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National Football League on television

Television booth at Raymond James Stadium

The television rights to broadcast National Football League (NFL) games are the most lucrative and expensive rights of any American sport. It was television that brought professional football into prominence in the modern era after World War II. Since then, NFL broadcasts have become among the most-watched programs on American television, and the financial fortunes of entire networks have rested on owning NFL broadcasting rights. This has raised questions about the impartiality of the networks' coverage of games and whether they can criticize the NFL without fear of losing the rights and their income.

Since the 1960s, all regular season and playoff games broadcast in the United States have been aired by national television networks. Until the broadcast contract ended in 2013, the terrestrial television networks CBS ($3.73B), NBC ($3.6B) and Fox ($4.27B) — as well as cable television's ESPN ($8.8B) — paid a combined total of US$20.4 billion[1] to broadcast NFL games. From 2014 to 2022, the same networks will pay $39.6 billion for the same broadcast rights.[2] The NFL thus holds broadcast contracts with four companies (CBS Corporation, Comcast, 21st Century Fox and The Walt Disney Company/Hearst Corporation, respectively) that control a combined vast majority of the country's television product. League-owned NFL Network, on cable television, also broadcasts a selected number of games nationally. However, the league imposes several strict television policies to ensure that stadiums are filled and sold out,[3][4][5] to maximize telecast ratings.

Under the current contracts, regionally shown games on Sunday afternoons are televised on CBS and Fox, which primarily carry games of AFC and NFC teams respectively (the conference of the road team determines the broadcaster of an interconference game). Nationally televised regular season games on Sunday and Monday nights are aired on NBC and ESPN, respectively, while CBS and NFL Network share Thursday night games during the regular season. During the postseason, ESPN airs one game, NBC airs two, while CBS and Fox air the rest of the AFC and NFC games, respectively. The Super Bowl rotates annually among CBS, Fox, and NBC.

NFL preseason telecasts are more in line with the other major sports leagues' regular-season telecasts: preseason telecasts are more locally produced, usually by a local affiliate of one of the above terrestrial television networks. Some preseason games will air nationally, however. Under the NFL's anti-siphoning rules for cable games, these stations usually will air simulcasts of ESPN and/or NFL Network games in their local markets if the local team is playing.

Overview of schedule

The NFL regular season usually begins in September, and ends in December or early January. Each team plays 16 games during a 17-week period. Traditionally, the majority of each week's games are played on Sunday afternoon. The Sunday afternoon games are televised regionally, where the particular game available on local television will depend on where the viewer is located, and begin at either approximately 1 p.m. or 4 p.m. Eastern Time. In addition, there are usually single nationally televised games each on Thursday night, Sunday night, and Monday night. These primetime games are broadcast across the country over one national over-the-air broadcast or cable network, where there are no regional restrictions, nor any other competing NFL contest.

All playoff games, the Super Bowl, and the Pro Bowl are nationally televised on either Saturday or Sunday in January/early February, and either in the afternoon or in primetime.

Scheduling during the NFL preseason is more lenient in that most games usually start based on the local time. Thus, games on the West Coast are usually played after 7 p.m. Pacific Time (10 p.m. Eastern Time). However, the handful of primetime, nationally televised preseason games are still played at approximately 8 p.m. Eastern Time.

Current broadcasting contracts

The television rights to the NFL are the most expensive rights of not only any American sport, but any American entertainment property. With the fragmentation of audiences due to the increased specialization of broadcast and cable TV networks, sports remain one of the few entertainment properties that not only can guarantee a large and diversified audience, but a live one.

The Super Bowl often ranks among the most watched shows of the year. Four of Nielsen Media Research's top 10 programs of all time are Super Bowls.[6] Networks have purchased a share of the broadcasting rights to the NFL as a means of raising the entire network's profile.[7]

Under the current television contracts, which began during the 2014 season, regular season games are broadcast on five networks: CBS, Fox, NBC, ESPN, and the NFL Network.

As of the 2012 NFL season with the major networks investing more in audio description due to FCC guidelines ramping up the requirements of opening up the second audio program audio channel to access audio description (which is also used by some networks to provide Spanish language audio of their primetime programming), all of the NFL's broadcasting partners have added Spanish language audio commentary of games, either through a separate channel or over the SAP channel. ESPN simulcasts Monday Night Football with Spanish language commentary and graphics over ESPN Deportes and has since the move of MNF to ESPN in 2006. NBC's sister Spanish-language cable network mun2 (which rebranded as NBC Universo to take advantage of its NBC simulcast of Super Bowl XLIX on February 1, 2015) began to simulcast select Sunday Night Football games in the 2014 season as part of the new television contract, while sister Spanish-language broadcast network Telemundo provides the branding for NBC's SAP Spanish commentary. Fox's Spanish-language sports network Fox Deportes began broadcasting select Fox games, including the playoffs and Super Bowl XLVIII in Spanish during the 2013 season. CBS, which lacks any Spanish language outlets, still uses solely SAP for its Spanish simulcasts.

Sunday regional games

Under the current contracts, the regional Sunday games (1 p.m. "early" and 4 p.m. "late" games Eastern time) are split into AFC and NFC "packages". Each package is held by a single network; as of 2013, CBS holds the AFC package, and Fox holds the NFC package. These packages consist of Sunday afternoon games during each week of the regular season, a single game for each network on Thanksgiving, wild card games, divisional playoff games and the respective conference championship game for each network.

In 1970, when the NFL and AFL merged, and home blackouts were put into place for AFC games (some AFL teams had lifted these during its run; as an example, most New York Jets' home games in 1968 and 1969 were telecast on WNBC-TV New York), this assured that all Sunday afternoon away games would be seen on the same network. The current package allows both CBS and Fox access to every stadium/market in the league for at least two games per season (unless an interconference game is chosen as a prime time national game). In 1992, both of the Houston Oilers's home games against the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers were played in prime time. The Houston Oilers were the first NFL team that played neither of its home interconference games in the afternoon since 1978, the first year all teams (except the four fifth-place teams) were guaranteed two interconference games at home. In 1993, both of the Buffalo Bills's home games against the New York Giants and the Washington Redskins and both of the San Diego Chargers's home games against the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers were played in prime time. In 1999, both of the New England Patriots's home game against the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys were played on a Sunday nights. In 2001, the Jacksonville Jaguars's home game against the Green Bay Packers was played on a Monday night instead. In 2003, both of the Miami Dolphins's home games against NFC teams were televised in prime time, a rare occurrence that prevented Fox from airing a game from Pro Player Stadium that season. This had also happened in 1997, though Fox was scheduled to broadcast the Chicago Bears' game from Miami until it was moved to Monday night due to its coverage of the World Series; ESPN was already planning to cover the Detroit Lions' game at Miami later on. In 2005, the Baltimore Ravens also had both of their interconference games aired in prime time instead, with the game against the Green Bay Packers on ABC and the contest against the Minnesota Vikings on ESPN. In 2013, the Atlanta Falcons had both of their interconference home games aired in prime time instead, with the game against the New England Patriots on NBC's Sunday Night Football and the contest against the New York Jets on Monday Night Football.

The Seattle Seahawks did not appear on NBC in their inaugural season of 1976 despite not playing a single Monday Night game. Seattle's lone interconference game that season was at fellow expansion franchise Tampa Bay and televised by CBS, since Seattle played in the NFC West and Tampa Bay in the AFC West. In 1977, the Buccaneers did not appear on NBC (nor on ABC), as their only interconference game was at Seattle, which was televised by CBS. The Buccaneers and Seahawks swapped conferences in 1977, with Tampa Bay moving to the NFC Central and Seattle to the AFC West. Seattle returned to the NFC West in 2002.

