The following article was written by Bill Carter and published online by the New York Times on December 19, 2010.
Titled "The Top Attraction on TV? No Script, but Plenty of Action" the article, reprinted below (with my comments in italics) describes the runaway success the NFL had during its then-ongoing 2010 season, prior to the even greater success enjoyed in the playoffs, culmunating in the most watched television event in US history, Super Bowl XLV.
All of this just prior to the owner planned lockout, which now in June 2011, seems certain to effect at least part of the 2011 season.
Mr. Carter's article:
If it wasn’t clear before, this season has underscored the point, italicized it and shouted it from the rooftops: N.F.L. football is by far the most popular form of programming on American television.
The evidence: Of the 20 highest-rated telecasts of any kind so far this television season, 18 have been N.F.L. games on CBS, NBC or Fox. In terms of the best of 2010, nothing else comes close. Of the 50 highest-rated programs during the calendar year, 27 have been N.F.L. games, including 8 of the top 10. (Should you be scared by this fact? Yes.)
And at a time when little or nothing on television increases its audience, the N.F.L. is still finding new viewers. (How is this possible? How is the NFL increasing its already massive fanbase?) NBC’s Sunday night games are up 10 percent this season. With three games left, “Sunday Night Football” is certain to complete the fall as the most-watched offering in prime time, the first time the N.F.L.’s prime-time showcase (which began in 1970 as “Monday Night Football”) has ever attained the top ranking.
CBS’s Sunday afternoon games are also soaring, up about 10 percent from last year. Games on Fox are up about 2 percent. ESPN’s Monday games are about flat with last season, which that network considers remarkable because last season’s games broke all records.
The games on ESPN not only dominate cable television (the top 13 spots in cable ratings this fall are all N.F.L. games) but also have become a force against a network show on that night. While the show, “Dancing With the Stars” on ABC (oddly, ABC and ESPN are both owned by Disney, yet they still put MFN and DWTS on against each other, head-to-head), managed to draw more viewers over all, “Monday Night Football” smashed all its competition among the younger-adult viewers most sought by the networks.
“We’re all a little bit surprised this season,” said Sean McManus, the president of CBS Sports. “But the N.F.L. is just a really, really valuable television package.” (Wait a few paragrahps to see just how valuable the NFL is)
Advertisers certainly know it. Dick Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Sports, said that pricing for commercials (the specifics of which vary enormously because of the way packages of commercials are put together) is up everywhere the games are carried. (A fifth package of games is shown on the N.F.L. Network, the league-owned channel.)
NBC also reported that more advertising dollars had been attracted by one growing audience segment, one not conventionally associated with football: women. NBC’s Sunday games this season rank third in prime time among women 18 to 49 (after “Dancing” and “Grey’s Anatomy” on ABC) and those 18 to 34 (after “Glee” on Fox and “Grey’s Anatomy”).
The last half-hour of NBC’s pregame show is now a significant hit itself, validating that network’s plan to push the N.F.L. in prime time further than “Monday Night Football” (which filled only two hours of prime time) ever did. NBC stretched its N.F.L. coverage to all four hours of Sunday’s prime time, adding the title of “Football Night in America” (a play on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s long-running “Hockey Night in Canada.”)
Of course, Americans have followed football with an almost religious fervor for generations. (Nice analogy there: NFL coupled with religion) But there have never been so many games on before, with so many people watching so many of them.
None of that means the networks make money from the games. (Stop right there. Remember how "valuable" the NFL was supposed to be? Explain to me how these networks can lose money on NFL games, yet not lower the amount they pay the league each season? Does this make sense? What else is going on in these sweetheart deals between the NFL and the TV networks?) Rights fees are huge (the league takes in about $4 billion a year in television money (my research leads me to believe it is actually closer to $6 billion a year)) and losses for the networks are routine. But no network is complaining. The games provide audience circulation like nothing else the networks can buy, and they use the once-a-week mass assemblage to promote their other programs (and that's worth losing money, huh?).
Football has for decades been declared the ideal sport for television, because of its high quotient of action and natural breaks for commercials ("Natural breaks?" TV time-outs aside, the two-minute warning was intentionally added to the NFL to hit fans with advertising at their most hightened state of arousal during a game). But network sports executives say that the viewing experience continues to get better, with the most obvious visual advance coming with the introduction of high-definition television, which has made the game and its players stand out as never before.
“HD has been the dollop of frosting on top of everything else,” Mr. Ebersol said. “If you think about it, the game is rectangular anyway, and now you buy this big rectangular screen.”
Eric Shanks, the president of Fox Sports, cited improvements in camera lenses and locations — especially the overhead camera that tracks plays from above and behind — and in audio as well.
Fox began the season by using microphones on players in the middle of the action, which undoubtedly influenced the early perception of this season as probably the most physically intense — and violent — in memory. (In later games, many players declined to wear microphones, which Mr. Shanks said prompted Fox to develop even more sensitive microphones on the sidelines.)
Mr. Ebersol cited the owner of the New England Patriots, Robert Kraft, who, he said, first compared N.F.L. games to another popular television form. “Bob said, ‘We have the greatest reality show in all of the medium,’ ” Mr. Ebersol said (and how real is "reality TV"? Not at all. It's scripted, staged, re-shot, and manipulated - all of which is proven).
Mr. Shanks leaned toward a different comparison. “It’s kind of like going to an action movie every Sunday,” he said. He emphasized the star power among the league’s leading men. “Quarterbacks drive ratings,” Mr. Shanks said (remember that as the Manning, Brady, Brees,Vick, Roethlisberger, Rodgers, Ryan, Cutler, and Sanchez star in the 2010 NFL Playoffs. In fact, outside of the beaten/retiring Favre, name a top NFL QB not playing in the playoffs).
Fox has an inclination to take the movie comparison to the next level. For the last two weeks, on regional games with smaller audiences, the network has played a musical score in accompaniment with the coverage of the games. The idea, Fox contends, could be the next big innovation in television football coverage because the audience is growing more accustomed to having music with every form of entertainment.
“I think that’s a bridge too far,” Mr. Ebersol said. “I don’t think football is remotely comparable; it’s much bigger than a movie. (But just as fake, no?)”
All of the network executives cited how effective what they called the story lines behind this season had been, from the electrifying play of Michael Vick of the Philadelphia Eagles after his prison sentence for running a dog-fighting business, to the seeming omnipresence of Brett Favre in news headlines. (Are these "story lines" naturally occurring, or are they artificially created by the NFL?)
Finding and exploiting the story line was the approach of ABC’s Roone Arledge, the creator of “Monday Night Football” and the man who elevated football on television to equal status with other forms of entertainment. Mr. Ebersol, who was a protégé of Mr. Arledge, pointed to the current cast of analysts on games at each network, calling them “great storytellers.” (Not commentators but "story tellers." As in, they aren't necessarily "telling it like it is," but instead they are crafting stories to lure in gulible fans.)
Mr. McManus said: “Every week there are at least three games that are very appealing on a national basis. That comes down to story lines. There are so many story lines that are compelling.”
Mr. Shanks said: “The stories get people there. The product keeps people there.”
(But the NFL and its network TV partners couldn't possibly alter, manipulate or outright fix games in order to achieve their lofty goals. They occur naturally. They just "happen"...to the benefit of all those involved - despite the fact that the NFL (which legally calls itself "entertainment") works hand-in-hand with the actual show business world. So even though the NFL could in fact alter its product as its target audience is consuming it - a power few industries can boast of possessing - it would never dare attempt it, right?)