The television rights to broadcast National Football League (NFL) games are the most lucrative and expensive rights of any American sport. Television brought professional football into prominence in the modern era after World War II. Since then, National Football League broadcasts have become among the most-watched programs on American television, and the financial fortunes of entire networks have rested on owning NFL broadcasting rights. This has raised questions about the impartiality of the networks' coverage of games and whether they can criticize the NFL without fear of losing the rights and their income.
Since the 1960s, all regular season and playoff games broadcast in the United States have been aired by national television networks. Until the broadcast contract ended in 2013, the terrestrial television networks CBS, NBC, and Fox, as well as cable television's ESPN, paid a combined total of US$20.4 billion to broadcast NFL games. From 2014 to 2022, the same networks will pay $39.6 billion for exactly the same broadcast rights. The NFL thus holds broadcast contracts with four companies (Paramount Global, NBCUniversal, Fox Corporation and The Walt Disney Company/Hearst Communications, respectively) that control a combined vast majority of the country's television product. League-owned NFL Network, on cable television, also broadcasts a selected number of games nationally. In 2017, the NFL games attracted the top three rates for a 30-second advertisement: $699,602 for NBC Sunday Night Football, $550,709 for Thursday Night Football (NBC), and $549,791 for Thursday Night Football (CBS).
Under the current contracts since 2014, regionally shown games on Sunday afternoons are televised on CBS and Fox, which primarily carry games of AFC and NFC teams respectively (the conference of the away team generally determines the broadcaster of an inter-conference game). Nationally televised regular season games on Sunday and Monday nights are aired on NBC and ESPN, respectively, while FOX and NFL Network share Thursday night games during the regular season. In addition, a "flexible scheduling" policy allows the league to reschedule Sunday afternoon and night games to different time slots and/or re-assign them to different networks regardless of conference (Monday and Thursday Night games are not subject to this policy and must be played at the same time and on the same network as originally scheduled). During the postseason, ESPN airs one game, NBC airs three, while CBS and Fox air the rest of the AFC and NFC games, respectively. The Super Bowl has rotated annually among CBS, Fox, and NBC since the 2006 season.
NFL preseason telecasts are more in line with the other major sports leagues' regular-season telecasts: preseason telecasts are more locally produced, usually by a local affiliate of one of the above terrestrial television networks. Some preseason games will air nationally, however. Under the NFL's anti-siphoning rules for cable games, these stations usually will air simulcasts of ESPN and/or NFL Network games in their local markets if the local team is playing.
See also: NFL regular season
The NFL regular season begins in the second weekend in September (the weekend after Labor Day in the United States) and ends in mid-January. Each team plays 17 games during an 18-week period. Typically, the majority of each week's games are played on Sunday afternoon. The Sunday afternoon games are televised regionally, where the particular game available on local television will depend on where the viewer is located, and begin at either 1:00 p.m., 4:05 p.m., or 4:25 p.m. Eastern Time. In addition, there are usually single nationally televised games each on Thursday night, Sunday night, and Monday night. These primetime games are broadcast across the country over one national over-the-air broadcast or cable network, where there are no regional restrictions, nor any other competing NFL contest.
All playoff games, the Super Bowl, [NFL Streams] and the Pro Bowl are nationally televised on either Saturday, Sunday or Monday in January and February, and either in the afternoon or in primetime.
Scheduling during the NFL preseason is more lenient in that most games usually start based on the local time. Thus, games on the West Coast are usually played after 7:00 p.m. Pacific Time (10:00 p.m. Eastern Time). However, the handful of primetime, nationally televised preseason games are still played at approximately 8:30 p.m. Eastern Time.
|Broadcast Partner||Contract Term||Annual Value||Ref|
|ABC / ESPN / Disney||2022–33||$2.7bn|||
|DirecTV / AT&T||2015–22||$1.5bn|||
|Fox: NFC Sundays||2023–33||$2.2bn|||
|CBS / CBS Entertainment Group / Paramount Global||2023–33||$2.1bn|||
|NBC / NBCUniversal / Comcast||2023–33||$2bn|||
|Yahoo! / Verizon||2018–22||$450m|||
|ABC / ESPN: Wild Card||Unknown||$100m|||
|Westwood One Radio||2009–10||~$15m|||
The television rights to the NFL are the most expensive rights of not only any American sport, but any American entertainment property. With the fragmentation of audiences due to the increased specialization of broadcast and cable TV networks, sports remain one of the few entertainment properties that not only can guarantee a large and diversified audience, but one that will watch live broadcasts.
The Super Bowl often ranks among the most watched shows of the year. Four of Nielsen Media Research's top 10 programs of all time are Super Bowls. Networks have purchased a share of the broadcasting rights to the NFL as a means of raising the entire network's profile.
The NFL distributes television revenue to all teams equally, regardless of performance. As of February 2019[update] each team receives $255 million annually from the league's television contracts, up 150% from $99.9 million in 2010. Under the current television contracts, which began during the 2014 season, regular season games are broadcast on five networks: CBS, Fox, NBC, ESPN, and the NFL Network.