After a Broncos-Vikings game was moved to Fox in 2011 because of Fox having a lack of games, the NFL permanently instituted a "cross-flex" policy in 2014 allowing Fox games to be moved to CBS and CBS games moved to Fox to protect each local market; this effectively guarantees each Fox and CBS affiliate in a team's primary market to carry at least one game from the team during the season. With CBS later also picking up most Thursday games, which are not designated by conference, CBS will air many more NFC games than Fox will air AFC games. For example, when Fox aired AFC game during week 6 of the 2014 season, CBS had already aired four NFC games to that point in the season (two on Thursdays and two on Sundays).

Doubleheaders and single games

Three games (with some contractual exceptions, see below) are broadcast in any one market each Sunday morning/afternoon, with one network being allocated a "doubleheader" each week:

  • A 1:00 p.m. ET (10:00 a.m. PT) "early" game and a 4:25 p.m. ET (1:25 p.m. PT) "late" game

While the other network broadcasting either:

  • A 1:00 p.m. ET (10:00 a.m. PT) game
  • Or a 4:05 p.m. ET (1:05 p.m. PT) game

Sunday afternoon games in the Mountain and Pacific time zones are always scheduled for 2:05 or 2:25 p.m. Mountain Time and 1:05 or 1:25 p.m. Pacific Time. (No 10:00 a.m. PT or 11:00 a.m. MT games are ever scheduled, partly to avoid conflict with religious services in those cities.)

The state of Arizona lies entirely within the Mountain Time Zone, but does not observe Daylight saving time (excluding the Navajo Nation), so Arizona effectively runs on Pacific Daylight Time from mid-March until the first Sunday of November. Therefore, home games for the Arizona Cardinals are scheduled for 1:05 or 1:25 p.m. before the end of Daylight saving time, and 2:05 or 2:25 p.m. (Mountain Standard Time) after the end of Daylight saving time.

Since 1998, early games have the precise, official start time of 1:01 p.m. ET,[8] which allows for one network commercial and the NFL broadcast copyright teaser animation. However, game times are generally advertised simply as 1:00 p.m. starts. In addition, the league revised the late games to start at 4:05 p.m. ET if it was the only game televised by the network that week and to start at 4:15 p.m. ET if it was part of a doubleheader. The additional 15 minutes for doubleheaders allowed the early games extra time to be shown to completion, and avoid continuing past the late game's scheduled kickoff. For single games, only 5 minutes were added to allow the network time for a short introduction (as three hours had passed since the pre-game show has aired) and one commercial break before kickoff. In those cases there is no need to avoid early-game overlap as there is no early game shown. In addition, it allows those games to end earlier.

Effective with the 2012 NFL season, the late game of a doubleheader has a 4:25 p.m. ET start time,[9] in an effort to avoid cutting off early games with captivating finishes before they actually end. NFL research has found nearly 45 games in the early game window were cut off to viewers, particularly those in markets where their teams were in the late game window that day. The league hopes that the extra ten-minute period will eliminate at least two-thirds of such instances going forward.

Doubleheader allotments

During the first sixteen weeks of the schedule, both Fox and CBS are each given eight doubleheaders. The two networks alternate doubleheaders, but not necessarily week-in and week-out. The networks never run three consecutive weeks of doubleheaders. Fox insists on having a doubleheader on the Sunday it airs a World Series game (typically Game 4), and uses the featured 4:25 game as a lead in for the baseball playoffs (though in 2014, Fox will not have a doubleheader on the day it broadcasts Game 5 of the 2014 World Series, first time since 2005).

Doubleheader allotments can be assigned with West Coast restrictions because of other network commitments. This happened during Finals Sunday of the U.S. Open tennis championships (September) (Week 1, for CBS 1975-2014) or Major League Baseball playoffs in October (NBC, typically during League Championship Series from 1976 to 1989, and again from 1996 to 1999, World Series 1978 to 1984, when Sunday games were afternoon games, and CBS, League Championship Series, 1990 to 1993). During the restricted zones, the AFC West or NFC West (depending on the network with the restriction) teams in the Mountain or Pacific time zones cannot play at home during the weekend in question, unless they are hosting an interconference game, or scheduled in prime time (regardless of opponent). This rule was most notable in tennis, but was in play for baseball also. With the US open moving to ESPN in 2015, CBS received it's first week 1 doubleheader in several years, with the Baltimore Ravens travelling to the Denver Broncos to anchor the slate. Fox is expected in the 2022-23 season (the final year of the current television contract) reserve restrictions to prohibit Fox-assigned games from starting at 1 PM during Week 15 because of the FIFA World Cup Final in Qatar, currently set for December 18, 2022, and potentially another Sunday between November 21 and December 11, depending on World Cup game assignments. In those weeks, all Fox games would start at 4:05 PM.

Since 2006, both networks have aired a doubleheader in week 17.[10][11]

Restrictions on number of games aired

The NFL rules prohibit other NFL games from being shown on local television stations while a local team is playing a sold out, locally televised home game. The rules are designed to encourage ticket-holders to show up at the stadium instead of watching another game on television. However, each network is guaranteed to have at least one game broadcast in every market, so some exceptions are granted to this rule. The exceptions are usually when one of the two Sunday game networks has a 1 PM or 4:30 PM event. This was implemented in both tennis and baseball restrictions, but as cable games replaced network television games, both restrictions on the late game have been eliminated. However, the early game restrictions are expected in 2022, when Fox has FIFA World Cup in Qatar coverage and because of time differences, those events would start before 1 PM Eastern (10 PM Qatar time).

When the home team is being shown on the network with the NFL single game, the doubleheader station can only air one of its games. When this happens, there are only two games shown in the market. However, when the home team is being shown on the network with the NFL doubleheader, all three games can air in the same market.[12]

Prior to the 2000 season, doubleheader rules were much more restrictive. Pre-2000, only one game from each network could be aired in a market where a home game was played, even if the home game was on the doubleheader network. Therefore, markets with two teams (such as New York) rarely got more than two games, since odds were that one of the two teams would be at home on any given Sunday.[13]

On Week 17, both networks may air doubleheaders. Games assigned for local markets may involve playoff implications for the local team.

National games

National broadcasts of marquee matches occur on Thursday, Sunday and Monday nights. NBC has broadcast rights to Sunday night games. These are televised under a special "flexible schedule" that allows Sunday afternoon games late in the season to be moved to prime time. NBC also has broadcast rights to the opening night kickoff game.

Other regular season nationally televised games include those on Thanksgiving. Afternoon Thanksgiving games mirror the aforementioned AFC and NFC packages. AFC away games are on CBS and NFC away games are on Fox. Since the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys — the traditional hosts of Thanksgiving Day games — are both NFC teams, one of the two games must be an intraconference game, and the other an interconference game. This setup provides one game each for Fox and CBS. From 2006 to 2011, a third game (no fixed teams) was established on the NFL Network. Starting in 2012, the third game is an NBC game, meaning in the future, rules may change to allow both Dallas and Detroit an intraconference games (one Fox, one NBC), provided the third game is an AFC game (CBS).

The NFL's anti-siphoning regulations affect both Monday Night Football and the second half of Thursday Night Football, which air on cable (ESPN and NFL Network, respectively). In the markets of the participating teams, the respective cable channel is blacked out. ESPN games air via broadcast syndication to an over-the-air station. Typically, the team's flagship station for the preseason games will hold such rights, as teams will usually sell the preseason, local ESPN, and if the CBS affiliate in that market declines the option, the NFL Network games as one package. Only over-the-air stations in the market of the participating teams (with the Green Bay Packers having two such markets) may bid on this syndicated package. Starting in 2014, CBS affiliates in the primary markets in question have the primary option to NFL Network-only games; if the local affiliate declines the option (as was in Cincinnati), the NFL will implement the same syndicated package rule.

