The convergent kickoffs of the football and fall television seasons benefit both cultural institutions. College and pro football get prime-time promotion just as broadcast ratings rise after a summer replete with repeats and reality shows. And for broadcasters, buffeted by a buffet of media options eating into their audience, the higher ratings may be because shows are promoted during football games.
This symbiosis is partly due to football (especially the NFL) transcending sport and becoming a social event. “What are you doing for the game?” needs no interpretation when asked on fall Fridays. And so just by retaining — and in some instances growing — its audience, the gap grows between football and scripted series.
This autumnal divergence is particularly strong as winter brings college bowl games and NFL playoffs to prime time — a phenomenon often observed when I wrote a daily analysis for Advertising Age on the cultural and commercial interpretations and implications of the nightly Nielsen ratings race. Friday’s column assignment was to recap the top 10 shows of the week. Because the networks, and thus Nielsen, often categorize football programming as “in-game,” “postgame,” “pregame” and even “pre-kick,” football fragments could comprise the entire list.
For dramas and sitcoms, prime-time declines are not necessarily a reflection of artistic merit. In fact, many consider this to be television’s new golden age. But mining all of the rich content may have hit its natural limits, FX Networks CEO John Landgraf told the New York Times on Monday.
The number of scripted shows soared from 211 in 2009 to 371 last year, and Landgraf thinks this may be too much of a good thing. “What I’ve seen for years and years and years, when we go out and talk to audiences, is that television is less precious to them because there’s so much of it,” Landgraf told the Times. “Television episodes, television shows, television programmers are all a dime a dozen.”
Football may seem the same, especially on weekends when screens are blitzed by multiple games on multiple channels. But compared with the NBA’s and the NHL’s 82-game regular seasons, and Major League Baseball’s 162-game marathon, the 16-game NFL regular season makes each game an event. Add real-time social media musing (especially about fantasy leagues), and football is a DVR-proof performer that broadcasters build schedules, and even stations, around.
“It’s a great two-way partnership between the league and broadcasters,” said Brad Adgate, senior vice president at Horizon Media in New York. “The league is smart enough to know which side its bread is buttered on, and [for broadcasters] it’s more and more important as TV shows continue to decline.” Adgate added that the NFL is a “marketing machine” with a 12-month news cycle. Be it Tom Brady and “deflategate,” the draft, training camp or injuries, “There is no offseason now.”
There’s no offseason for off-field controversy, either, as evidenced by Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice. And on Wednesday, the NFL’s on-field violence crisis again made headlines.
“Studio Altered Movie to Deter NFL Protests” read the headline on the New York Times story, which was based on e-mails accessed by hackers. “When Sony Pictures Entertainment decided to make a movie focusing on the death and dementia professional players have endured from repeated hits to the head — and the NFL’s efforts toward a coverup — it signed Will Smith to star as one of the first scientists to disclose the problem. It named the film bluntly, ‘Concussion,’ ” the article began.
But, it then noted, even though Sony doesn’t have direct business ties with the NFL, it “found itself softening some points it might have made against the multibillion-dollar sports enterprise that controls the nation’s most-watched game.”
Director Peter Landesman denied diluting his film, telling the Times: “There was never an instance where we compromised the storytelling to protect ourselves from the NFL.” Instead, he said, “We’re just being smart, because any large corporation will design a response to something it considers a threat to its existence. … We don’t want to give the NFL a toehold to say, ‘They are making it up,’ and damage the credibility of the movie.”
And like a well-executed play, the league did design a response. “Will Smith’s ‘Concussion’ Drama: NFL Plots Embrace-the-Debate Strategy,” read the Hollywood Reporter headline. The NFL, according to the article, plans a series of discussions, conferences and scientific strategy meetings about player safety that will proceed the movie’s Christmas release date. The league even indicated it would be willing to partner with Sony to raise awareness.
If so, it’s good that the league isn’t hiding from “Concussion.” But it’s the facts, not the film, that matters, and what will really be beneficial isn’t a “marketing machine” or its media counterparts, but medical clarity about America’s most popular sport.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.