The More Live TV The Better For Broadcasting

For a few years now, the broadcast networks have been doubling down on live programming as their hedge against audience fragmentation. They have cooked up additional awards shows as well as popular musicals like Grease Live. But sports is the biggest live genre and NBC and CBS reaffirmed their commitment to it with their deals to air Thursday Night Football over the next two seasons.

There are some trends in media and advertising that do not bode well for broadcasting, but there is at least one powerful one that does: live programming.

This week started with the Nielsens from Fox’s live Sunday night broadcast of Grease Live. They were impressive. The show attracted 12.2 million rock ‘n’ rollers with a 4.3 in the 18-49 demo.

Fox didn’t invent this new genre — Robert Greenblatt and NBC did two years with The Sound of Music Live — but it demonstrated its ability to seize on a great idea and give it a new twist. Fox let the live audience in on much of the action.

The show was not flawless, said Variety critic Maureen Ryan, but, she added: “All in all, Grease Live got most of the big things right — the colorful aesthetic, the rip-roaring big dance numbers, the goofy, careening energy.”

All in all, great TV, I’d say.

That wasn’t the only good news about live broadcasting on Monday.


CBS and NBC said that they would be splitting a 10-game Thursday Night Football package in a new deal with the NFL for the next two seasons. NBC is new to Thursday nights, but its interest is not surprising. Sunday Night Football has gone a long way toward boosting NBC to the No. 1 network in the 18-49 demo.

NBC will also be splitting the staggering price tag, reported to be a combined $450 million-$500 million per year.

Even assuming the lower figure, the fee would be 20% more than CBS paid per game when it alone held the broadcast rights to an eight-game package this season and last.

The two networks are not getting exclusivity for all that cash. The games will also be televised on the NFL Network. The league is looking for an OTT outlet, too.

Affiliates need not be too worried about the simulcasts. Last July, I reported TVB’s comparison of how the simulcast games performed on CBS and the NFL Network in the first year of CBS’s two-year deal. As I said then, it was no contest. CBS got four or five times the audience in the key demo. In markets that had a team in the games, it was as if the NFL Network wasn’t there. For a Steelers game, CBS O&O KDKA Pittsburgh drew 15 times as many viewers as the cable network.

I haven’t gotten a response to my question of whether the OTT partner will stream the same games as the broadcasters. But even if it does, so what? It may siphon off some mobile viewers — I think of a night watchman trapped in a warehouse — but otherwise viewers are going to watch on a big screen from a familiar network that delivers most of their other pro football.

Flailing about with video in hopes of reviving its sagging fortunes, Yahoo purchased the streaming rights to the NFL international game for $20 million and, according to various reports, ended up cutting its 30-second spot ask from $200,000 to $50,000 by kickoff last October.

It proved, I suppose, that streaming is stable enough for football, but if that was the purpose of either Yahoo or the NFL all they had to do was ask Major League Baseball, which has been streaming more than 2,400 baseball games via for years with increasing quality and reliability.

It will be interesting to see which OTT players step up. It could be one of the big established digital media companies or it could be a smaller one looking to break out of the pack with the unparalleled promotional punch of the NFL.

As Les Moonves will tell you, there is no greater partnership in all of television than that between the NFL and the broadcast networks. The latest deals further cement the partnership and, as New England Patriots owner and NFL Broadcast Committee Chairman Robert Kraft says, they further embed Thursday night football in the consciousness of America.

Reporter Adam Buckman and I canvassed some key NBC and CBS affiliates this week to gauge their reaction to the new deals. It wasn’t unmitigated joy.

The CBS affiliates know they will have to chip in for the rights as they have on the previous deal — so much so, some say, as to make the games unprofitable.

NBC affiliates have received assurances from the network that they would not be hit with a surcharge, although some are not totally convinced.

And affiliates of both stripes grumble that the early starts and stops of the games will disrupt their business in prime access and in late news.

But they know that live high-quality entertainment programming is key their continued survival and they recognized the particular appeal of the NFL.

For a few years now, the networks have been doubling down on live programming — that is, shows that are not only produced live, but that are so compelling and timely that viewers want to watch live. They have cooked up additional awards shows as well as the musicals.

Such productions are getting an after-burner boosts from social media where people can chat with each other about what they’re watching. For once, digital media aren’t fragmenting the broadcast audience; they are enhancing it.

But it’s really sports that are the engine of the live programming trends. Nielsen was out this week with a report on TV sports that said that 95% of TV sports is watched live and that sports accounted for 93 of the top 100 live programs.

So far, the must-read-article-of-the-year for broadcasters is from our friend John Ourand at Sports Business Journal. It’s about the migration of sports from pay TV back to broadcasting, reversing a trend that really began in 1975 when HBO telecast the third Ali-Frazier fight.

“The reason comes down to simple math,” the story says. “While the number of homes that subscribe to pay TV gets smaller, the reach of broadcast networks essentially remains the same. That has caused leagues and media companies to embrace broadcast time slots like they used to a decade ago. If the rights fees are competitive, many sports properties have decided to opt for the reach that broadcast networks provide.”

Of course, you may be aware that the greatest live program of all is on the schedule this Sunday evening. Many others have written about it as a cultural phenomenon, a business undertaking and even a sporting event, and they have done so far above my poor power to add or detract.

But I do have a prop bet for you.

One hundred seventeen millions viewers. Over or under?

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or [email protected]. You can read earlier columns here.

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