This led to controversy in 2007, when the New England Patriots were scheduled to play the New York Giants at Giants Stadium in their regular season finale on the NFL Network, in what was to be a chance to complete the first 16–0 regular season in NFL history. After the Senate Judiciary Committee threatened the NFL's antitrust exemption if it did not make the game available nationwide, the NFL relented and made the game the first in league history to be simulcast on three networks. The game aired on the NFL Network, as planned; on NBC, which would normally have the rights to prime time games; and, since the away team was an AFC team, on CBS.[14] (WCVB in Boston holds the rights to the NFL's syndicated package for Patriots games, causing this game to be available on 3 over-the-air stations in the Boston TV market). This however, did not lead to the NFL offering this package to other channels; the games remain on the NFL Network as of 2013, although it should be noted that cable coverage of NFL Network has increased in the intervening period.

Beginning in 2012, there will be a Thursday night game every week of the season, for the exceptions of week 17 and the Christmas holiday if it involves week 16.[clarification needed] Each game is aired on the NFL Network, for the exceptions of the Week 1 NFL Kickoff and Thanksgiving games, which are aired on NBC. The kickoff game for the 2012 season was pulled one day forward to a Wednesday in order to avoid conflict with President Barack Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention. Since the NFL tries to avoid scheduling Thursday night games which would require the visiting team to travel more than one time zone,[15] the four teams in the Pacific Time Zone — the Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks — would have more limited scheduling options in years that the AFC West and NFC West divisions don't face each other in interconference play. Exceptions to the NFL's one-time zone rule include the Chiefs–Chargers and CardinalsRams games in 2012 (the latter game occurred during Daylight saving time, which Arizona does not observe), the 49ers–Rams and Raiders–Cowboys games and the Chiefs–Raiders game in 2014. As a result, all of the Thursday games that have involved the aforementioned west coast teams (since 2012) have been intra-division match-ups, for the exception of the Raiders–Cowboys game in 2013, which occurred on Thanksgiving. Teams that play on Thanksgiving in a given year typically do not appear on the NFL Network package that season. The Lions and Cowboys would be ineligible for appearing on the NFL Network, due to hosting Thanksgiving games every year. However, the Cowboys played on Thanksgiving and in a Thursday night game in back-to-back weeks in the 2007 season, and the Cowboys and Chicago Bears will face each other on a Thursday night one week after both teams play on Thanksgiving in 2014. The "one Thursday game per team" rule does not include the Kickoff Game, so teams that play in that game will play at least one additional Thursday game in a given season.

For the 2014 season, CBS will simulcast Thursday night games between Weeks 2–8 and will televise one of two Saturday games in Week 16,[16] and each Thursday night game will be an intra-division game, for the exceptions of the Packers–Seahawks Week 1 NBC kickoff and the Cowboys–Bears game in Week 14. The two Saturday games in Week 16 — EaglesRedskins and Chargers–49ers — are both tentatively scheduled for 4:30 p.m. ET. One game will remain at 4:30 p.m. ET, and will be televised by the NFL Network, while the other will be pushed back to 8:00 p.m. ET, and will air on CBS.

NFL Sunday Ticket

Satellite broadcast company DirecTV offers NFL Sunday Ticket, a subscription-based package that allows all Sunday afternoon regional games to be watched. The only exception is that Sunday Ticket is subject to the same blackout rules as broadcast networks.[17][18] This package is exclusive to DirecTV in the US. In Canada, NFL Sunday Ticket is available on a per-provider distribution deal on both cable and satellite, because Canadian law generally prevents one provider from offering a package on an exclusive basis.

Television policies

The NFL imposes several television and blackout policies to maximize ratings and optimize stadium attendances.

Sunday regional coverage

Regular season Sunday afternoon games (1:00 p.m. "early" and 4:00 p.m. "late") aired on CBS and Fox are distributed to affiliates by means of regional coverage. Each individual game is only broadcast to selected media markets.

Several factors determine which games are carried in each market. Each of the 32 NFL teams is assigned a "primary market." Most teams also have a selected number of secondary markets. Secondary markets can be of any size, and are typically defined by an area where any part of the market falls within 75 miles of an NFL stadium. Small markets that have no clubs tend to strongly associate with geographically-nearby or particularly relevant teams, but may fall outside of the 100 mile area are not necessarily considered secondary markets by the NFL. Generally, games are aired in the primary and secondary markets as follows:

  • All away games are aired in the primary and secondary markets. This is a gesture to old policies based on the ability for fans to attend games. Away games were looked upon as too difficult to travel to and attend.
  • All sold out home games are aired in the primary market. Games that do not sell out at least 72 hours prior to kickoff are subject to local blackout in the primary and all secondary markets. (see below)
  • As stated above, no games are allowed to compete with a sold-out home game, as it encourages ticket-holders to attend the game instead of watching another game on television, but secondary markets are not subject to this rule, as it is less expected for fans from a market potentially 100 miles away to attend every game.

Mid-game switches

During the afternoon games, CBS and Fox may switch a market's game to a more competitive one mid-game, particularly when a game becomes one-sided. For this to occur, one team must be ahead by at least 18 points in the second half.

Due to the "Heidi Game", a primary media market must show its local team's game in its entirety and secondary markets usually follow suit for away games. Also, secondary markets (for home games) or any others where one team's popularity stands out may request a constant feed of that game, and in that case will not be switched.

If the local team is scheduled for the late game of a doubleheader, it has importance over any early game. If 4:25 p.m. arrives, and the early game is ongoing, the primary affiliate (all games) and secondary affiliates (road games) are required to cut off the early game and switch to the start of the local team's game. Additional affiliates, including secondary affiliates for home games, may also request to cut off an early game for a nearby team's late start. This is common in Texas where many affiliates which are not considered secondary markets by the NFL still switch out of early games in order to get to the start of a 4:25 Dallas Cowboys game.

When a local team plays the early game of a doubleheader, that game holds importance over any late game. If the local team's early game runs beyond 4:25 p.m., the primary and secondary markets stay on until completion, and the late game is joined in-progress.

Shared media markets

For this reason, if two teams share a primary media market, their games are never scheduled on the same network on the same day (unless they play each other). Otherwise, the networks could theoretically have to cut away from one team's game to show the other. Currently, two pairs of teams are affected by this rule, and are subject to additional rules described below:

49ers and Raiders

The 49ers and Raiders are usually not scheduled at the same time, though this can mean that one of those teams will play a road game at 10:00 a.m. PT. To alleviate the conflicts, both teams will be scheduled for at least one prime time game, regardless of their records during the previous season.[19]