Since the 2012 NFL season, the major networks have invested more in audio description due to FCC guidelines ramping up the requirements of opening up the second audio program audio channel to access audio description, which is also used by some networks to provide Spanish language audio of their primetime programming. Therefore, all of the NFL's broadcasting partners have added Spanish language audio commentary of games, either through a separate channel or over the SAP channel.
ESPN simulcasts Monday Night Football with Spanish-language commentary and graphics over ESPN Deportes and has since the move of MNF to ESPN in 2006, though its wild card game does carry the ESPN Deportes commentary over SAP on ABC. In 2017 and 2018, the Spanish-language coverage was also simulcast on ESPN2 during the first two months of the season. In the 2020-21 playoffs, ESPN Deportes also aired an AFC Divisional Playoff game and the AFC Championship Game.
NBC's sister Spanish-language cable network mun2 (which rebranded as Universo in 2015) began to simulcast select Sunday Night Football games in the 2014 season as part of the new television contract, while its Spanish-language counterpart Telemundo Deportes provides the branding for NBC's SAP Spanish commentary.
Fox's Spanish-language sports network Fox Deportes began broadcasting select Fox games, including the playoffs and Super Bowl XLVIII in Spanish during the 2013 season. Super Bowl LI for Fox featured Spanish audio exclusive to Fox Deportes, without a SAP component over-the-air.
CBS, which lacked any Spanish language outlets prior to the 2019 remerger (Trés is legally part of the family, but is a cable channel), still uses solely SAP for its Spanish simulcasts. It relied on ESPN Deportes to simulcast Super Bowl 50, LIII and LV in Spanish, though it still carried Spanish SAP audio on the CBS broadcast of the game.
NFL finished new contract negotiations for its media rights deals for $110 billion over 11 years on March 18, 2021. In the new contracts, ABC will be eligible to air the Super Bowl for the first time since Super Bowl XL in 2006. Starting 2022, Amazon will be the new home for Thursday Night Football.
Per Adam Schefter, the new 2021 contract also includes the agreement for ESPN+ to stream one exclusive national game each year starting with the 2022 NFL season. Starting in 2023 NFL Season, ESPN will broadcast a wild-card game and a divisional playoff game, flexible scheduling will also be added to Monday Night Football for Week 12 and beyond.
Since 1970, the regional Sunday games (1:00 p.m. "early" and 4:05/4:25 p.m. "late" games Eastern time) have been split into AFC and NFC "packages." Each package is held by a single network: CBS has held the AFC package since 1998, and Fox has held the NFC package since 1994. These packages include Sunday afternoon games during each week of the regular season, a single game for each network on Thanksgiving, wild card playoff games, divisional playoff games, and the respective conference championship game for each network.
In 1970, when the NFL and AFL merged, and home blackouts were put into place for AFC games (some AFL teams had lifted these during its run; as an example, most New York Jets' home games in 1968 and 1969 were telecast on WNBC-TV New York); this assured that all Sunday afternoon road games would be seen on the same network.
The Sunday games are classified as "A", "B", or "C" games. "A" games are usually the primary game for each network (1:00 ET for Eastern and Central time zone or 4:05 ET for Mountain and Pacific time zone games in a single-game week), and if the network has a doubleheader, is typically the 4:25 ET game. "B" games are typically the primary 1:00 ET game when the network has a doubleheader, or the secondary game if the network has a single game. "C" games are only shown in the playing teams' markets, and in some cases, markets where the game has playoff implications for the local team.
Market size and team success plays a huge factor in determining the level of games. For example, Green Bay has a city population of 105,000, one of the smallest for a city with a sports team. But the Packers usually have the "A" or "B" game because of their long history and almost unparalleled success. (The team is actually two markets for the NFL policy; Milwaukee is the other primary market for the team.) The Dallas Cowboys (due to that team's national popularity regardless of on-the-field play) and a team or player that has had recent success (such as the New England Patriots due to that team's success since Bill Belichick took over in 2000, then the Tampa Bay Buccaneers following Tom Brady's departure from New England in 2020) have typically been shown in the national doubleheader timeslot for ratings purposes, despite affiliate requests to show a team that may have more appeal locally; these games are typically decided by the NFL and CBS or Fox, depending on who has the doubleheader that week.
For interconference games, the visiting team generally determines which network is assigned for the game: an AFC team at NFC team game is typically assigned to CBS, and an NFC at AFC game is generally given to Fox. This allows both Fox and CBS affiliates in a team's primary market to carry games from the team during the season.
After a Broncos-Vikings game was moved to Fox in 2011 because of Fox having a lack of games as a result of an NFL flexible scheduling policy (see below), the NFL permanently instituted a "cross-flex" policy in 2014, allowing Fox games to be moved to CBS and CBS games moved to Fox.
