Skip to main content

Sunday Saga: The Rich and Athletic Mess With NBC's Biggest Night

The National
Football League is Sunday Night's X Factor.

speculation now surfacing of a shortened season, the ongoing lockout and
protracted legal jousting between the owners and the players has got to have
the executives at NBC Universal reaching for the Maalox (and probably something
stronger) right about now.

The stakes are
huge. Advertisers spend more on Sunday nights than any night of the week. At
least they did last year with football in the mix-nearly $3 billion according
to research firm Kantar Media. And there's more on the line for NBC going into
this NFL season, given that it is scheduled to air the Super Bowl Feb. 5, 2012.

NBC has had
little to brag about in primetime for years, with the NFL being an exception.
Sunday nights has been the brightest spot for the network since it began
programming NFL coverage there five seasons ago.

Football has
let the network dominate Sundays much the way American Idol has ruled Tuesdays or Wednesdays in years past.

In fact, the
Wednesday edition of Idol and Sunday Night Football delivered the two
biggest audiences among regularly scheduled programs in the 2010-11 season,
according to Nielsen. Almost 24 million viewers tuned in weekly to Idol Wednesday while about 21 million
viewers watched the Sunday primetime game. And both shows delivered about the
same number of adults 18-49-just under 10.5 million each. In today's primetime
universe, that's huge-those two series were the only ones to consistently
deliver an 18-49 audience of 10 million or more.

Of course
anything is possible, and maybe the billionaires who own the teams will come to
terms with the millionaire athletes who actually provide the weekly
entertainment. So far, NBC hasn't divulged exact contingency plans, although
when the network unveiled its new lineup three weeks ago, NBCU Entertainment
Chairman Robert Greenblatt said the network was developing replacement
programming in case it is needed. He did not provide much in the way of
specifics, other than to say that "live event reality type shows" would fill
any void.

But if
football goes away, whatever NBC does just won't be the same audience-wise,
buyers believe. And Fox would likely be a big benefactor with its young
male-skewing lineup of animated comedies. "NFL viewers aren't going to go watch
Desperate Housewives or The Good Wife," says Brad Adgate,
SVP/director of research at Horizon Media. And even against the NFL, he says,
Fox is in a good position with its young male audience of cartoon watchers that
advertisers pay a premium to reach because they're lighter viewers of broadcast
primetime TV. So it appears that Fox's hand can only strengthen if football is

In addition to
Sunday fixtures The Simpsons, Family Guy and American Dad, Fox is adding the new Allen Gregory (from cocreator Jonah Hill, about a 7-year-old who is
about to leave the sheltered existence of home schooling to attend elementary
school with kids his own age to the 8 to 10 animated comedy block, while The OT returns to lead off the night.

Of course Fox has its own,
albeit smaller potential NFL Sunday night issue. The
network's post-game show, The
, leads off its primetime schedule. While the show doesn't come
close to the numbers generated by the primetime game, it has
been Fox's highest rated show of the night. Replacement programming, if
needed, will be animation repeats.

both ABC and CBS made big plays to go after the female audience on Sunday
nights. ABC revamped half its schedule, utilizing both a new paranormal show in
Once Upon a Time and a Mad Men-inspired ‘60s period drama, Pan Am. Buyers attending the network's
upfront presentation said ABC appears to be making an assertive bid to ramp up
its competitiveness on a night where it has been, as one executive put it, "a
significant force," since Desperate
premiered some seven seasons ago. That show has anchored ABC's
Sunday night ever since and helped to nurture other hits such as Grey's Anatomy, now on Thursdays.

But as buyers
have noted, Housewives has declined
sharply. During the 2010-11 season, it drew about 10 million viewers overall
and a little over 4 million adults 18-49, down more than two million in viewers
and one million in the demographic compared to the previous season. In
head-to-head competition during the just-ended regular season, CBS's reality
show Undercover Boss outdrew Housewives by about 1 million viewers
and almost matched its 18-49 audience. Just three years ago, Housewives drew 17 million-plus viewers
and 8.5 million viewers 18-49.

With Housewives losing steam fast, CBS is
moving one of its best-performing new shows, the time period winning Tuesday
night legal drama The Good Wife, to
go head-to-head against Housewives
next fall. In its first year, Good Wife
drew 11.1 million viewers, including 2.7 million 18-49. "Outside of football,
that's the battle to watch next fall," says the top buyer at one major agency.

Bottom line,
if the NFL's civil war ends soon, NBC retains control of the night, even if the
season is curtailed slightly. If football disappears for the season, Fox would
be a big gainer and might win the night if it can lure enough of those 14
million male NBC viewers in search of alternate-NFL programming.