  • The following exceptions have been granted to this policy:
    • During Week 15 of the 2009 season, the 49ers were originally scheduled to play at the Philadelphia Eagles in the early time slot, and the Raiders' game at the Denver Broncos was scheduled in the late time slot. However, a severe blizzard in the Philadelphia area forced the 49ers–Eagles game to be moved to the late time slot on only two days notice.[20]
    • In the 2011 season, the Raiders' Week 14 game at the Green Bay Packers was flexed from the early time slot to the late-afternoon time slot due to the fact that Green Bay was undefeated at the time and Oakland was in first place in the AFC West heading into the match-up, at the same time that the 49ers played at the Arizona Cardinals.[21]
    • Starting in 2012, there have been a number of times that the Raiders and 49ers have both played late games on Sunday, one playing at home and the other on the road. Whenever this happens, the must-show rule trumps the exclusivity rule, resulting in both games being shown in the Bay Area at the same time.
      • 2012 Week 17 (Dec. 30): 49ers hosted Arizona Cardinals, Raiders played at San Diego Chargers.
      • 2013 Week 17 (Dec. 29): Raiders hosted Denver Broncos, 49ers played at Arizona.
      • 2014 Week 9 (Nov. 2): 49ers hosted St. Louis Rams, Raiders played at Seattle Seahawks.
      • 2014 Week 17 (Dec. 28): 49ers hosted Cardinals, Raiders played at Broncos.
  • Under current television rules, and in order to circumvent television blackout policies, it is necessary for both teams to be given prime time games, regardless of the teams' performances in the previous season. Every season, both teams play at least ten games that cannot be played in the early time slot — eight home games for each team, road games against the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks for the 49ers, and road games against the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers for the Raiders. By scheduling a late game during the same week that the other team has an early game or a bye week, that leaves three weeks (four in years when the NFC West and AFC West play each other) where both Bay Area teams cannot be scheduled simultaneously in the late time slot, unless they're playing each other head-to-head, or if the aforementioned must-show/exclusivity rule occurs during the final week of the season. So between the two teams, they must play at least three prime time games every season.
  • The 49ers' two interconference home games (with a visiting AFC team) are televised by CBS, and the Raiders' interconference home games (with a visiting NFC team) are on Fox, unless they are scheduled in prime time. These games must be late games, as they are played on the west coast. By rule, when one of the teams is playing an interconference home game, the other team cannot play a late game at the same time on the other network. Nor can they play an early game on said network, regardless of which network has the single game or the doubleheader.
    • The only window that would be available for the Raiders in that situation would be an early game on Fox, likewise with the 49ers on CBS. However, the only two games where the Raiders are on Fox or the 49ers are on CBS are interconference home games. All home games in the Bay Area must be late games. Therefore, a conflict is found in both cases.
    • One conflict can be solved by scheduling the 49ers' or Raiders' home game during the other team's bye week. The second conflict would have to be averted by scheduling one of the teams for national television (e.g. Thanksgiving Day, Thursday Night, Saturday Night, Sunday Night or on Monday Night Football).
      • In 2010, the 49ers hosted the Denver Broncos and the Oakland Raiders, while the Raiders hosted the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks. With the Broncos–49ers game being played in London, England during Week 8 of that season, the game occurred in the early time slot, something that would have been prohibited, had the game been played in San Francisco. The Raiders hosted the Seahawks on that day, marking the first time the 49ers played on CBS and the Raiders played on Fox on the same day, though the Raiders game was blacked out anyway.
      • In 2014, the 49ers hosted the Kansas City Chiefs and will host the San Diego Chargers. The former game is scheduled during the Raiders' bye week, while the latter game is scheduled on a Saturday. Conversely, the Raiders hosted the Arizona Cardinals during the same week that the 49ers played at the Denver Broncos on Sunday Night Football. The 49ers and Raiders will face each other in Oakland during Week 14.
  • If the 49ers or Raiders win the Super Bowl, the NFL may take advantage of the opportunity by scheduling an opponent from the opposite conference for the Kickoff Game at the beginning of the following season. If the 49ers host the Kickoff Game (on a Thursday night), the Raiders can possibly host a Week 1 season opener on Fox, unless the schedule of the Raiders' Major League Baseball counterparts, the Oakland Athletics, creates a conflict (the Raiders and Athletics share Coliseum).
  • Beginning in 2010, the NFL implemented intra-division scheduling only during Week 17 in order to discourage teams who have secured playoff berths from resting key players and phoning in games at the end of the season.[22] All Week 17 games occur on Sunday, and the NBC Sunday Night flex-game for Week 17 is not determined until the final week of the season. Since the Kansas City Chiefs and St. Louis Rams are the only western division teams not in the Mountain or Pacific time zones, this originally meant that one Bay Area team would have to end their season at the appropriate Missouri division rival in the early time slot, while the other team plays in the late time slot. It was suggested that each team would alternate every other year between ending their season at the appropriate Missouri rival and in the late time slot. If the 49ers or Raiders were to get flexed to NBC in the final week, the team not playing on NBC would have had its game moved to 4:25 p.m. EST visiting the appropriate Missouri team and playoff positioning is on the line. However, both Bay Area teams have been simultaneously scheduled in the late-afternoon time slot during Week 17 since 2012, and it has been suggested that the NFL will allow the teams to play simultaneously with one team hosting and the other team on the road during the final week given that the interest level is generally at the lowest during the final week of the season unless the team is battling for a playoff spot.
  • Beginning in 2014, a new flexible-scheduling policy was implemented to allow CBS and Fox to "cross-flex," in which games involving a visiting AFC team would be switched to Fox, and for Fox games with a visiting NFC team to be switched to CBS. This would allow for one Bay Area team to be scheduled on the road in the 1:00 p.m. ET slot, while the other Bay Area team hosts an inter-conference game in the 4:05 or 4:25 p.m. ET slot.

Giants and Jets

In general, the league never schedules the Giants and the Jets to play their games at the same time, except for a head-to-head meeting. The league allowed two exceptions during the 2009 season due to unusual scheduling logistics. These exceptions marked the first times since the 1984 season that the Giants and Jets played games simultaneously.[23]

  • The aforementioned 49ers' and Raiders' late time slot requirement does not exist for the Giants and Jets. Both New York teams can play Sunday home games in either the 1:00 p.m. or the 4:00 p.m. time slots, because they are in the Eastern time zone.
  • However, unlike the 49ers and Raiders, both New York teams cannot play home games on the same day due to both teams playing their home games at MetLife Stadium. When both teams are scheduled at home during the same week, one team will play on Sunday, while the other will play a Thursday or Monday game in prime time. Therefore, the same conflict presented by the interconference home games still exists, as having one team play a home interconference game would mean that if the other team is also scheduled for a home interconference game during the same week to circumvent the blackout policy. Unless one of the teams was involved in the International Series, this arrangement is impossible.
  • Because the league does not generally schedule simultaneous games for the Giants and Jets, the only way three Sunday afternoon games can be shown in the New York primary media market is if one team has a prime time game or bye while the other team plays its game on the network that has the scheduled doubleheader, or if the teams play head-to-head either on the network with the scheduled doubleheader or in prime time. Theoretically, a non-sellout blackout could allow alternative games to be shown, but the Giants and Jets have continuously sold out since 1975 and 1977, respectively, making this scenario unlikely.
    • In the 2012 season, the Giants hosted the Philadelphia Eagles on the final week of the season at the same time the Jets played at the Buffalo Bills. Since neither game was flexed out of the 1:00 p.m. EST time slot, the must-show rule trumped the exclusivity rule in this case, and both games were shown in the New York area simultaneously.
    • In the 2013 season, the Giants hosted the Washington Redskins on the final week of the season at the same time the Jets played at the Miami Dolphins. Like the previous season, neither game was flexed out of the 1:00 p.m. EST time slot; since that occurred, the must-show rule trumped the exclusivity rule, and both games were shown in the New York area simultaneously.
  • As is the case with the 49ers and Raiders, a new "cross-flexing" policy implemented in 2014 would allow for one New York team to play on the road in either the 1:00, 4:05 or 4:25 p.m. ET slot (CBS or Fox), while the other New York team hosts an inter-conference opponent.

The often complicated television package is a significant factor in why the schedule for a particular season takes several weeks to develop.

Other exceptions

Although in close proximity, the Washington Redskins and Baltimore Ravens are served by separate media markets, and so they can play at the same time. If one team is at home and the other is on the road, both games have aired in each market on a few occasions. However, this policy has mostly been applied only to Washington. If the Redskins are at home and the Ravens are playing on the other network at the same time, both games air in Washington. In Baltimore, however, the Redskins are not shown when the Ravens are playing at the same time as the Redskins, if the latter team is on the singleheader network.

When the Rams and Raiders shared the Los Angeles market from 1982 to 1994, the NFL was more lenient on its shared media markets policies. Like San Francisco today, the Rams or Raiders would frequently be scheduled for a 10 am PT start for away games. But the league also scheduled some of their home games at the same time. For example, during Week 17 of the 1994 season, their last respective home games in Los Angeles, both the Washington Redskins at Rams game and the Kansas City Chiefs at Raiders game were played at 1 p.m. PT. Likewise, the late Sunday afternoon games during Week 11 of the 1993 season included both the Kansas City Chiefs at the Raiders and the Atlanta Falcons at the Rams. Both the Rams and Raiders usually had trouble selling out their respective stadiums during their time in Los Angeles, thus their home games were frequently blacked out anyway.