On occasion, both of a team's home interconference games are played in prime time, depriving the opposite conference's network of any games involving the team. This happened in 1978 to the Los Angeles Rams, 1990 to the Indianapolis Colts, 1992 to the Houston Oilers, 1993 to both the Buffalo Bills and San Diego Chargers, 1997 and 2003 to the Miami Dolphins, 1999 to the New England Patriots, 2005 to the Baltimore Ravens, 2013 to the Atlanta Falcons, 2015 to the Arizona Cardinals and 2021 to the New Orleans Saints. In the 1997 Dolphins' case, their home game against the Chicago Bears had been initially slated for Fox, but was moved to Monday night due to Game 7 of the World Series that was played in the previous night. In the 2015 Cardinals' case, their home game against the Cincinnati Bengals had been initially slated for CBS, but was moved to Sunday night on NBC via flexible scheduling.
The 2016 Arizona Cardinals, 2018 Detroit Lions, 2019 New Orleans Saints and 2020 New York Giants, all NFC teams, also had both their home interconference games in prime time, but aired at least once on CBS regardless: the Cardinals appeared on Thursday Night Football in Week 5 at the San Francisco 49ers, the Lions appeared in their traditional Thanksgiving Day game against the Chicago Bears, the Saints had their games against the Arizona Cardinals and the Carolina Panthers crossflexed from Fox, and the Giants had their games against the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys crossflexed from Fox.
The Seattle Seahawks did not appear on NBC in their inaugural season of 1976, nor did the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1977, despite neither playing a single prime time game. In 1976, Seattle played in the NFC West and played their sole interconference game at Tampa Bay (thus on CBS), whereas in 1977, the teams swapped conferences, so Tampa Bay played in the NFC Central and played their sole interconference game at Seattle (thus on CBS). Seattle would later return to the NFC West in 2002.
In addition to the above, a few teams prior to the 2002 realignment had their sole home interconference game played in prime time. From 1978–2001, this happened in 1982 to the Detroit Lions, Buffalo Bills and Houston Oilers, 1987 to the Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys, 1991 to the Minnesota Vikings and 2001 to the Jacksonville Jaguars. The 1982 and 1987 teams all had one of their two scheduled interconference home games cancelled by a players' strike. Additionally, the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the only NFL team to complete a perfect season, did not appear on CBS; their lone interconference home game vs. the St. Louis Cardinals was broadcast on Monday Night Football, and Super Bowl VII was broadcast by NBC.
In addition, the team's home stadium would not make an appearance on either CBS or Fox due to interconference home game being crossflexed, this happened in 2016 to the Oakland Raiders, 2018 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2019 to both the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers, 2020 to the San Francisco 49ers and 2021 to the Tennessee Titans. Intraconference games may be crossflexed to protect both networks.
Three games (with some contractual exceptions, see below) are broadcast in any one market each Sunday morning/afternoon, with one network being allocated a "doubleheader" each week:
While the other network broadcasting either:
Since 1998, early games have the precise, official start time of 1:01 p.m. ET, which allows for one network commercial and the NFL broadcast copyright teaser animation. However, game times are generally advertised simply as 1 p.m. starts. In addition, the league revised the late games to start at 4:05 p.m. ET if it was the only game televised by the network that week and to start at 4:15 p.m. ET (moved to 4:25 p.m. ET in 2012) if it was part of a doubleheader. The additional 20 (10 prior to 2012) minutes for doubleheaders allowed the early games extra time to be shown to completion, and avoid continuing past the late game's scheduled kickoff. For single games, the start of 5 minutes past the hour allows the network time for a short introduction (as three hours had passed since the pre-game show has aired) and one commercial break before kickoff. In those cases there is no need to avoid early-game overlap as there is no early game shown. In addition, it allows those games to end earlier. This is especially important for CBS, which wants to air 60 Minutes at 7 p.m. ET/6 p.m. CT, or as close to that time as possible, in Eastern and Central time markets which receive only a single late game.
Sunday afternoon games in the Mountain and Pacific time zones are always scheduled for 2:05 or 2:25 p.m. Mountain Time and 1:05 or 1:25 p.m. Pacific Time. No games before 12:00 p.m. MT (2:00 p.m. ET) are ever scheduled, partly to avoid conflict with religious services in those cities; Denver had three noon MT kickoffs at Mile High Stadium late in the 1972 season, but the experiment was never repeated.
Starting with the 2021 season with the introduction of the 17-game season, Fox and CBS each have eight doubleheader weeks during the season between weeks 2 and 17 with both networks having the doubleheader for weeks 1 and 18. These are not necessarily alternating weeks; one network may have two or rarely three consecutive doubleheaders; this only occurs when one network has a doubleheader weeks 2 and 3 after both networks had the doubleheader in week 1, or in weeks 16 and 17, and then both networks have doubleheaders week 18; has happened to Fox 2019 and CBS in 2018. Fox requests to carry a doubleheader on the Sunday it airs a World Series game (typically Game 5), and uses the featured 4:25 game as a lead in for the baseball playoffs (though in 1996, 2001, 2005, 2014, 2019 and 2020 Fox did not have a doubleheader on the day it broadcast of the World Series).
During weeks 1 and 18, both networks are given doubleheaders; this has been the case since 2021 for week 1 and 2006 for the final week of the regular season. From 1990 through 2005, one network received nine doubleheaders during the 17-week season, and the other network received eight (except 1993, when CBS and NBC each received nine in an 18-week regular season).
