How Sports Networks Without NFL Games Program Around Them

5:00 AM PST 09/13/2013 by Marisa Guthrie
PJ McQuade

As pro football drives record ratings, new cable networks are running like Adrian Peterson to produce hours of cheap, fast, related programming.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

No NFL games? No problem. Upstart cable sports channels including NBC Sports Network, Fox Sports 1 and CBS Sports Network are flooding the zone this season with NFL "shoulder," or companion, programming in an attempt to capitalize on enormous interest in professional football.

CBS Sports Network on Sept. 8 debuted That Other Pregame Show (or TOPS), a four-hour NFL extravaganza hosted by Adam Schein (who also hosts the channel's NFL Monday QB recap), newly retired linebacker Bart Scott, former Oakland Raiders CEO Amy Trask and CBS Sports Radio's Brandon Tierney. It begins at 9 a.m. Sundays and leads into CBS' marquee pregame show, The NFL Today, which airs at noon on the East Coast.

NBC Sports Network is set to premiere a weekly half-hour NFL studio show at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 11. FNIA Coach's Clicker is a spinoff of the popular segment on NBC's Sunday Night Football pregame show Football Night in America, itself the most watched pregame show on television with an average of 7.8 million viewers last season. Coach's Clicker will have FNIA's Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison delivering a detailed Xs-and-Os preview of the coming week's matchups.

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NBC Sports Network executives also plan to launch a Sunday pregame show (likely taking on ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown and NFL Network's NFL GameDay) for the 2014 season, when the network will get expanded use of NFL footage thanks to a nine-year media rights deal that will cost NBC $1 billion annually.

Fox Sports 1, which launched Aug. 17 in nearly 86 million homes, is starting with a modest slate of NFL-related programming. Fox Football Daily (weekdays at 6 p.m.) covers college and professional football, and the Sunday program Fox NFL Kickoff (11 a.m. to noon) leads into Fox's NFL pregame show -- Fox NFL Sunday -- and features such Fox Sports personalities as Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, Jimmy Johnson and Michael Strahan.

And this season, football-related programming has ballooned to nearly 24 hours a week on ESPN and ESPN2 with the addition of NFL Insiders on ESPN and ESPN2's Colin's New Football Show, on which Colin Cowherd banters with guests over breakfast on a set that includes a kitchen and living room.

Such shows are cheap to produce because, for the most part, the talent already is under contract. The costs come for footage rights negotiated with the NFL. ESPN, for example, will pay $15.5 billion, or about $1.95 billion annually, as part of an eight-year Monday Night Football deal extension that begins with the 2014 season and includes increased digital and mobile rights for games and studio programming.

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But how much is too much? "It's reasonable to ask if there's room for another pregame show," CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus tells THR. "But I don't think we're at saturation level yet."

Live sports, particularly the NFL, remain TV's last sure ratings driver: NBC's SNF has been the top-rated primetime program for two consecutive seasons, averaging 21.5 million viewers in 2012, and ESPN's Monday Night Football dominated its cable competition last season with 12.8 million viewers a week. And the programming surrounding those games already is bringing in substantial audiences. CBS' NFL Today averaged 3.6 million viewers last season, and the network's postgame report pulled in 5.3 million. ESPN's slate of NFL-related programming -- including Sunday NFL Countdown and Monday Night Countdown, both hosted by Chris Berman -- are among the net's highest-rated studio shows, attracting 2.1 million and 2.6 million viewers, respectively.

"If you're a programmer, do you want to be the only network that's not maxing out on your football coverage?" asks Patrick Rishe, an economics professor at Webster University in St. Louis and director of sports consulting firm Sportsimpacts.

Underlying the proliferation of NFL- and college football-related programming is a rise in fantasy sports. An estimated 30 million Americans play fantasy football. With revenue of $1.1 billion in 2013 and annual growth of nearly 12 percent, the fantasy-sports industry is expected to reach $1.7 billion by 2017, according to research firm IbisWorld. The NFL accounts for more than a third of that revenue.

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Networks already are speaking to fantasy players with myriad digital and on-air offerings. The final hour of TOPS is dedicated to fantasy football, and Coach's Clicker -- with its analysis of offense, defense and special teams -- is tailor-made for that audience.

"There is still a taboo associated with gambling," says Rishe. "Obviously people do have money riding on their personal fantasy leagues, but it's condoned."

With so much interest in the NFL, companion programming will continue to expand. Says NBC Sports' veteran SNF producer Fred Gaudelli, "In a country where we have five 24-hour sports networks, how can you not have room for an NFL show or two or three?"

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