Sunday bonus coverage

When a media market's regionally televised game ends before the others, the network (CBS or Fox) may switch to "bonus coverage" of the ending of another game. However, the league imposes two restrictions that are designed to maximize the ratings of the late games on the doubleheader network, which tend to record the most NFL viewers during the day, often beating the audience for Sunday night games.

First, bonus coverage offered after any early time slot games cannot be shown past the start of the late time slot (either 4:20 ET for the doubleheader network or 4:25 ET for the non-doubleheader network). This prevents people from continuing to watch the bonus coverage instead of seeing the beginning of the late doubleheader network's game (which is usually either their local team or the network's featured game). Again, the networks may show highlights of the game, and usually will at the earliest opportunity. The network broadcasting the single game will sometimes show each play as soon as it ends as part of its post-game show. A station originally getting the game featured during bonus coverage will stay with it unless they are leaving to show a local team.

Second, bonus coverage cannot be shown after a late game on the single-game network because it will run in opposition to the ending of the late doubleheader network's game(s) and NBC's pre-game show. However, the single-game network usually schedules most of its top games in the early 1:00 ET time slot (except for west coast teams' home games, and possibly either a Giants or Jets game), so this does not tend to be a major issue.

If the doubleheader network's games all finish before 7:30 ET, it is supposed to conclude the post-game show within 10 minutes to protect NBC's pre-game show. If any games finish after 7:30, the post-game program can run until 8:00 ET. However, this restriction seems to apply to game footage only; on several occasions Fox has run its post-game offering to 8:00, despite all games ending before 7:30, by airing only panel discussions and interviews in the latter portion of the show. On the other hand, CBS rarely airs any post-game show after its doubleheaders or 4:05 single-games. This is because 60 Minutes is one of its signature shows, and CBS makes every effort to start it as close to 7:00 or 7:30—its traditional airtime—as possible.

Local syndication of cable games

To maximize TV ratings, as well as to protect the NFL's ability to sell TV rights collectively, games televised on ESPN or the NFL Network are blacked out in each of the primary markets of both teams (the Green Bay Packers have two primary markets, Green Bay and Milwaukee, a remnant of when they played some home games in Milwaukee each season, see below) under syndicated exclusivity regulations as the league sells via broadcast syndication a package featuring that team's games.

This station does not need to have affiliate connections with a national broadcaster of NFL games, though owned-and-operated stations of ABC and Hearst Television (even those Hearst stations not affiliated with ABC, and including their one independent station in the Tampa-St. Petersburg market) have first right of refusal due to both ESPN and ABC's common ownership by The Walt Disney Company (Hearst holds a 20% stake in ESPN). In recent years, the ABC O&Os have passed on airing the game, opting instead to air the network's Monday night schedule which includes the successful Dancing with the Stars.[24] In other markets, stations who are the affiliates of MyNetworkTV or The CW (and, in at least one case, an independent station[25]) have out bid more established local broadcasters in some markets. However, the home team's market must be completely served by the station and that broadcast can only air if the game is sold out within 72 hours of kick-off (see below).

Under the agreement for the 2014 season between CBS and the NFL Network for Thursday Night Football simulcasts during the first half of the season, local rights to such games that are not carried by CBS are will be awarded the markets' CBS affiliates, rather than syndicated. If the CBS affiliate opts out of the deal, the NFL will offer the package by syndication, typically with the Monday Night package.[26] The CBS/NFL Network deal was extended for the 2015 season on January 18, 2015.[27]

On November 8, 1987, the very first NFL game ever aired on ESPN was played between the New England Patriots and New York Giants. Technically, the game was only simulcast in the Boston market, with a separate broadcast produced for the New York market by ESPN sister property WABC-TV – at the time, WABC's union contract prohibited non-union workers (like those of ESPN) from working on live events broadcast on the station. This marked the only time since the AFL-NFL merger that a regular season game was locally produced for TV. The WABC broadcast featured WABC's own Corey McPherrin doing play-by-play, and Frank Gifford and Lynn Swann from Monday Night Football doing color commentary.

Flexible scheduling

Since the 2006 season, the NFL has used a "flexible scheduling" system for the last seven weeks of the regular season when there is a Sunday night game. This is because by week 11, there are a number of teams that have been eliminated or nearly eliminated from playoff contention. Flex-scheduling ensures that all Sunday night games have playoff significance, regardless of whether or not both teams are competing for a playoff spot. Two examples of this type of flexing involved the Carolina Panthers in 2008 and 2009. In the first instance, the Panthers and New York Giants saw a late season game flexed due to the winner of that matchup clinching the NFC's top seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The next season, an out-of-contention Panthers team hosted the 11–2 Minnesota Vikings, who had a chance to improve their playoff positioning and take the top seed in the NFC playoffs; hence, this game was flexed despite Carolina's 5–8 record. Sometimes, games will be flexed due to a team's success; for instance, the 2007 matchup between the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium was flexed due to the Patriots' potential run at an undefeated regular season that they eventually completed.

This system also allows teams that enjoy unexpected success to acquire a prime time spot that was not on their original schedule. Thanksgiving games and all games airing on cable channels (Monday, Thursday, and Saturday games) are fixed in place and cannot be changed, as are games during Christmas weekend whenever Christmas Day falls on a Sunday, as it was in 2011 (most games are played on Christmas Eve Saturday instead). It also increases the potential for teams to play on consecutive Sunday nights, as the 2007 Patriots, 2007 Washington Redskins, the 2008 Giants and 2012 49ers did (the Patriots hosted the Philadelphia Eagles the week following the second matchup with the Bills as scheduled, the Redskins were flexed into a matchup with the Giants and played the Vikings in a regularly scheduled matchup the week after, and the Giants hosted the Panthers one week after playing the Dallas Cowboys in Texas Stadium, the 49ers played the Seahawks in Seattle one week after playing at the Patriots).

Under the system, most Sunday games in the affected weeks in the Eastern and Central time zones will tentatively have the start time of 1:00 p.m. ET (10:00 am PT). Those played in the Mountain or Pacific time zones will have the tentative start time of 4:05/4:25 p.m. ET (1:05/1:25 p.m. PT). Also, there will be one game provisionally scheduled for the 8:20 p.m. ET slot. On the Tuesday twelve days before the games (possibly sooner), the league will move one game to the prime time slot (or keep its original choice), and possibly move one or more 1:00 p.m. slotted games to the 4:00 p.m. slot.

Fox and CBS each may protect a total of five Sunday afternoon games, not more than one per week, during weeks 11–16 and NBC selects which game they want to air. For example, in 2011, NBC wanted a late season game between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots which featured Tim Tebow as the Broncos quarterback. CBS protected the game and NBC got a game featuring the San Diego Chargers instead. Networks have the option of waiving protection to allow for a Sunday night airing, as happened with a game between the unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs and one-loss Denver Broncos in Week 11 of the 2013 season. The contest was protected by CBS, which would have to air it in the non-national 4:05 p.m. timeslot because the game was in Denver and the network did not have doubleheader rights that week. CBS thus allowed NBC to pick up the telecast for a nationwide broadcast.[28]

FOX and CBS cannot protect games in week 17. In years when Christmas falls on Sunday (like in 2011) or on Monday (like in 2006), the NFL schedules its main slate of afternoon games on Christmas Eve (which would fall on Saturday or Sunday) without a prime time game, as NBC's game would be moved to Christmas night (see below). Thus, flexible scheduling can not occur in week 16; NBC is then given flexible scheduling in week 10 instead.

During the last week of the season, the league could re-schedule games as late as six days before the contests so that as many of the television networks as possible will be able to broadcast a game that has major playoff implications, and so that several division races or Wild Card spots are on the line at the same time. The week 17 game on Sunday night is decided exclusively by the NFL; networks cannot protect or choose during the final week. For this final Sunday Night contest, the league prefers to flex-in a matchup in which at least one team must win in order to qualify for the playoffs, regardless of what happens in the other week 17 games.[29] Since 2010 when the NFL began scheduling only divisional matchups in week 17, it is possible an intradivisional game that appeared on national TV previously could be selected again. The NFL will only select such a game if there is no other suitable option. This example happened in the 2011 season concerning matchups between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants. In week 14, both teams played a game with major playoff implications that could have all but eliminated the Giants from playoff contention with a loss. Instead, that game marked the start of a four-game winning streak to end the season which included a game where the Giants eliminated the Eagles from playoff contention (despite a win over the Cowboys) with a win over the New York Jets. This win flexed the following week's matchup, where the Giants hosted the Cowboys, into NBC's slot.