Doubleheader allotments were often assigned with restrictions because of other network commitments. This happened during Finals Sunday of the U.S. Open tennis championships (September) (CBS, week 1 1976, '82, '85-'87, '89-'90, '99 and again 2001–2014; week 2 1979-81, '83-'84, '88, '91-'93, '98, '00), or Major League Baseball playoffs in October (NBC, typically during League Championship Series from 1976 to 1989, and again in 1996 and 1997, World Series 1978 to 1984, when Sunday games were afternoon games, CBS, League Championship Series, 1990 to 1993 and Fox, League Division Series 2001 and League Championship Series from 2002 to 2006 and again in 2012). During these weeks, the restricted conference's teams in the Mountain and Pacific time zones could not play at home during the weekend in question, unless they either hosted an interconference game, or were scheduled in prime time (regardless of opponent). The rule was effectively eliminated by the new cross-flex rule in 2014, meaning the NFL could apply the new rule and assign games that would be on the restricted network to the other network. In 1991 (Charleston, South Carolina market) and 1995 (Rochester, New York market), NBC did not allow their games to be played in the early slot (1:00 p.m. ET) in order to cover the final day of matches in golf's Ryder Cup (no restrictions in 1993 because the matches would end before 5:30 p.m. local time, or 12:30 p.m. ET).
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the league had to accommodate similar broadcasting conflicts when two men's major golf championships were postponed to the fall. The league gave Fox one late game in Week 2, Washington Football Team at Arizona Cardinals, to allow viewers to see the conclusion of the U.S. Open on Fox Sports 1 September 20. Rights to the golf tournament were later transferred to NBC, whose single primetime window for football rendered the point moot. Similarly with final round of The Masters rescheduled for November 15, CBS was not given any early games in Week 10.
Satellite broadcast company DirecTV offers NFL Sunday Ticket, a subscription-based package that allows all Sunday afternoon regional games to be watched. The only exception is that Sunday Ticket is subject to the same blackout rules as broadcast networks. This package is exclusive to DirecTV in the US on Satellite and it is offered online as well. In Canada, NFL Sunday Ticket is available via the streaming service DAZN as well on both cable and satellite providers, because Canadian law generally prevents one provider from offering a package on an exclusive basis.
Other cable and satellite providers in the United States, as well as several international services, have access to NFL RedZone, a premium service featuring whip around coverage of Sunday afternoon games in progress. The channel prides itself on showing "every touchdown from every game" using simulcasts from the relevant CBS and FOX feeds.
Regular season Sunday afternoon games aired on CBS and Fox are distributed to affiliates by means of regional coverage. Each individual game is only broadcast to selected media markets. The NFL imposes several television and blackout policies to maximize ratings and optimize stadium attendances.
Several factors determine which games are carried in each market. Each of the 32 NFL teams is assigned a "primary market" which is the metropolitan area where the club is located. Most teams also have a selected number of secondary markets. Secondary markets - which are almost exclusively non-NFL cities and towns - can be of any size, and are typically defined by an area where any part of the market falls within 75 miles of an NFL stadium. Small markets that have no clubs tend to strongly associate with geographically nearby or particularly relevant teams, but may fall outside of a 100-mile radius, are not necessarily an officially designated secondary markets by the NFL. Generally, games are aired in the primary and secondary markets as follows:
The NFL rules have traditionally prohibited other NFL games from being shown on local television stations while a local team is playing a sold out, locally televised home game. Under these rules, when the home team is being shown on the network with the NFL single game, the doubleheader station can only air one of its games. When this happens, there are only two games shown in the market. However, when the home team is being shown on the network with the NFL doubleheader, all three games can still air in the same market.
The rule was designed to encourage ticket-holders to show up at the stadium instead of watching another game on television. However, each network was guaranteed to have at least one game broadcast in every market, so some exceptions are granted to this rule, typically when one of the two Sunday game networks has a 1:00 p.m. or 4:30 p.m. live non-NFL event, such as golf, tennis, baseball, or drag racing.
Since 2014, this rule has not applied in Week 17 when both CBS and Fox have the doubleheader, so all markets receive four games that week. In 2019, this rule was loosened as a one-year test, allowing each market to air three games in some weeks regardless if the local team is playing at home.
Prior to the 2000 season, doubleheader rules were much more restrictive. Pre-2000, only one game from each network could be aired in a market where a home game was played, even if the home game was on the doubleheader network. Therefore, markets with two teams (such as New York) rarely got more than two games, since odds were that one of the two teams would be at home on any given Sunday. Consequently, the Jets or Giants were often scheduled on Saturday in the final two weeks of the season to free up Sunday for the other New York team.
During the afternoon games, CBS and Fox may switch a market's game to a more competitive one mid-game, particularly when a game becomes one-sided. For this to occur, one team must be ahead by at least 18 points in the second half.
Due to the controversial 1968 "Heidi Game" incident on NBC, a primary media market must show its local team's game in its entirety and secondary markets usually follow suit for away games. Also, secondary markets (for home games) or any others where one team's popularity stands out may request a constant feed of that game, and in that case will not be switched.
