CBS Sports Chief: NFL Will Be 'Pressure Point' in CBS/Time Warner Cable Standoff

New York Giants Colts - H 2013
Getty Images

New York Giants Colts - H 2013

The standoff between CBS and Time Warner Cable has dragged on for nearly three weeks. But with each passing day, CBS gets closer to the ultimate in TV programming leverage: the NFL. The league is two weeks into preseason. And CBS took out full-page ads in New York area newspapers this week designed to raise the hackles of football fans. "It's unfair. Time Warner Cable won't let you see another Jets game this weekend" read the ad, referring to the New York Jets, one of two area NFL teams. And with the regular NFL season set to start Sept. 5, many industry observers predict an end to the standoff.

"The NFL certainly is a pressure point," CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus told The Hollywood Reporter during the sports division's annual NFL media day on Tuesday.  

PHOTOS: THR's Sports Issue: Exclusive Portraits of the Dodgers' Yasiel Puig, Olympian Lindsey Vonn

Already more than three million homes New York and Los Angeles -- the two largest TV markets in the country -- as well as parts of Dallas and Arizona have missed the PGA Championship. And if the blackout continues into next week as many predict it will, they'll also miss U.S. Open Tennis.

"I hope it's resolved so our viewers can watch NFL football," notes McManus. "As my boss [CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves] has said, all we want is to be fairly compensated for the programming. A lot of people didn't see the PGA Championship and the terrific victory there [by American Jason Dufner]. The PGA Championship isn't NFL football, but it's still a major event."

Time Warner Cable customers also cannot watch the CBS Sports Network, which on Aug. 29 will begin showing college football, including the Mountain West, Conference USA, service academies and Division II. And come fall, the network, which is now in 50 million homes, will expand its Sunday NFL pregame show to four hours. That Other Pregame Show (TOPS) will bow at 9 a.m. on Sept. 8 and originate from a studio adjacent to The NFL Today studio. That means there will be plenty of cross-pollination of talent between TOPS and the marquee CBS preshow, which features Dan Marino, Shannon Sharpe, Bill Cowher, James BrownBoomer Esiason and Lesley Visser. TOPS will be hosted by Adam Schein, Bart Scott, veteran Oakland Raiders executive Amy Trask, CBS Sports Radio’s Brandon Tierney and fantasy analyst Nathan Zegura.

PHOTOS: Hollywood's Multibillion-Dollar Sports Rights Boom

As live sports -- and particularly the NFL -- has become TV's only sure ratings driver, NFL programming has proliferated to the point of saturation. And McManus admits that it's "reasonable" to ask if "there's room for another pregame show."

But he reasons that the CBS Sports Network entry will have "a different perspective and a different feel."

It will be more freewheeling and casual. If Sharpe wanders over, he may not be wearing one of his bespoke suits. And McManus is looking for Trask -- a trailblazer for women in front offices, who resigned earlier this year as CEO of the Raiders -- to be a new voice in pregame coverage. "Are we going to challenge ESPN or the NFL Network in ratings? That's not the goal," he says. "The goal is to put on a product that people start to talk about and want to find."

Designed to capitalize on viewers' hopefully insatiable hunger for NFL programming, TOPS, adds McManus, "is part of the strategic evolution of the CBS Sports Network." Unlike ESPN and new competitor Fox Sports 1, CBS is not plunking down "hundreds of millions of dollars in rights." Instead the network has stitched together a variety of rights deals with niche sports, including AVP Pro Beach Volleyball, second- and third-tier divisions of marquee sports and pre- and postgame programming. "We're doing twice as many live events than we did two years ago. We're in 50 million homes. We were in 25 million homes three years ago. The plan is working, it's just working more slowly than some other people's plans."

Of course, McManus is also keeping an eye on Fox Sports 1, which launched Aug. 17 in 90 million homes and enjoys an enormous financial commitment from 21st Century Fox, its parent company.

"They've made a lot of noise, which is exactly what they should do," says McManus. "The Fox broadcasting network was supposed to be a disaster and it worked. People said there wasn't room for Fox News and it worked. So I give them a lot of credit for putting their money where their mouth is. They'll definitely be a formidable competitor for all of us. They've done exactly what they've wanted to do, which is to have people talking about them. And I applaud them for that. I applaud them for the amount of money they've spent, too."