Rodney Harrison has a suggestion for the NFL as it seeks to improve its prime-time ratings, which have sagged this season: Better teams.
“Being out and about and dealing with fans and interacting with fans just at the gym and the grocery store, people are very interested in watching football — as long as there are great games going on,” the NBC analyst said Monday at a lunch in Manhattan to promote NBC’s portion of the “Thursday Night Football” package.
“I think you have to go back to earning your right to play on national television instead of just everyone saying, ‘Hey, we have all these different slots: Monday, Thursday, a possible Saturday and Sunday for these teams to play.’ I think you have to earn your right to be on the national stage.
“I think that’s one way of really helping the ratings and getting more people to get their eyes back on the television set.”
The NFL still strives to place marquee teams on Sunday and, to a lesser extent, Monday nights, and for much of the season it moves bad matchups out of the Sunday night spot and flexes in better ones.
But the Thursday night slate is less robust, because every team must take its turn, even the winless Browns.
The back end of the Thursday schedule has seemingly appealing matchups, and NBC is hoping that it will benefit from having the next six Thursday games in a row, starting with the Saints at the Panthers this week and ending with the Giants at the Eagles on Dec. 22.
(The Thanksgiving night game is not technically part of the “Thursday Night Football” deal, but that is one of the six in a row.)
“I think we all know the back half of the season can be a bit of a crap shoot because you’re not sure who’s going to be great and who’s not going to be great,” NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood said. “Who would have thought the Dallas Cowboys would be the best team in football, by record? . . . You can’t control outcomes, but I think we landed on a really good stretch of six games on Thursday nights.”
Beyond that, NBC and the NFL’s other TV partners are hoping that with the presidential election over at last, one of the biggest perceived drags on ratings this season will be history.
The news Sunday was hopeful. Good games between the Cowboys and Steelers in late afternoon and the Seahawks and Patriots at night drew impressive numbers — 17.8 percent of homes in major markets for the former and 14.3 percent (and 22.5 million viewers) for the latter.
“I think it’s great for the league, but I think it’s great for everyone,” Flood said. “It’s the most powerful sports brand there is, and when there are great games in great time slots people will consume them at a crazy level. Nothing else attracts an audience like this.”
NBC host Bob Costas pointed to “specific events” that damaged NFL ratings, including two[ presidential debates that conflicted with prime-time NFL games, as well as a compelling World Series. Game 5 outrated “Sunday Night Football,” a rare victory for baseball over football.
“Once every four years that is going to shape the direction of our country,” NBC analyst Tony Dungy said of the election. “People should be distracted. You’d hope they would be. But it’s a short window and we’ll see what happens in the second half.”
Donald Trump’s upset victory could keep the political debate going longer than a win by Hillary Clinton would have, but the assumption is the nation is ready to turn more of its attention back to football.
Flood said if there are election-related demonstrations such as the one Sunday in which the Buccaneers’ Mike Evans knelt during the national anthem to protest Trump’s victory, NBC will cover them, just as it did Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit and later kneel before 49ers games.
Flood said NBC has been requesting an interview of Kaepernick by Costas since the second week of the season.
One added challenge of the Thursday games is potential viewer confusion. To date there have been Thursday night games produced by CBS and seen on CBS and the NFL Network, games produced by CBS and seen only on the NFL Network, and games produced by NBC and seen only on the NFL Network.
Now they’ll be produced by NBC and seen on NBC and the NFL Network.
(The NFL has to keep some games off CBS and NBC to preserve the NFL Network’s leverage in gaining distribution and healthy subscriber fees from cable and satellite companies.)
“I’m cautiously optimistic that we have a pretty smart country that understands that if a football game is being promoted that it’s going to be on NBC, they’ll come to NBC,” Flood said. “Folks are going to find the games.”
Harrison said he believes the Patriots still are the best team in the league despite Sunday night’s loss. Dungy said the beauty of the current season is the lack of breakout teams.
“I don’t think our top teams have separated,” he said. “We’ve watched them, and everybody has flaws. I don’t think you can say that nobody can go into Dallas and win or nobody can walk into New England and win.”