts are in millions of USD per year.
|Period||AFC Package||NFC Package||Sunday Night||Monday Night||Thursday Night||Total Amount|
|1982–1986||NBC ($107)||CBS ($120)||None||ABC ($115)||ABC||$420|
|1987–1989||NBC ($135)||CBS ($165)||ESPN (2nd half) ($51)||ABC ($125)||ABC||$473|
|1990–1993||NBC ($188)||CBS ($265)||TNT (1st half) ($111)
ESPN (2nd half) ($111)
|1994–1997||NBC ($217)||Fox ($395)||TNT (1st half) ($124)
ESPN (2nd half) ($131)
|1998–2005||CBS ($500)||Fox ($550)||ESPN ($600)||ABC ($550)||ESPN||$2,200|
|2006–2013||CBS ($622.5)||Fox ($712.5)||NBC ($650)||ESPN/ESPN Deportes ($1,100)||NFL Network (2nd half) ($0)||$3,085|
|2014–2015||CBS ($1,000)||Fox ($1,100)||NBC
|ESPN/ESPN Deportes ($1,900)||NFL Network ($0)
NBC (2 weeks)
CBS (8 weeks, $275)
|2016–2017||NFL Network ($0)|
NBC/Twitter (5 weeks, $230)
CBS/Twitter (5 weeks, $230)
|2018–2021||NFL Network ($0)|
- ESPN's Sunday Night Football contract included selected Thursday and Saturday night games in December. Through 2001, the contract included one Thursday night game in October (the weekend of Games 1–2 of the World Series), in lieu of the Sunday night game that weekend. In 2002, the night game was eliminated altogether for that weekend, and replaced with the NFL Kickoff game. In 2003, the NFL Kickoff game moved to ABC (to replace the Week 17 Monday night game), and ESPN filled the void with another late-season Saturday night game.
- ESPN's contract runs through 2021. The CBS, Fox and NBC packages expire in 2022.
- The Kickoff Game, despite being held on Thursday, has been carried on NBC since 2006. The Thanksgiving night game was originally part of the NFL Network's package but was sold to NBC, where it will air beginning in 2012. For the 2014 and 2015 seasons, Weeks 2 through 8 of the NFL Network package will be simulcast on CBS, plus one additional game later in the season, with CBS affiliates also getting local simulcast rights for the games not broadcast across the entire network. If the CBS affiliate declines, the NFL will syndicate the game in a manner similar to ESPN games. For 2016 and 2017, ten NFL Network games will be split between NBC and CBS, presumably including the existing Kickoff and Thanksgiving games; these ten games will also be carried on Twitter and its live-streaming service Periscope, with Twitter paying $1 million per game for streaming rights. The Twitter rights fees are included in the figures listed above.
- As the NFL Network is owned by the league, it pays no rights fees to itself for its game coverage. Under its retransmission consent deals with cable providers, it is required to carry eight exclusive games per year indefinitely.
- All ESPN and NFL Network (second half as of 2014) games also include the league selling the local simulcast rights (about $100,000 per game), set in a bidding process each year. The ESPN games are placed in one bid; under the current CBS contract, if the CBS affiliate in the home or visiting team's primary market declines to carry the simulcast during the second half of the season, the NFL will sell local simulcast rights in a similar manner to the ESPN package.
List of NFL Sunday Ticket contracts
NFL Sunday Ticket is an out-of-market sports package that broadcasts National Football League (NFL) regular season games unavailable on local affiliates. It carries all regional Sunday afternoon games currently produced by Fox and CBS. The package was launched exclusivity on satellite service provider DirecTV in 1994. Beginning in 2015, the exclusive rights are held by AT&T after their acquisition of DirecTV; however, the package remains exclusive to their DirecTV platform and is unavailable on their U-Verse IPTV platform. The NFL Sunday Ticket package brings in additional revenue not counted in the listing above.
Leverage over the networks
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, claiming a lack of editorial control instead.
Then in July 2015, The Hollywood Reporter reported that sources within ESPN believed that the NFL gave them a "terrible" 2015 Monday Night Football schedule as "payback" for remarks made on air by both ESPN commentators Keith Olbermann and Bill Simmons that were critical of the league and Goodell; ESPN parted ways with both Olbermann and Simmons during that same year.
Counterprogramming, where other networks attempt to offer a program which is intended to compete with the NFL audience for a regular season game, playoff game or the Super Bowl (as Fox did in 1992 with a special segment of the sketch comedy series In Living Color during Super Bowl XXVI), has also been heavily discouraged with the consolidation of rights among the major networks; ESPN generally airs low-profile niche sports such as professional bowling (although one tournament is a pro-am tournament featuring NBA stars), non-conference men's and women's college basketball (often high-profile non-conference games usually occur in November and December during the Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks), Canadian Football League coverage from their Canadian sister network TSN, and minor league sports on Sunday afternoons, along with basic audio-only 'carousel' reports of current NFL scores by reporters from NFL stadiums on their other networks resembling those on ESPN Radio or Fox Sports Radio.
