Column: NFL plans to give viewers a break from too many ad breaks

By Phil Rosenthal - Chicago Tribune

You might not know what a “double-up” is in the NFL — no, it’s not that thing in the State Farm ads — but you hate it.

“The double-up is when you have a touchdown, then a commercial, then a kickoff and a commercial,” Packers President/CEO Mark Murphy explained at the team’s shareholder meeting this week. “You lose a lot of fans when you do that.”

Murphy said the league and its TV partners are “going to get rid of … the double-up,” and the move can’t come two minutes too soon.

That the very people who invented the six-hour Super Bowl pregame show are poised to give fans a break by reconsidering breaks speaks to a vulnerability every institution that has cashed in on traditional media consumption patterns should feel in these days of disruption.

“What the league is really … focusing on is the pace of the game and trying to speed up our broadcast,” said Murphy, a former Northwestern athletic director. “We’re hopeful to reduce the average game length by about five minutes, and they’re going to do that by looking at commercials.”

But let’s not kid ourselves. We’ll be looking at commercials, too.

There may be fewer ad breaks, but the goal is to keep viewers engaged to preserve and enhance, not cut, annual TV ad sales of about $3.5 billion for CBS, Fox, ESPN, NBC and NFL Network

The league spent money on research that found viewers were more irritated by the number of breaks than their length. There are other sources of irritation, but this has an easy fix.

There has been talk of using split screens to get sponsors their exposure without completely cutting away from what’s happening on the field. Fewer network promos are expected too.

“We’re taking less commercial breaks so that we don’t give (viewers) a reason to turn the channel or look at another device,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said last week. “We want them to be engaged with that game.”

The NFL is hardly alone in at least talking about speeding things up. Major League Baseball has been wrestling with this for some time. The NBA has tweaked some things for next season.

At the college level, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott on Wednesday revealed some experiments planned for nonconference games this season aimed at streamlining games that average 3 { hours, about 20 minutes longer than NFL games.

The Pac-12 will try shortening halftimes by five minutes because, Scott said, 30 percent of its audience goes away then. There also will be fewer commercial breaks and — deep breath — fewer commercials.

The NFL, meanwhile, is looking at when play clocks should start in situations such as when the ball is taken out of bounds.

The trot to the sideline for game officials to see if they blew a call is going away. Instead, they’ll get a tablet and headset while reviews are handled at a central office in New York.

It’s billed as more efficient, but look for brand logos.

“We’re looking to see how we take dead time out, whether that’s through our rules or instant replay,” Goodell said. “Nobody really wants to watch the officials running around figuring out what’s going on. They want to watch action.”

NFL viewership was down an average of 8 percent last season compared with 2015, but much of that decline coincided with the presidential campaign.

The audience was off 14 percent for the first nine weeks of the 2016 season, a span that included both the election and stronger-than-usual interest in baseball thanks to the Cubs’ historic run.

In the final eight weeks of the NFL season, the year-to-year drop was only 1 percent.

And those 2016 numbers are being compared with 2015, when the NFL attracted its biggest audience in a decade.

A J.D. Power survey, first reported Thursday by ESPN, found 12 percent of those questioned said they watched fewer NFL games last season. But 27 percent said they watched more, and 62 percent watched the same as always.

The attention-grabbing stat in the survey of 9,200 people is that of the 12 percent who said they watched fewer games, 26 percent cited national anthem protests by players such as Colin Kaepernick as the reason.

That comes to a hair more than 3 percent of the total. Almost as many — 24 percent of the 12 percent, or a hair less than 3 percent — cited either the league’s domestic abuse issues or in-game delays, such as excessive penalties and replay reviews. Too much advertising and the presidential campaign drew double-digit mentions.

Other possibilities could include NFL games on too many nights of the week to be special, lousy matchups, resentment over how franchises bail on cities that subsidize them and queasiness over the potential long-term impact of hard hits.

The “double-up” touchdown-ad-kickoff-ad addresses an easier, safer target.

“I hate that too,” Goodell said in an open letter to fans in March. “Our goal is to eliminate it.”

Minute changes are better than none at all. But you don’t suppose sponsors whose messages got lost in the “double-up” deluge also hated it, do you?


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By Phil Rosenthal

Chicago Tribune