Individual teams may make no more than four appearances on NBC during the season. Only three teams may make as many as six prime time appearances (Sunday night, Monday night, Thursday night, and Saturday night combined).[30] The remaining teams may make a maximum of five prime time appearances. In addition, there are no restrictions amongst intra-division games being "flexed."

Beginning in 2014, the NFL will also be able to "cross-flex" games between Fox and CBS, enabling CBS to televise NFC away games (including NFC vs. NFC contests), and Fox to broadcast AFC away games (including AFC vs. AFC contests).[31][32] The league can also "cross-flex" some of these games before the start of the season.

The NFL may in the future permit the three Thanksgiving games to be flexed.

Saturday NFL games

Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, the NFL has had a rather laid-back policy of scheduling games on Saturdays after the end of the college season, with the scheduling policy changing many times. From 1970 to 2005, both of the Sunday broadcast networks were given at least one Saturday afternoon national broadcast in December, with ESPN also airing one Saturday game in primetime from 1998 to 2005. In 2006, all three Saturday games were moved to primetime and televised on cable on the NFL Network in December. In 2008, this was changed to only one Saturday night game, still aired on the NFL Network. In 2012, ESPN aired the Saturday night game. No Saturday game was scheduled in 2013, for the first time since the merger that the NFL did not play on any Saturdays. Beginning 2014, the NFL returned to Saturdays with a Saturday afternoon game airing on the NFL Network and a Saturday night game airing on CBS.

Blackout policies

Since 1973, the NFL has maintained a blackout policy that states that a home game cannot be televised locally if it is not sold out 72 hours prior to its start time. Before that, NFL games were blacked out in the home team's market even if the game was a sellout. The NFL is the only major professional sports league in North America that requires teams to sell out in order to broadcast a game on television locally.

Furthermore, the NFL is the only network that imposes an anti-siphoning rule in all teams' local markets; The NFL sells syndication rights of each team's Thursday and Monday night games to a local over-the-air station in each local market. The respective cable station must be blacked out when that team is playing the said game.

In the other leagues, nationally-televised games are often blacked out on the national networks they are airing on in their local markets, but they can still be seen on their local regional sports network that normally has their local broadcasting rights.

Until September 2014, the NFL blackout rules were sanctioned by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which enforced rules requiring cable and satellite providers to not distribute any sports telecast that had been blacked out by a broadcast television station within their market of service. On September 9, 2014, USA Today published an editorial from FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, who stated that "sports blackout rules are obsolete and have to go", and that he was submitting a proposal to "get rid of the FCC's blackout rules once and for all", to be voted on by the agency's members on September 30 of that year.[33] On September 30, 2014, the Commission voted unanimously to repeal the FCC's blackout rules. However, the removal of these rules are, to an extent, purely symbolic; the NFL can still enforce its blackout policies on a contractual basis with television networks, stations, and service providers – a process made feasible by the large amount of leverage the league places on its media partners.[34][35]

Ultimately, no games would be blacked out at all during the 2014 season.[36] On March 23, 2015, the NFL's owners voted to suspend the blackout rules for the 2015 NFL season, meaning that all games will be televised in their home markets, regardless of ticket sales.[36]

Commercial breaks

File:NFL Sideline Television Coordinators.jpg
The network television coordinator with orange sleeves will lower his arm when the commercial is over.

During each half of a network-televised game, there are ten prescribed commercial breaks following the official kickoff. Two are firmly scheduled, and eight others are worked in during breaks in the play.[37]

Pre-scheduled commercial breaks:

  • The end of the first (or third) quarter
  • The two-minute warning of the second (or fourth) quarter

Other instances used for commercial breaks (eight total required per half):

  • A timeout called by either team
  • Instant replay stoppage
  • Game stoppage after a score
  • Game stoppage after a kickoff or punt (excluding the opening kickoff of each half)
  • Game stoppage after a turnover
  • Injury timeout

Two commercial breaks during the typical 12-minute halftime period are considered separate.

Networks are more apt to front-load their commercials in the first and third quarters, to prevent an overrun in the second and fourth quarters respectively. However, in the event that at least one early-window game is running long (after 4:25 p.m. ET) on the doubleheader network, the network will normally hold its commercials for the late window until all audiences have joined the late games, to ensure maximum coverage for its advertisers. In the rare event that the first quarter of a late game ends before all early games on that network have ended, the network may either take a break consisting entirely of network promos / PSAs, or not take a break at all during the between-quarters timeout, and those commercials are rescheduled for later in the game.

If a team calls a timeout and the network decides to use it for a commercial break, a representative from the broadcast crew stationed on the sidelines wearing orange sleeves makes a crossing motion with his hands to alert the officials. The referee declares it a "two-minute timeout."

Once a broadcast has fulfilled the 8 "random" breaks, game stoppages are no longer needed for commercials. The orange sleeve will hold his hands down in a twirl motion to alert the officials. If a team calls a timeout, the referee will declare it a "30-second timeout." Once any timeout in a half is declared a 30-second timeout, all remaining timeouts will be of the same duration.

Since the 10 total commercial breaks for the second half are to be finished prior to the end of regulation, commercial breaks are rarely needed in overtime situations, apart from a break immediately after the end of regulation. Commercials for these purposes are sometimes pre-sold on an if-needed basis (such as the specialized AIG "overtime" ads often seen during the early 2000s).[38] In many cases, overtime periods are conducted without any commercials. By definition, a game that has entered overtime is tied, and so the game is still undecided, thus increasing the appeal of the given game. This also allows the extended broadcast to finish in a timely manner. In cases of long overtime periods, networks have been known to have a commercial break during a lengthy injury time out. During postseason play, the very rare instances of double overtime will feature a commercial between periods.

Broadcasting history

The NFL, along with boxing and professional wrestling (before the latter publicly became known as a staged sport), was a pioneer of sports broadcasting during a time when baseball and college football were more popular than professional football. Due to the NFL understanding television at an earlier time, they were able to surpass Major League Baseball in the 1960s as the most popular sport in the United States.

Coverage changes

The style of pro football broadcasting has seen several changes since the 1990s, including female hosts and sideline reporters, visual first-down markers, advanced graphics, new multi-camera angles, and high definition telecasts. The most recent contract extensions have, for the first time, allowed the networks to broadcast games on the Internet.

Holiday games

Thanksgiving Day games

For more details on this topic, see NFL on Thanksgiving Day.

The Detroit Lions have hosted a game every Thanksgiving Day since 1934 (with the exception of 1939–1944 due to the "Franksgiving" confusion and World War II), and they have been nationally televised since 1962. In 1966, the NFL introduced an annual game hosted by the Dallas Cowboys, which has been played every year except in 1975 and 1977 when the St. Louis Cardinals hosted a match instead. However, St. Louis football fans, used to the traditional "Turkey Day Game" between Kirkwood High School and Webster Groves High School as the only local match on Thanksgiving, did not respond well to an NFL fixture on the same day, and thus Dallas resumed hosting the game in 1978.

When the AFL began holding annual Thanksgiving Day games, the league chose a different model, circulating the game among several cities. During the 1967–69 seasons, two Thanksgiving AFL games were televised each year.

