NFL Network Beefs Up Its 2012 Slate

Expanded Thursday night roster sidelines proposed cable package

The NFL has effectively put the kibosh on a proposed eight-game package of Thursday night games, electing instead to gift a handful of extra contests to its proprietary cable network.

Starting next season, NFL Network will air five additional regular-season games, giving the outlet a grand total of 13 live telecasts. Thursday Night Football will debut in the second week of the 2012 campaign—most likely on Sept. 13—with an eye toward continuing through Week 15.

Per terms of the league’s renewed media rights deals, the five extra games will be culled from the CBS and Fox Sunday schedules.

As has been the case since it began broadcasting Sunday Night Football in 2006, NBC will once again air a special Thursday night season opener (Sept. 6). The Peacock also will assume the rights to the NFL Network’s Thanksgiving night game, which coincides with Week 12.

The Turkey Day shootout between the Ravens and 49ers was the NFL Net’s most-watched telecast of the 2011 season, averaging 10.7 million viewers and a 4.1 rating in the 18-49 demo. Over the course of eight games, NFL Net’s Thursday Night Football package averaged a record 6.21 million viewers, a delivery that does not include ratings from over-the-air stations in the relevant local markets.

The decision to shift more games to NFL Net was not wholly unanticipated. Two weeks into the season, league commissioner Roger Goodell confirmed that a proposed eight-game Thursday night slate had been sidelined, adding, “It’s not likely that we would do [a deal with an outside network partner] in the next year.”

Comcast/NBCUniversal, Fox Sports and Turner Sports had expressed keen interest in the new bundle, which observers said might fetch as much as $75 million per game, or $600 million, for the half-season run.

In December, Time Warner chairman and CEO Jeff Bewkes seemed to throw cold water on Turner’s desire to partner with the NFL, telling investors, “We already have plenty of sports to handle what we need to do.”

It’s worth noting that the expanded NFL Network slate could very well be a one-off; if that’s the case, the cable package is likely to get called back in from the sidelines in the near future.

“Adding these games to the NFL Network schedule will give more players, teams and cities the prime-time stage,” Goodell said, by way of announcing the beefed-up schedule. Although Goodell didn’t say as much, the additional games certainly may give the league a leg up on holdout MSOs like Time Warner Cable.

Carriage talks between the NFL and the nation’s No. 2 cable operator broke down last fall.

NFL Network charges a carriage fee of approximately 80 cents per sub per month, making it the fourth most expensive channel on the cable dial, according to SNL Kagan estimates. (At $4.69 a pop, ESPN is far and away the priciest television network.)

Time Warner and its sibling cable company, Bright House Networks, operate in 12 of the NFL’s 32 home markets. Among these are the nation’s No. 1 DMA, New York; other top 20 markets served by TWC include Dallas, Tampa, Fla., and Cleveland. 

The NFL’s in-house television network in 2011 took in $675 million in total revenue, according to SNL Kagan estimates. Affiliate fees accounted for roughly three-quarters of the NFL Net’s take.