If the local team is scheduled for the late game of a doubleheader, it has importance over any early game. If 4:25 p.m. arrives, and the early game is ongoing, the primary affiliate (all games) and secondary affiliates (road games) are required to cut off the early game and switch to the start of the local team's game. Additional affiliates, including secondary affiliates for home games, may also request to pull out of an early game for a nearby team's late start. This is common in Texas, where many affiliates which are not considered secondary markets by the NFL still switch out of early games in order to get to the start of a 4:25 Dallas Cowboys game.
When a local team plays the early game of a doubleheader, that game holds importance over any late game. If the local team's early game runs beyond 4:25 p.m., the primary and secondary markets stay on until completion, and the late game is joined in-progress.
For this reason, if two teams share a primary media market, their games are never scheduled on the same network on the same day (unless they play each other). Otherwise, the networks could theoretically have to cut away from one team's game to show the other. Since 2020, two pairs of teams are affected by this rule, and are subject to additional rules described below:
The Los Angeles Chargers and Los Angeles Rams gained shared-marked status, after the Rams' returned to Los Angeles (from St. Louis) in 2016, followed by the Chargers (from San Diego) in 2017. After playing in separate stadiums from 2017 to 2019, they began sharing SoFi Stadium in 2020.
For the 2017 season, the NFL arranged four weeks in which one network would carry both the Rams and Chargers in separate time slots while the other had the rights to a doubleheader, thus giving the Los Angeles market four games in those weeks. Fox split its coverage between its two Los Angeles stations, KTTV and MyNetworkTV affiliate KCOP-TV. Likewise, CBS split between KCBS-TV and sister station KCAL-TV. These instances required cross-flexing of one NFC game (the Rams hosted the Seattle Seahawks in Week 5 on CBS) and one AFC game (the Chargers hosted the Buffalo Bills on Fox in Week 11).
The New York Giants and New York Jets began sharing the New York City market after the Jets began play in 1960. Both teams played at Giants Stadium from 1984 to 2009 and MetLife Stadium since 2010.
Originally, the league almost never scheduled the Giants and the Jets to play their games at the same time. The league first allowed exceptions during the 2009 season due to unusual scheduling logistics. These exceptions marked the first times since the 1984 season that the Giants and Jets played games simultaneously. In the 2017 season, the teams were scheduled for the same time slot five times.
Week 14 of the 2021 season initially had one instance where Fox held the rights to both the Jets and Giants games despite CBS having the doubleheader (the Jets host New Orleans at 1:00 p.m., while the Giants play at the Los Angeles Chargers for a 4:05 p.m. contest). In such an instance, Fox would likely have split coverage between its New York properties, WNYW and WWOR-TV. However, the NFL later crossflexed the Saints-Jets game to CBS.
Although in close proximity, the Washington Commanders and Baltimore Ravens are served by separate media markets, and so they can play at the same time and even on the same network. If both teams play at the same time on opposite networks with at least one at home, both games have aired in each market on a few occasions. Because Washington D.C. is an official secondary market for the Ravens but Baltimore is not an official secondary market for Washington, most cases involve a Ravens away game being aired in D.C. opposite a Washington home game.
In 2016, the same rule applied in Los Angeles, as Los Angeles was a primary market for the Rams and a secondary market for the Chargers (as the team was still playing in San Diego). However, no Chargers away games were scheduled opposite Rams home games.
When the Rams and Raiders shared the Los Angeles market from 1982 to 1994, the NFL was more lenient on its shared media markets policies, frequently scheduling home games for both teams at the same time. For example, during Week 17 of the 1994 season, their last respective home games in Los Angeles, both the Washington Redskins at Rams game and the Kansas City Chiefs at Raiders game were played at 1 p.m. PT. Likewise, the late Sunday afternoon games during Week 11 of the 1993 season included both the Kansas City Chiefs at the Raiders and the Atlanta Falcons at the Rams. Both the Rams and Raiders usually had trouble selling out their respective stadiums during their time in Los Angeles, thus their home games were frequently blacked out anyway.
When the 49ers and Raiders shared the Bay Area market from 1960 to 1981 and again from 1995 to 2019, originally the teams were typically not scheduled at the same time. To alleviate conflicts, both teams were scheduled for at least one prime time game, regardless of their records during the previous season.
In 2010, with the Broncos–49ers game being played in London, England during Week 8 of that season, the game occurred in the early time slot, something that would have been prohibited had the game been played in San Francisco. This allowed the Raiders to host the Seahawks on that day, marking the first time the 49ers played on CBS and the Raiders played on Fox on the same day, though the Raiders game was blacked out locally.
Starting in 2012, there were a number of times that the Raiders and 49ers both played late games on Sunday, often during Week 17. Whenever this happened, the must-show rule trumped the exclusivity rule, resulting in both games being shown in the Bay Area at the same time.
After the Raiders moved to Las Vegas in 2020, the schedule continues to be made so that the 49ers and Raiders are never scheduled to play at the same time on the same network so that all Raiders games can continue to air in the Bay Area market. With the Bay Area no longer being a shared market, it is now possible for one team to play the early game followed by the other team playing the late game on the doubleheader network.