After the 1970 merger, the NFL decided to keep only the traditional Detroit and Dallas games. Due to the broadcast contracts in place since 1970, three NFC teams play on Thanksgiving, as opposed to only one AFC outfit. During even years, the Lions play their Thanksgiving game against an AFC team, and thus are televised by the network holding the AFC package (NBC and later CBS); the Cowboys host an NFC team and are shown by the network with the NFC package (CBS and later Fox). During odd years, Dallas hosts an AFC team and Detroit plays an NFC opponent (usually another NFC North team, and often the Green Bay Packers, who draw high TV ratings). Every decade or so, this even-odd rotation is reversed, Detroit hosting an NFC team in even years and an AFC team in odd years, Dallas hosting an AFC team in even years and an NFC team in odd years. Detroit is always the early broadcast and Dallas the mid-afternoon broadcast.

When the league created its new TV package for the NFL Network in 2006, a third Thanksgiving game was added, a prime time game hosted by one of the remaining 30 NFL teams each year. While the first game featured two AFC teams, conference affiliation has varied since. Starting in 2012, the prime time Thanksgiving game has aired on NBC.

Starting in 2014, changes to the NFL television contract allow either traditional Thanksgiving game to prime time (and NBC) and schedule an AFC game in either window to accommodate CBS, while Fox would get the other traditional game with Dallas or Detroit. These contracts also liberate both CBS and Fox from their usual conference affiliations; thus, the 2014 contests marked the first ever all-NFC Thanksgiving, with the AFC completely shut out of the holiday.

Christmas and Christmas Eve games

For more details on this topic, see National Football League Christmas games.

In recent years, the NFL has generally scheduled games on Christmas only if it falls on a day normally used for games (Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday). If Christmas falls on a Sunday, as it will in 2016, most of the games are likely to be played on the preceding day, Saturday, December 24, (with no games that night) with one or two games are scheduled for Christmas Night to be broadcast nationally. As in the 2006 and 2011 seasons, there have been 14 such contests on each Christmas Eve.

The first NFL games played on December 25 came during the 1971 season. The first two games of the Divisional Playoff Round that year were held on Christmas Day. The first game that day was between Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings. The second of the two contests played that day, the Miami Dolphins versus the Kansas City Chiefs, ended up being the longest game in NFL history.[39] The league received numerous complaints due to the length of this game, reportedly because it caused havoc with Christmas dinners around the nation. As a result, the NFL decided to not schedule any Christmas Day matches for the next 17 seasons.

In 1976 and 1977, the last two years before the advent of the 16-game schedule and expanded playoffs, the NFL came up with different approaches to avoid Christmas play. In 1976, when Christmas fell on a Saturday, the league moved the start of the regular season up one week to Sunday, September 12. The divisional playoffs were held on the weekend of December 18 and 19, leaving the conference championship games on Sunday, December 26. Super Bowl XI was played on January 9, 1977, the earliest it has ever been held. In 1977, with Christmas on Sunday, the NFL split the divisional playoffs, and for the only time since the AFL-NFL merger, each conference held both divisional playoff games the same day (AFC Saturday, December 24 and NFC Monday, December 26), ostensibly not to give one team a two-day rest advantage over the other for the conference championship games. Since two of the venues were in the Western United States, it was not possible to have regional coverage in both time slots on either day.

The NFL continued to avoid Christmas even after it started to increase the regular season and the playoffs. The league expanded to a 16-game regular season and a 10-team playoff tournament in 1978, but it was not until 1982 that the regular season ended after Christmas, due to the players' strike. In 1989, the NFL tried another Christmas Day game, with the Cincinnati Bengals hosted by the Minnesota Vikings, but it was a 9:00 p.m. ET Monday Night Football contest, thereby not conflicting with family dinners. In the years since, the NFL has played an occasional late-afternoon or night game on the holiday but there has not been a Christmas Day game starting earlier than 5:00 p.m. ET since 1971.

There have also been several games played on Christmas Eve over the years, including an Oakland Raiders-Baltimore Colts playoff contest in 1977 which culminated in a play known as "Ghost to the Post". These games have typically been played during the afternoon out of deference to the holiday.

New Year's games

The NFL never stages games on New Year's Day if it is not a Sunday, deferring to the numerous New Year's Day college football bowl games traditionally held on that day. However, when New Year's Day falls on a Sunday, the traditional bowl games and the NHL Winter Classic are moved to Monday, January 2 (which becomes a federal holiday), allowing NFL games to be played on the 1st. The AFL played its first league championship game on January 1, 1961. Thereafter, pro football has been played on New Year's Day in 1967 (the 1966 NFL and AFL Championship Games), in 1978 (the 1977 NFC and AFC Championship Games), in 1984 (the 1983 NFC and AFC Divisional Playoff Games), in 1989 (the 1988 NFC and AFC Divisional Playoff Games), in 1995 (the second half of the 1994 NFC and AFC Wild Card Games), and in 2006 and 2012 (the final weekend of the 2005 and 2011 regular seasons), with scheduling likely for 2017 and 2023.

In years when January 1 falls on a Monday, a regular slate of NFL games will be played on New Year's Eve. Under current schedule arrangements, the regular season can end no later than January 3, and the league finishes its regular season on a Sunday, without a Monday Night Football game in the final week.

Other holidays

  • The NFL scheduled Monday Night Football games on Labor Day in the past, but has not done so since 2000, as it was determined that games during the Labor Day weekend were the lowest-rated of the season. Games continue to be scheduled on Columbus Day.
  • The NFL only plays on Halloween or Veterans Day if the holiday falls on a day in which football is normally played (Thursday, Sunday, or Monday).

Monday Night Football

Main article: Monday Night Football

Between 1970 and 1977, and again since 2003, there has been no Monday night game during the last week of the season. From 1978 until 2002, a season-ending Monday night game was scheduled. The 2003 revision permits the NFL to have all eight teams involved in the Wild Card playoffs to have equal time in preparation, instead of the possibility of one or two teams having a shorter preparation for their playoff game if they were picked to play on Saturday, instead of Sunday. This scenario, in which a team finishing its season on Monday night had a playoff game the following Saturday, never occurred.

In 2006, ESPN opened the season with a Monday Night Football doubleheader, with a 7:00 p.m. game and a 10:30 p.m. both shown in their entirety nationwide. The doubleheader during the first week of the season has continued ever since.

NFL broadcasters

Current broadcasters:

Current Spanish-language broadcasters:

Former broadcasters:

List of NFL television contracts

Since 1982
All dollar amounts are in millions of USD per year.
Period AFC Package NFC Package Sunday Night Monday Night Thursday Night Total Amount
1982–1986 NBC CBS None ABC ABC $420
1987–1989 NBC CBS ESPN (2nd half) ABC ABC $473
1990–1993 NBC CBS TNT (1st half)
ESPN (2nd half)
ABC ABC $900
1994–1997 NBC Fox ($395) TNT (1st half)
ESPN (2nd half)
ABC $1,100
1998–2005 CBS ($500) Fox ($550) ESPN ($600) ABC ($550) ESPN $2,200
2006–2013 CBS ($622.5) Fox ($712.5) NBC ($650) ESPN/ESPN Deportes ($1,100) NFL Network (2nd half) ($0) $3,085
2014–2021 CBS ($1,000) Fox ($1,100) NBC
NBC Universo
ESPN/ESPN Deportes ($1,900) NFL Network ($0)
NBC (Wks 1, 12)
CBS (Wks 2–8, $275, 2014–15 only)
  • ESPN's Sunday Night Football contract included selected Thursday and Saturday night games in December. Through 2001, the contract included one Thursday night game in October (the weekend of Games 1–2 of the World Series), in lieu of the Sunday night game that weekend. In 2002, the night game was eliminated altogether for that weekend, and replaced with the NFL Kickoff game. In 2003, the NFL Kickoff game moved to ABC (to replace the Week 17 Monday night game), and ESPN filled the void with another late-season Saturday night game.
  • ESPN's contract runs 2021. The CBS, Fox and NBC packages expire in 2022.
  • The Kickoff Game, despite being held on Thursday, has been carried on NBC since 2006. The Thanksgiving night game was originally part of the NFL Network's package but was sold to NBC, where it will air beginning in 2012. For the 2014 and 2015 seasons, Weeks 2 through 8 of the NFL Network package will be simulcast on CBS, plus one additional game later in the season, with CBS affiliates also getting local simulcast rights for the games not broadcast across the entire network. If the CBS affiliate declines, the NFL will syndicate the game in a manner similar to ESPN games.
  • As the NFL Network is owned by the league, it pays no rights fees to itself for its game coverage.
  • All ESPN and NFL Network (second half as of 2014) games also include the league selling the local simulcast rights (about $100,000 per game), set in a bidding process each year. The ESPN games are placed in one bid; under the current CBS contract, if the CBS affiliate in the home or visiting team's primary market declines to carry the simulcast during the second half of the season, the NFL will sell local simulcast rights in a similar manner to the ESPN package.
  • NFL Sunday Ticket's package on DirecTV brings in another $1.5 billion annually, not counted in this listing, in a deal that begins in 2015.[40]

