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Broadcast network executives will cry foul. Some NFL fans will complain. And government officials might even posture about the sad demise of free television. But it’s only a matter of time before the Super Bowl leaves broadcast TV for a cable channel — most likely ESPN.
Why? It just makes economic sense for the media conglomerates that license the broadcast rights to the No. 1 TV event in America.
Rights to the Super Bowl are tied to the broadcast networks’ regular-season contracts. CBS, Fox and NBC take turns under a scheme that keeps the games on broadcast television — at least until the deals expire in 2014.
ABC is missing from that list because it doesn’t show any NFL games, but its Disney-owned sister network ESPN airs Monday Night Football. Ironically, ESPN pays more per year for its NFL rights package than the three broadcast networks do, though it is not part of the playoff telecasts or Super Bowl rotation.
This will likely change in the next rights negotiations, already under way. And when it changes, the floodgates could open, and the big game could begin to rotate among a mix of broadcast and cable networks, ending a long battle to keep the Super Bowl free.
In fact, in 1975, the FCC tried to draft a law that prevented major events such as the Super Bowl from migrating to cable, but that regulation was struck down by the courts (Australia has such a law). Since then, there have been lobbying efforts to make sure major events don’t go to cable. NBC Sports’ Dick Ebersol met with the FCC and Justice Department staff in 2010 to assure them that the Comcast-NBC Universal merger would not result in the appearance of the Super Bowl or World Series on Comcast’s Versus sports network. Disney, however, has made no such promise about ESPN.
Look at what has happened with other premier sports events. In 2000, the college football season concluded with 25 bowl games. Of those, 15 were televised on cable. Flash-forward to this past season, when 31 of 35 bowl games were on cable, including the Gator, Fiesta, Orange and Rose — all of which had been on broadcast TV a decade earlier. Even the BCS National Championship Game between Auburn and Oregon aired for the first time on ESPN, becoming the most-watched broadcast in the history of cable.
Similarly, CBS has agreed to share coverage of college basketball’s March Madness tournament games with Turner. In 2016, the Final Four will be seen exclusively on cable, something many pundits thought would never happen.
Other leagues have followed suit: the Major League Baseball and NBA playoffs have aired on a mix of broadcast and cable channels for years. NBC has moved more of its Olympics coverage to its cable properties. In 2010, more hours of Winter Olympics content were seen on cable than on the network.
Follow the money to figure out why. Sure, ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC are on more TVs than ESPN — but not by much. ESPN is available in more than 100 million homes (and growing), compared with nearly all 116 million U.S. households for its broadcast cousin ABC. But whereas ABC is restricted to the revenue it receives from advertisements, ESPN generates ad revenue and more than $4 per subscriber per month in subscription fees. Paying extra to air a Super Bowl on ESPN would be both economically feasible for the network and could generate big returns, as NFL fans would be required to subscribe to see the big game — and ESPN could thus charge even bigger carriage fees.
Before the Super Bowl moves, we will likely see the NFL cautiously migrate a playoff game or two to cable. In 1987, ESPN started airing NFL games on Sunday nights, careful to position the new broadcast as additive, not taking away from existing NFL broadcasts. In 2006, Monday Night Football moved from ABC to ESPN, but ESPN let Sunday Night Football move back to broadcast on NBC. The league created the NFL Network in 2003 and began broadcasting regular-season games in 2006, but they are played Thursdays to avoid migration criticism.
So when NFL playoff games move to cable, consider it a sign that the Super Bowl will soon follow. By then, maybe it will air in 3D.
Dom Caristi is an associate professor of telecommunications at Ball State University and a member of its Digital Policy Institute.
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