When a media market's regionally televised game ends before the others, the network (CBS or Fox) may switch to "bonus coverage" of the ending of another game. However, the league imposes two restrictions that are designed to maximize the ratings of the late games on the doubleheader network, which tend to record the most NFL viewers during the day, often beating the audience for Sunday night games(these rules were changed in 2019, along with the singleheader rule, in an effort to keep viewers watching for longer periods of time.).
First, bonus coverage offered after any early time slot games cannot be shown past the start of the late time slot (either 4:20 ET for the doubleheader network or 4:25 ET for the single game network). This prevents people from continuing to watch the bonus coverage instead of seeing the beginning of the late doubleheader network's game (which is usually either their local team or the network's featured game). Networks may show highlights of the game, and usually will at the earliest opportunity. The network broadcasting the single game will sometimes show each play as soon as it ends as part of its post-game show. A station originally getting the game featured during bonus coverage will stay with it unless it is leaving to show a local team.
Second, bonus coverage cannot be shown after a late game on the single-game network because it will run in opposition to the ending of the late doubleheader network's game and Football Night in America. However, the single-game network usually schedules most of its top games in the early 1:00 ET time slot (except for west coast teams' home games, and possibly either a Giants or Jets game), so this does not tend to be a major issue.
If the doubleheader network's games all finish before 7:30 ET, it is supposed to conclude the post-game show within 10 minutes to protect FNIA. If any games finish after 7:30, the post-game program can run until 8:00 ET. However, this restriction seems to apply to game footage only; on several occasions Fox has run its post-game offering to 8:00, despite all games ending before 7:30, by airing only panel discussions and interviews in the latter portion of the show. On the other hand, CBS rarely airs any post-game show after its doubleheaders or 4:05 single-games. This is because 60 Minutes is one of its signature shows, and CBS makes every effort to start it as close to 7:00 or 7:30—its traditional airtime—as possible.
National broadcasts of marquee matches occur on Thursday, Sunday and Monday nights. NBC has broadcast rights to the opening night kickoff game and to the Sunday night games. These are televised under a special "flexible schedule" that allows Sunday afternoon games to be moved to prime-time beginning with Week 5 of the season.
Main article: NBC Sunday Night Football
NBC has broadcast the marquee "game of the week" nationally since 2006. Before 2006, the "game of the week" was considered to be Monday Night Football on ABC. However, ESPN previously aired games on Sunday nights from 1987-2005, and TNT aired games from 1990-1997.
Since 2012, a Thursday night game went into effect during every week of the season with the exception of the final week. Each game is aired on the NFL Network (prior to 2021) Amazon (2022 and on), with the exceptions of the Week 1 NFL Kickoff and Thanksgiving Day games, which are aired on NBC. The season-kickoff game for the 2012 season was moved up a day — to a Wednesday, in order to avoid conflict with President Barack Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention. Since the NFL tries to avoid scheduling Thursday night games during the season which would require the visiting team to travel more than one time zone (excluding the Week 1 Kickoff), the five teams in the Pacific Time Zone — the Las Vegas Raiders, Los Angeles Chargers, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks — would have more limited scheduling options in years that the AFC West and NFC West divisions don't face each other in interconference play. There have been some notable exceptions: the Kansas City Chiefs, who are based in the Central Time Zone, have played both the Chargers and Raiders on Thursdays; the Rams, who were based in St. Louis until 2015, played against the 49ers in 2013. Since TNF started in 2012, the Dallas Cowboys of the Central Time Zone have occasionally hosted clubs from the Pacific Time Zone on Thanksgiving Day: Dallas hosted the Oakland Raiders in 2013, the Los Angeles Chargers in 2017, and hosted the Las Vegas Raiders in 2021. The Detroit Lions, of the Eastern Time Zone, have not hosted a Mountain or Pacific Time Zone team during this time. Each year since 2014, the Thursday Night game the week after Thanksgiving has featured two teams that played on Thanksgiving, effectively giving both teams a full week of practice rather than the short week that most teams have for a Thursday Night game.
In 2014, CBS had simulcast Thursday night games between Weeks 2–8 and televised one of two Saturday games in Week 16, and each Thursday night game was an intra-division game, except for the Packers–Seahawks Week 1 NBC kickoff and the Cowboys–Bears game in Week 14. The two Saturday games in Week 16 — Eagles–Redskins and Chargers–49ers — aired beginning at 4:30 p.m. ET. The 4:30 p.m. ET game was televised by the NFL Network, while the other began shortly after 8:00 p.m. ET, and aired on CBS.
Main article: Monday Night Football
Between 1970 and 1977, and again since 2003, there has been no Monday night game during the last week of the season. From 1978 until 2002, a season-ending Monday night game was scheduled. The 2003 revision permits the NFL to have all eight teams involved in the Wild Card playoffs to have equal time in preparation, instead of the possibility of one or two teams having a shorter preparation for their playoff game if they were picked to play on Saturday, instead of Sunday. This scenario, in which a team finishing its season on Monday night had a playoff game the following Saturday, never occurred.
