TO: PETE ROZELLE, NFL
FROM: WILLIAM TAAFFE, SI
RE: HOW TO PUT SOME LIFE INTO THE
NETWORK TELEVISION RATINGS
This is an article from the Nov. 12, 1984 issue
In case you haven't noticed, you've got trouble in Ratings City. Trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for Pickle. Why Pickle? Simple. You need decent ratings in a hurry if the networks are to continue subsidizing the NFL at the present stupendous levels. Remember how the networks gave you $2.1 billion the last time around, for the five-year contract that runs through 1986? Well, you can forget that kind of megabucks next time if the ratings don't perk up fast. I figure you've got 15 months to D day, because talks on a new agreement begin after the '85 season. Here's hoping you've been practicing your two-minute drill.
Pete, where I come from, the word is that ratings-wise, '84 is already ancient history. The only way this year's numbers could even begin to approach the record levels of '81, or those of the off year of '83, for that matter, would be if a six-week blizzard hit the U.S., keeping everybody indoors past New Year's. Get a load of this, Pete: NBC is approaching single digits. It's averaging 10.7% of households through Week 9, down 14.4% from the same period in '81. CBS is averaging 13.0%, down 18.2% from '81. ABC's Monday Night Football, the biggest loser, has slipped to 15.9%, down 25% from '81.
You know how you and the networks used to play the advertisers like violins? They're rebelling. Some have been able to buy 30-second spots on NBC for as little as $80,000 this season when the network was asking $120,000. CBS has accepted as little as $75,000 when the rate card called for $145,000. ABC has gotten $130,000 and less for a $180,000 spot. Miller beer and Chevrolet have turned their backs on this season's Super Bowl game rather than shell out $1 million a minute. Miller has opted for the less expensive wraparound show.
C'mon, Pete, do something. To help out, my TV gurus and I have come up with a five-point plan. Because you're such a nice guy, you can use any or all of it without paying us a cent.
1) Go to the networks before next season, reopen the existing contract and cut back the number of TV exposures. First, get those hideous preseason games off the air. Put on Leave It to Beaver reruns instead. Next, get rid of all Sunday night and Thursday night and Who-Knows-What-Other night editions of Monday Night Football. When you clutter the calendar with all those garbage editions, no one game seems special. Finally, reduce network doubleheaders on Sunday by half. (It's not in the Ten Commandments that CBS and NBC must show games for seven hours every other week.) Less is more. I know this will cost you money in the short term, but ratings will come back, and you'll eventually be better off. Trust me.
2) You know how the networks have to broadcast games back to the home markets of the teams involved? Change the rules, Pete. Local fans aren't as wedded to their teams anymore, especially if they're the pits. They'd rather see an important "national" TV game—Denver Broncos-Los Angeles Raiders, say, at four o'clock. Here's what you do: If in the second half of the season a team drops below .333 or is eliminated from playoff contention, see ya later. The network gets to send a major game of its choosing into the home market. Houston? Buffalo? Get out of here. They've got to play .333 or else. You'll be happy, the networks will be happy and most fans will be happy. The networks will save $150,000 in production costs for every game they don't do, so they'll have more money to cough up next time.
3) Kill the blackout rule, pronto. Blackouts are the plague of TV ratings. Take NBC. Every time it airs a Raider home game it has to black out the nation's second-largest TV market because the Los Angeles Coliseum never sells out. I know you love the blackout, Pete. But, like too much cholesterol, it's not good for you.
4) Beginning in '87, when the new contract kicks in, let CBS (which has NFC rights) and NBC (which does the AFC) carry only the away games of the teams in their respective conferences. Sell the regular-season home games to local cable pay-TV services, which by then might be available to 50% of U.S. homes. You like this, Pete? I do, because it creates demand. The networks will scream betrayal, but tough. Take a gamble, Pete. You'll have less money for a while, but you'll be investing in the future.
5) Win that $1.32 billion antitrust suit Donald Trump and his USFL friends have filed against the NFL. Once you do, the USFL will wither away. If you lose the suit, switch to a spring season.
*through nine weeks