The NFL and the Future of TV: Better Together?

As my wife and I sat around on Super Bowl Sunday, passively watching the six-hour pregame while engaging on second screens, I noticed her “Big Game” anticipation was getting the best of her. It wasn’t the matchup she couldn’t wait for. It wasn’t dreamy Tom Brady. She was online previewing Super Bowl commercials. For someone who has spent her entire career in broadcast and advertising, I saw this as a positive for the future of an industry that I’ve loved for over 30 years.

It spurred a conversation about how television viewing has changed, and thus advertising. Just 10 short years ago, Super Bowl commercials were kept tightly under wraps, building as much anticipation for the big game as the matchup itself. It was just in 2011 that Volkswagen was among the first to preview a Super Bowl commercial when they released “The Force” less than a week before the Super Bowl. It received 11 million views prior to the game. Three years later, Super Bowl commercials were collectively viewed 160 million times online, before the game.

What does it mean for the future of television when some of the most anticipated content is no longer exclusive to the medium? It should bode well. America has a voracious appetite for video content. Over 300 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute. Over 5 billion videos are viewed every day. In an average month, 80 percent of adults 18-49 watch YouTube.

In an effort to capitalize on Americans’ love of video, television networks find themselves adjusting to a shifting marketplace. Networks offering programs on a set schedule may someday be a casualty of on-demand and binge-watching made available by DVR, Netflix, Hulu and the hundreds of other streaming services available today, that are changing the way we, as a culture, consume programs.

Ultimately, broadcast television is just one vehicle for getting video from the producer to the viewer. As the number of delivery vehicles grows almost exponentially, the ability of television networks to compete successfully will depend on their ability to identify and offer programming that appeals to the most viewers. Therefore, it must be noted, especially on Super Bowl Sunday, that live sports are a pivotal piece for networks to achieve that success. Right now, higher-ups at CBS are exploring mergers and acquisitions that will give them the financial capacity to compete in upcoming NFL broadcast rights negotiations against tech giants like Amazon. They’re not alone.

Live sports and broadcast have been nearly inseparable for decades. FOX was a fledgling network when it won the NFL broadcast rights from CBS in 1993. The NFL has changed television, (every network uses the NFL broadcasts as a platform to promote new programming to a hard-to-reach audience) and television has changed the NFL (think the yellow line, constant clock and scorebox). Did you know the first Super Bowl was covered using just eleven cameras? This weekend’s game required 115 cameras, including 15 in each end zone.

From 2014-2022, the NFL will receive nearly $60 billion in right fees from various broadcast partners. And when the ratings numbers are made official, Super Bowl LIII will almost certainly be one of the most-watched events in television history. Seventeen of the top 20 broadcasts in history are Super Bowls. Roots Episode VIII (1977), Leon Spinks vs Mohammed Ali II (1978), and the M*A*S*H Series Finale (1983) are the only non-Super Bowl programs to rank. Think about that – in nearly 36 years, no regularly-scheduled television program has managed to attract an audience larger than most Super Bowls.

So among this changing “video” landscape, I still see it as a positive that a single event can bring over 100 million people together in front of their screens at one time, regardless of which screen that is. Something tells me that both television and the NFL will be just fine in the future, but they might be even better together.

Now, about the kitten bowl …

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