Leverage over the networks

The NFL's status as a prime offering by the networks has led some to conclude that unbiased coverage of the league is not possible, although this may be true of most sports. However, with the current concentration of media ownership in the U.S., the league essentially has broadcast contracts with four media companies (CBS Corporation, NBCUniversal, Fox's parent company 21st Century Fox, and ESPN's parent company The Walt Disney Company) that own a combined vast majority of the American broadcast and cable networks. ESPN attempted to run a dramatic series showing steamier aspects of pro football, Playmakers, but canceled the series after the league reportedly threatened to exclude the network from the next set of TV contracts. The network also withdrew its partnership with the PBS series Frontline on the 2013 documentary "League of Denial," which chronicles the history of head injuries in the NFL, shortly after a meeting between ESPN executives and league commissioner Roger Goodell took place in New York City, though ESPN denies pressure from the NFL led to its backing out of the project.[41]

Counterprogramming, where other networks attempt to offer a program which is intended to compete with the NFL audience for a regular season game, playoff game or the Super Bowl (as Fox did in 1992 with a special segment of the sketch comedy series In Living Color during Super Bowl XXVI), has also been heavily discouraged with the consolidation of rights among the major networks; ESPN generally airs low-profile niche sports such as professional bowling, women's or low-stature men's college basketball (high-profile non-conference games usually occur in November and December during the Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks), Canadian Football League coverage from their Canadian sister network TSN, and minor league sports on Sunday afternoons, along with basic audio-only 'carousel' reports of current NFL scores by reporters from NFL stadiums on their other networks resembling those on ESPN Radio or Fox Sports Radio, while programming on Fox and CBS when game coverage does not occur generally consists of brokered programming under banners like CBS Sports Spectacular which feature extreme sports tours, Professional Bull Riders bonus events for the top 15 riders, and celebrity pro-am events purchased from outside providers. NBC, which has the Sunday night package, will run Golf Channel, including the FedEx Cup Playoffs, the Evian Championship (a women's major held in France), or depending on the year, either of the two international team tournaments (Ryder or President's Cup), motorsport (Austin and Mexico City, starting in 2015 rounds, along with NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup events; Chase races on NBC will serve as lead-in programming to Football Night in America, and Olympic sports (whose demographic is mainly geared towards women, such as ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating). Likewise, since 2010 ABC has run low-profile same-week repeats of their reality programming in solidarity with ESPN (although in 2011 an INDYCAR race aired during the time slot; that race was abandoned with less than 6% of the distance completed). Generally, the only networks to counterprogram the Super Bowl currently are niche cable networks with no "sports fan" appeal such as Animal Planet with their Puppy Bowl and imitation programming, and various marathons by other cable networks. In years when it does not carry the game, Fox has often purposely burned off failed sitcoms and dramas to discourage viewers from tuning away from the game, with other networks generally running marathons of popular reality or drama programs (for NBC, The Apprentice has filled this role) merely to fill the evening rather than an actual attempt to counterprogram, and CBS notably runs themed 60 Minutes episodes consisting of past stories featuring figures that fit the episode's theme. Notably until 2014 when the highlights program Gameday Live was launched, the NFL Network during 1:00 p.m. regular season games and the playoffs merely featured a still screen with the data of ongoing games on-screen while Sirius XM NFL Radio played in the background with 'carousel' score reports, with only highlights of game action from radio play-by-play heard occasionally.

The NFL has a strict policy prohibiting networks from running ads during official NFL programming (pre- and post-game studio shows and the games themselves) from the gambling industry, and has rejected some ads from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Commissioner Roger Goodell explained in 2007 that it was inappropriate for the sport to be associated with sports betting.[42] Additionally, the networks and their announcers cannot discuss or run graphics showing point spreads during NFL shows (Al Michaels, among other announcers, has been known to allude to them on-air, particularly at the end of the game where a seemingly insignificant score can have a major effect on the point-spread/totals outcome; example: "... and the game is over in more ways than one".) Most teams also insert similar clauses into their radio contracts, which are locally negotiated. The NFL injury report and required videotaping of practice are intended to prevent gamblers from gaining inside information. In contrast, fantasy football is often free to play. Daily fantasy sports, which are structured to prevent being classified as gambling, air advertisements on the NFL's partner networks on game days, but not during time controlled by the league.

At the start of the game, a teaser animation is displayed on all broadcasts. "Name of broadcaster welcomes you to the following presentation of the National Football League" (or similar phrasing) is announced, while at the end of the game, the message is "Name of broadcaster thanks you for watching this presentation of the National Football League" (or similar phrasing). This announcement is designed to separate game coverage from news, sports analysis, or entertainment programming not under the NFL contract and ownership. Since 1998, the NFL has owned the rights to game broadcasts once they air—a copyright disclaimer airs either before the start of the second half or after the first commercial break of the second half, depending on the broadcaster ("This telecast is copyrighted by the NFL for the private use of our audience [and] any other use of this telecast or [of] any pictures, descriptions or accounts of the game without the NFL's consent is prohibited"). Only the NFL Network can re-air games and they choose a few each week.

Further, the NFL imposes restrictions on sponsored segments during game coverage; this does not apply to national or local radio broadcasts. These are permitted only prior to kick off, during halftime, and following the game (once the "...welcomes you to the following presentation.." notice appears, the restrictions take effect until half-time, and again until the game ends); however, these segments (and other programming with title sponsorships, particularly halftime and post-game shows or other sports properties) can be advertised a couple of times during game coverage, and "aerial footage" providers (i.e. sponsored blimps) may be acknowledged, usually once an hour as is standard in other sports. Other acknowledgments (including HDTV or Skycam-type camera sponsorships) are limited to pre-kickoff and post-game credits. This is done so that, while competitors of the NFL's official sponsors may advertise on game broadcasts, they will not potentially become synonymous with the league through in-game and/or title sponsorship.

Finally, sideline reporters are restricted as to whom they can speak to and when (usually a head coach at halftime, and one or two players before and after the game ends). Information on injured players or rules interpretations are relayed from NFL off-field officials to the TV producers in the truck, who then pass it along to the sideline reporters or booth announcers. Thus, CBS opted in 2006 to no longer use sideline reporters except for some playoff games. ESPN followed suit by reducing the roles of their sideline reporters in 2008. Fox hired former NFL officiating director Mike Pereira in 2010, who relays rules interpretations from Los Angeles to the games that network covers, leaving their sideline reporters able to focus less on that role. Likewise, CBS hired retired referee Mike Carey in 2014 in the same role from New York on Sundays and the NFL Network in Culver City during Thursday Night Football games.

NFL Films

The NFL owns NFL Films, whose duties include providing game film to media outlets for highlights shows after a 2–3 day window during which outlets can use original game broadcast highlights.

International broadcasters

Current NFL broadcast deals

Other locations

ESPN America had rights to show up to 6 games per week in most Europe but ceased operations on July 31, 2013 (except UK and Ireland). ESPN and/or 21st Century Fox-owned networks distribute NFL games to most other regions of the world.

See also


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