Between 2006 and 2020, ESPN has opened the season with a Monday Night Football doubleheader, with a 7:00 p.m. game and a 10:30 p.m. both shown in their entirety nationwide. ESPN2 or ESPNEWS (only in 2012 because ESPN2 was airing an MLB game) started the second game if the game on ESPN was not over by the time the second game had started. However, in Week 1 of the 2018 season, the conclusion of the first game of the doubleheader, Jets–Lions, moved to ESPN2 in order to show the beginning of the Rams–Raiders game on ESPN.
Since 2020, select Monday Night Football games have been simulcast on ABC, ESPN2, and ESPN+. While the ABC broadcast is a simulcast of the main ESPN feed, the ESPN2 and ESPN+ feeds have also featured alternate telecasts. The 2020 alternate telecast was hosted by Rece Davis and Kirk Herbstreit, while the 2021 version was hosted by Eli Manning and Peyton Manning and nicknamed the Manningcast.
To maximize television ratings, as well as to protect the NFL's ability to sell television rights collectively, games televised on ESPN or the NFL Network are blacked out in each of the primary markets of both teams (the Green Bay Packers have two primary markets, Green Bay and Milwaukee, a remnant of when they played some home games in Milwaukee each season, see below) under syndicated exclusivity regulations as the league sells via broadcast syndication a package featuring that team's games.
This station does not need to have affiliate connections with a national broadcaster of NFL games, though owned-and-operated stations of ABC and Hearst Television (even those Hearst stations not affiliated with ABC, and including their one independent station in the Tampa-St. Petersburg market) have first right of refusal due to both ESPN and ABC's common ownership by The Walt Disney Company (Hearst holds a 20% stake in ESPN). In recent years, the ABC O&Os have passed on airing the game, opting instead to air the network's Monday night schedule which includes the successful Dancing with the Stars. In other markets, stations who are the affiliates of MyNetworkTV or The CW (and, in at least one case, an independent station) have out bid more established local broadcasters in some markets. However, the home team's market must be completely served by the station (as opposed to a low-power station). With increasing consolidation of local broadcasters in the United States, larger station ownership groups (particularly Nexstar Media Group) have increasingly cornered the market for these simulcasts.
The NFL's anti-siphoning regulations affect all cable and streaming games. In the markets of the participating teams, the respective cable channel is blacked out. Cable and streaming games air via broadcast syndication to an over-the-air station. Typically, the team's flagship station for the preseason games will hold such rights, as teams will usually sell the preseason, local non-broadcast television games as one package. Only over-the-air stations in the market of the participating teams (with the Green Bay Packers having two such markets) may bid on this syndicated package. In 2014, CBS affiliates in the primary markets in question have the primary option to NFL Network-only games; if the local affiliate declines the option (as was in Cincinnati), the NFL will implement the same syndicated package rule. In 2016 and 2017, with the TNF package split between CBS and NBC, this depended on which network produces the game for NFL Network. With Fox taking over the TNF package in 2018, Fox affiliates will have the primary option of simulcasting NFL Network games. Starting in 2022, the Amazon Prime Video subscription service will hold the rights to broadcast TNF and because of this, the NFL will continue to require these games to be syndicated to the team's local markets.
This led to controversy in 2007, when the New England Patriots were scheduled to play the New York Giants at Giants Stadium in their regular season finale on the NFL Network, in what was to be a chance to complete the first 16–0 regular season in NFL history. After the Senate Judiciary Committee threatened the NFL's antitrust exemption if it did not make the game available nationwide, the NFL relented and made the game the first in league history to be simulcast on three networks. The game aired on the NFL Network, as planned; on NBC, which would normally have the rights to prime time games; and, since the away team was an AFC team, on CBS. (WCVB in Boston holds the rights to the NFL's syndicated package for Patriots games, causing this game to be available on 3 over-the-air stations in the Boston TV market). This however, did not lead to the NFL offering this package to other channels; the games have remained on the NFL Network, although cable coverage of NFL Network has increased in the intervening period.
Under the agreement for the 2014 season between CBS and the NFL Network for Thursday Night Football simulcasts during the first half of the season, local rights to such games that are not carried by CBS are awarded to the markets' CBS affiliates, rather than syndicated. If the CBS affiliate opts out of the deal, the NFL will offer the package by syndication, typically with the Monday Night package. The CBS/NFL Network deal was extended for the 2015 season on January 18, 2015. For the 2016 season, two midseason TNF games were NFL Network-exclusive but produced by NBC; the NBC affiliates in those markets with teams competing carried those games in-market. With the 2018 move of the package to Fox, the two NFL Network-exclusive games produced by Fox actually varied between NBC and CBS affiliates rather than being exclusive to the Fox stations in each market.
On November 8, 1987, the very first NFL game ever aired on ESPN was played between the New England Patriots and New York Giants. Technically, the game was only simulcast in the Boston market, with a separate broadcast produced for the New York market by ESPN sister property WABC-TV – at the time, WABC's union contract prohibited non-union workers (like those of ESPN) from working on live events broadcast on the station. This marked the only time since the AFL–NFL merger that a regular season game was locally produced for TV. The WABC broadcast featured WABC's own Corey McPherrin doing play-by-play, and Frank Gifford and Lynn Swann from Monday Night Football doing color commentary (Gifford and Swann did not have to travel further for their Monday Night game, which was Seahawks at Jets.).
