The NFL may have just made the biggest change to its television and week-by-week scheduling structure since it lifted the blackout on sold-out home games… without changing any networks.
Last week, the NFL renewed its deals with CBS, Fox, and NBC for another nine years through 2022. One part of the deal will involve “expanded flex scheduling”, which apparently means NBC will be able to flex out of games as early as Week 5, but only if the game is a disaster waiting to happen like the Colts’ games this year. But it will also mean that games could flip between CBS and Fox. Before this point, there was an AFC network and an NFC network, and which games aired on which networks was set in stone. Now, while the rules for which games air on which networks will remain the same, some games may air on the other network on occasion. The situation we saw a few weeks ago, where Broncos-Vikings, normally a CBS game, flipped to Fox, will become more common. The exact rules haven’t been decided on, but one reason to flip games may be to shore up the second half of the doubleheader, though Broncos-Vikings became the premier game of the first half of the doubleheader.
That means that starting in 2014, my SNF Flex Schedule Watch could be very different… and I may have to give up the ghost entirely if the rules end up being too complicated.
The NFL also made a change to how it divvies up playoff games. NBC has traded in one of its Wild Card games for a divisional game. Most of the smart money has ESPN picking up the Wild Card game NBC gave up, putting a playoff game on cable for the first time. The third divisional game could conceivably rotate between CBS and Fox, go to ESPN as well, or go to NBC as well. My money is that it’ll go to NBC, balancing the number of playoff games on the broadcast networks before the Super Bowl at three apiece. Rotating between CBS and Fox would be hard logistically, and the NFL doesn’t seem to be the sort of entity that lets ESPN have playoff games that deep.
The NFL Network will also expand its Thursday Night schedule. This doesn’t necessarily mean selling the back half of the Thursday Night package is off the table, if it means going to 10-12 as a “stepping stone” to a full-season split schedule and as a way to put more pressure on those holdouts that don’t carry NFLN, but I could see it happening (hopefully it doesn’t mean the NFL will keep the additional NFLN games and try for an 18-game schedule again). However, the Thanksgiving Night game is moving to NBC, which doesn’t really surprise me, but does seem to be a good sign for NBC Sports Network’s prospects of winning the Thursday Night package (although if NBCSN does win it’s likely to be only seven games as a result of this). By my calculations, that means the Thursday night schedule would begin somewhere around Week 4-6.
Finally, NBC Sports Network will throw its hat into the ring of the Sunday morning pregame shows. That’s another good sign for NBC Sports’ prospects of winning the Thursday night package; however, if the NFL went with Turner then every single contender in the sports TV wars would have a Sunday morning pregame show.