Programming on Fox and CBS when game coverage does not occur generally consists of brokered programming under banners like CBS Sports Spectacular which feature extreme sports tours, Professional Bull Riders bonus events for the top 15 riders, and celebrity pro-am events purchased from outside providers, including for Fox in 2014 highlights packages for the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship rounds in Austin and Atlanta. NBC, which has the Sunday night package, will run Golf Channel, including the FedEx Cup Playoffs, the Evian Championship (a women's major held in France), or an international team tournament (depending on year, Ryder, Solheim, or President's Cup), motorsport (Formula One in Austin and Mexico City, starting in 2015 rounds, along with NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup events; Chase races on NBC will serve as lead-in programming to Football Night in America), and Olympic sports which the demographic is focused towards women, such as ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating. Likewise, since 2010 ABC has run low-profile same-week repeats of their reality programming in solidarity with ESPN (although in 2011 an INDYCAR race aired during the time slot; that race was abandoned with less than 6% of the distance completed).
Generally, the only networks to counterprogram the Super Bowl currently are niche cable networks with no "sports fan" appeal such as Animal Planet with their Puppy Bowl and imitation programming, and various marathons by other cable networks. In years when it does not carry the game, Fox has often purposely burned off failed sitcoms and dramas to discourage viewers from tuning away from the game, with other networks generally running marathons of popular reality or drama programs (for NBC, The Apprentice has filled this role) merely to fill the evening rather than an actual attempt to counterprogram, and CBS notably runs themed 60 Minutes episodes consisting of past stories featuring figures that fit the episode's theme.
Until 2014 when the highlights program Gameday Live was launched, the NFL Network during 1:00 p.m. regular season games and the playoffs merely featured a still screen with the data of ongoing games on-screen while Sirius XM NFL Radio played in the background with 'carousel' score reports, with only highlights of game action from radio play-by-play heard occasionally.
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." Beginning in the 2016 Playoffs, this was slightly changed to "This broadcast is copyrighted by NFL Productions for the private use of our audience. Any other use of this telecast of any pictures, descriptions or accounts of the game without the consent of NFL Productions is prohibited." ) Only the NFL Network can re-air games and they choose a few each week.
Restrictions on sponsorship
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 associated 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. Daily fantasy sports, which are structured to prevent being classified as gambling, air advertisements on the NFL's partner networks on game days, but not during time controlled by the league.
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.
Restrictions on reporters
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. Likewise, CBS hired retired referee Mike Carey in 2014 in the same role from New York on Sundays and the NFL Network in Culver City during Thursday Night Football games, though he departed the network after the 2015 season.
The NFL owns NFL Films, whose duties include providing game film to media outlets for highlights shows after a 2- to 3-day window during which outlets can use original game broadcast highlights.
Current NFL broadcast deals
- Austria – Puls 4 one 4 p.m Sunday game every week. Sport 1 US has English rights to show up to 7 different games per week.
- Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Brazil – ESPN Brasil live airs the Thursday, Sunday and Monday Night games, along two Sunday afternoon games, one at 1:00 p.m and one at 4:00 p.m. Starting in late 2013, ESPN started to air a third Sunday afternoon game, simulcasting it alongise the 1:00 pm game on ESPN+, bringing the total of live games shown on a week to 6. TV Esporte Interativo (FTA) airs the Thursday and Sunday Night games, and one of the 4 p.m games at Sunday afternoon.
- Canada – CTV and TSN own most broadcast rights, with Sunday afternoon games airing on CTV and TSN2, and the Sunday Night Football and Monday Night Football games airing on TSN. Rogers Sportsnet and Citytv own rights to the Thanksgiving Day games and to those games broadcast by the NFL Network (this covered all of the Bills Toronto Series games, as Rogers was the company leasing the Bills from the family of Ralph Wilson for the series). RDS carries Sunday afternoon games, Sunday Night Football and Monday Night Football in the French language, while TVA Sports carries the Thanksgiving Day games and NFL Network games in that language. U.S. network television feeds may also be available, often from multiple markets, on cable and satellite (and via terrestrial broadcast in the border lands); all games are subject to simultaneous substitution. Because of much of Canada's proximity to the United States, blackout restrictions and secondary market rules apply (for instance, CTV flagship CFTO-DT/Toronto cannot show Bills home games if the game is not sold out). Most of Canada's pay-TV providers also provide access to Sunday Ticket, which is not allowed provider exclusivity in Canada due to CRTC regulations.
- GRT Sports
- Czech Republic
- TV3 Sport
- France – BeIN Sports airs two live regular season games a week, on Sunday and Monday nights. The channel also airs three delayed games, on Wednesday afternoon (two Sunday afternoon games) and Friday morning (Thursday Night Football).
- Germany – Sat.1 and ProSieben Maxx air up to 50 games per season starting from 2015 season. Sport1 US aired most of the games during regular season and usually choose what is considered the top game of the time slot on 1 pm and 4:25 pm ET games. Das Erste owned the rights for airing the Super Bowl from 2004 to 2011. The rights then went back to Sat.1 who aired the Super Bowl pre-2004. Sport 1 US has English rights to show up to 3 different games per week.
- Italy – Mediaset Premium airs 3 live games per week (Thursday night, Sunday late game and Sunday night) on its channel Premium Sport HD. Also playoffs are live on the same channel. Contract started in 2015 and will expire after 2017 season. Sky Sport (Italy) airs 3 live games per week (Sunday afternoon doubleheader and Monday Night), Thanksgiving games, playoffs and Super Bowl.
- Sport 5 Live
- Latin America
- Middle East and North Africa
- Fox Sports
- New Zealand
- Viasat Fotboll HD
- UK/Republic of Ireland – As of 2015 Sky Sports has live coverage of all televised NFL Games. Including Thursday nights, Sundays and Monday nights, highlights on the BBC. The Super Bowl and NFL International Series live on the BBC and Sky sports.
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 21st Century Fox-owned networks distribute NFL games to most other regions of the world.
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