NFL Flex Schedule a Godsend for NBC

Sunday Night Football swaps will keep ratings sky-high

For NBC, the National Football League’s flex schedule rules can’t kick in soon enough.

Last night’s Sunday Night Football matchup (Colts-Texans) delivered relatively modest fast national ratings, drawing 15.6 million viewers and a 5.7 rating among adults 18-49. By comparison, the year-ago Dallas-Atlanta broadcast drew 18.6 million viewers and a 7.3 in the demo.

While the AFC South battle undoubtedly will be adjusted upward upon application of time zone adjusted deliveries—last season’s Cowboys-Falcons game improved 16 percent to an 8.5 in the demo after the live-same-day numbers came in—this marks the second straight week NBC’s overnights dipped below a 6.0. (The seasonal L+SD average is a 7.3.)

UPDATE: The final L+SD deliveries for Sunday night’s game were adjusted up to 17 million viewers and a 6.3 in the demo, tying it with the Oct. 27 Packers-Vikings game for lowest-rated SNF broadcast of the season. Parenthetically, this marked the second time in a row that AMC’s The Walking Dead was the top-rated show on TV, as Episode 4 out-gunned the NFL with a 6.8 rating. 

When the season began, the Colts-Texans battle looked great on paper; after all, before it skidded into its six-games-and-counting losing streak, Houston was widely considered to be a playoff-caliber franchise. But such has been the 2013 NFL campaign: As of Monday morning, 18 of the league’s 32 teams have posted a record of .500 or under.

Last week’s Packers-Vikings blowout also failed to generate much heat, averaging just 16.9 million viewers and a 6.3 rating. Again, when the NFL published the TV schedule back in April, nobody would have guessed that the Vikings would be a miserable 1-6 going into their meeting with division rival Green Bay.

Fortunately for NBC (and football fans), things are looking up. Next week’s matchup features two first-place teams in Dallas and New Orleans, and the Cowboys also happen to be one of the NFL’s biggest national draws. Moreover, the league has optimized the first week of the flex schedule to NBC’s advantage, shifting the Nov. 17 Chiefs-Broncos game from CBS’ late national broadcast to Sunday prime.

(Speaking of the Chiefs, the fact that they’re undefeated and a marquee draw is as much of a head-scratcher as is Houston’s lousy 2-6 record. Last season, the Chiefs finished 2-14, tying the woeful Jaguars for the worst record in the NFL.)

Peyton Manning and the 7-1 Broncos are huge draws, and the league has ensured that the team gets as much national exposure as is humanly possible. Denver’s two previous SNF broadcasts averaged 26 million viewers and a 10.2 in the demo, while its lone appearance on ESPN’s Monday Night Football delivered 13.9 million viewers and a 5.6 rating. 

The Broncos also have played in no fewer than four late national games, with coverage of 85 percent or more. The team’s two CBS broadcasts averaged a gaudy 27.4 million viewers, while its pair of Fox appearances delivered 26.3 million viewers.

The week after Denver takes on the undefeated Chiefs, the team will take the field for yet another prime time game, squaring off against the Patriots on the Nov. 24 installment of SNF. By the time the regular season wraps up, the Broncos will have played in prime time six times—the NFL maximum.

Look for the NFL to invoke its flex powers in subsequent weeks, as it will want to showcase games like Seattle at San Francisco and Green Bay at Dallas in favor of the previously-scheduled Atlanta-Green Bay and Cincinnati-Pittsburgh games on Dec. 8 and Dec. 15. A year after amassing a 13-3 record and advancing to the NFC Championship Game, the 2-6 Falcons are all but out of contention. Meanwhile, the once powerful Steelers franchise is mired in last place in the NFC North.

CBS and Fox have the right to protect five games each, but league politics often plays a part in getting the networks to relax their grip on their national matchups in favor of giving the week’s best pairing a prime time showcase. CBS originally had protected the Denver-Kansas City game, but it agreed to make a one-time accommodation at the NFL’s request.

Unfortunately for the Monday Night Football crew, ESPN cannot improve its lot with a flex game or two. The cable sports giant has been dealt a lousy hand of late, finding itself saddled with an absolutely miserable Vikings-Giants blooper reel before drawing its lowest ratings of the year with an uninspired Seattle-St. Louis game. (That particular broadcast also went head-to-head with Game 5 of the 2013 World Series.)

Those consecutive stinkers behind it, ESPN would appear to have a lot to look forward to in the coming weeks. Tonight’s MNF game features a classic NFC North battle between the Packers (5-2) and Bears (4-3), while subsequent draws include New England at Carolina, San Francisco at Washington, Saints at Seahawks and Cowboys at Chicago.

At the midway point in the season, NFL broadcasts across NBC, Fox, CBS, ESPN and NFL Network are averaging 16.2 million total viewers, up 5 percent from the year-ago 15.4 million. Together, the Big Three nets are averaging 20.2 million viewers per NFL broadcast, up 6 percent versus the year-ago 19 million.