The NFL Must Find a Solution for Cutting Away From Games Before the Conclusion

Broadcast deals and financial and contractual obligations have limited networks from showing the conclusion of NFL games, but the league owes it to fans to find a solution.
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One of these days, James Brown’s voice, or someone’s send-up of it, is going to show up on Saturday Night Live. “Again, due to NFL rules and regulations, we are not able to keep you there live, but we will keep you updated…” Those were the now nearly farcical words that greeted fans as CBS left Cleveland after the Browns failed to convert on fourth-down in overtime against the Ravens Sunday.

Following a commercial break, the network’s post-game analysts then provided play-by-play from the studio, taking turns speaking while the other four stared at a screen that viewers weren’t allowed to see. Eventually Greg Joseph made a game-winning field goal for Cleveland. “And… he… knocks it in” was the call from Bill Cowher and company after a period of silence.

Meanwhile, viewers in Philadelphia watching the Panthers and Giants on FOX were treated to a commercial break instead of seeing Graham Gano tie the record for longest game-winning field goal by knocking through a 63-yarder as time expired. Last week, it was NFL Redzone host Scott Hanson who had to explain to viewers why the channel that shows every touchdown wouldn’t be able to show the final score in Oakland as the Raiders outlasted the Browns. The league-owned network couldn’t directly compete with the game’s broadcaster. And NBC wanted you to watch its pregame show instead.

Here I’ll make a couple concessions. We’re spoiled to even get these out-of-market close games after the conclusion of local matchups. Other sports on local TV don’t teleport their viewers around like that on a weekly basis. Plus, I understand that sometimes these situations become catch-22s, either cutting a game off before the conclusion or missing the beginning of the following contest that fans tuned in for. There all also obviously financial and contractual obligations limiting each network.

CBS couldn’t show the Browns win because FOX has promised its advertisers a big viewership from the beginning of its national 4:25 p.m. game, for instance, and the two networks have a reciprocal agreement for that scenario. In Philadelphia,  FOX spokesman said in a statement, “At the end of every game window there's a two minute local break. Because it's local it's not really our time to manipulate.”

In a world with six TV channels and 4-1-1, those would be perfectly reasonable justifications. (Clearly, the concession section is over.) This year, the NFL media experience has improved—mainly thanks to the ability for anyone to stream games on mobile devices. But that’s only made the remaining annoyances stick out even more. And in a world of high-scoring, long-lasting games, this particular one seems to be popping up multiple times each week, no matter how much work goes on behind the scenes to improve the situation on the margins. I just hope the NFL and its partners can find a more sensible solution than telling fans to buy NFL Sunday Ticket before we get to the games that really matter.

If you’re going to switch to a game in order to keep eyeballs on your sport, you owe it to fans to show the conclusion. Especially when FOX and CBS both have sport-specific cable networks, websites, and mobile apps they could host those concluding moments on, if they were allowed to.

An NFL spokesman said these issues are discussed on a weekly basis by the league and networks. While certain changes like won’t come until new rights deals are signed, they said, some tweaks could be made during this season. "We're constantly reevaluating, and we're sensitive to the fact that fan viewing habits are changing," the spokesman said.

Until then, hooked viewers will switch to the RedZone channel to see what happens, if they can. Or they’ll find an illegal stream (and possibly also discover how smooth that illicit experience is). Maybe they’ll be fine getting the result from Google and the highlights from social media. Otherwise, they might simply move on, inundated as we are each time we find our attention up for grabs. The truth is, it’s not really fans that lose as the result of these rules. It’s the NFL.