Under the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961, for the NFL to retain its antitrust exemption, professional games are not permitted to air on any television station within a 75-mile radius of any high school or college game from 6pm on Friday to midnight on Saturday evening until the second weekend of December; effectively, this prevents the NFL from scheduling any games on those days.
Since the 1970 AFL–NFL merger, the NFL has taken an informal approach to scheduling games on Saturdays after the end of the college football season, with the scheduling policy changing many times. From 1970 to 2005, both of the Sunday afternoon broadcast networks (CBS and NBC from 1970–1993, Fox and NBC from 1994–1997, and Fox and CBS from 1998–2005) were given at least two Saturday afternoon national broadcasts in December, with ESPN also airing one or two Saturday game in primetime from 1998 to 2005.
In 2006, the schedule was cut to three Saturday games, which aired in primetime and were televised on the NFL Network in December. In 2008, this was changed to only one Saturday game, still aired in primetime on the NFL Network, which was the policy through 2011. For the 2012 season, ESPN aired the lone Saturday game in primetime. No Saturday game was scheduled in 2013, the first and only time since the 1970 merger that the NFL did not play any regular season games on Saturday.
In 2014, the NFL returned to Saturdays with a Week 16 doubleheader, with the Saturday afternoon game airing on the NFL Network and a Saturday night game airing on CBS. CBS Sports produced coverage for both games. In 2015, this schedule was modified again to one Saturday night game during both Week 15 and Week 16, these games were cable-only and produced by CBS. In 2016, Christmas fell on a Sunday, so the regional slate of week 16 games aired on Saturday afternoon, with a national game also airing that night, along with a national week 15 Saturday game the previous week, with CBS and Fox producing the regional games and NBC producing the national games for cable.
Since 2018, NFL Network has exclusively aired three or four late-season Saturday games per season. When the schedule is released, five Sunday afternoon games in each of these weeks will be eligible to be moved to Saturday afternoon or evening. The games moving to Saturday are typically announced no later than four weeks prior to game day. Beginning in 2021, ESPN and ABC will air a Saturday doubleheader during Week 18 featuring games with playoff implications.
The 2021 season will feature six Saturday regular season games (two each in Weeks 15, 16, and 18), equal with the 2001 and 2003 seasons for the most Saturday games played in a season since the turn of the millennium (excluding years in which Christmas falls on Sunday, and thus the great majority of that week's games are moved to Saturday afternoon).
Several notable games have taken place on Saturdays, including the New England Patriots' historic comeback from a 22–3 deficit in the fourth quarter against the New York Giants in 1996, a game the same season between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Jets in which the Eagles won in dramatic fashion over the 1-13 Jets to keep their playoff hopes alive (they would eventually qualify), the final game at Three Rivers Stadium featuring the Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins in 2000, another Patriots-Giants matchup in 2007 which saw the Patriots complete a 16–0 season and was simulcast on three networks, the last-ever match at Texas Stadium won by the Baltimore Ravens over the Dallas Cowboys in 2008, a 2012 game between the Detroit Lions and the Atlanta Falcons in which Calvin Johnson of the Lions set the NFL record for receiving yards in one season, and a 2015 game between the Eagles and the Redskins to decide the NFC East champion.
Since the 2006 season, the NFL has used a "flexible scheduling" system for the last seven weeks of the regular season. This is because by week 11, there are a number of teams that have been eliminated or nearly eliminated from playoff contention. Flex-scheduling ensures that all Sunday night and on the doubleheader network, the late game that is designated as the national game (airs in the majority of markets nationally), have playoff significance, regardless of whether or not both teams are competing for a playoff spot. Two examples of this type of flexing involved the Carolina Panthers in 2008 and 2009. In the first instance, the Panthers and New York Giants saw a late season game flexed due to the winner of that matchup clinching the NFC's top seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The next season, an out-of-contention Panthers team hosted the 11–2 Minnesota Vikings, who had a chance to improve their playoff positioning and take the top seed in the NFC playoffs; hence, this game was flexed despite Carolina's 5–8 record. Sometimes, games will be flexed due to a team's success; for instance, the 2007 matchup between the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium was flexed due to the Patriots' potential run at an undefeated regular season that they eventually completed.
This system also allows teams that enjoy unexpected success to acquire a prime time spot that was not on their original schedule. Thanksgiving games and all games airing on cable channels (Monday, Thursday, and Saturday games) are fixed in place and cannot be changed to Sunday night, as are games during Christmas weekend whenever Christmas Day falls on a Sunday, as it was in 2011 (most games are played on Christmas Eve Saturday instead). It also increases the potential for teams to play on consecutive Sunday nights, as the 2007 Patriots, 2007 Redskins, the 2008 Giants the 2012 49ers, the 2013 Broncos, 2015 Cardinals, the 2016 Cowboys, the 2018 Chiefs 2018 Vikings and 2018 Rams did (the Patriots hosted the Philadelphia Eagles the week following the second matchup with the Bills as scheduled, the Redskins were flexed into a matchup with the Giants and played the Vikings in a regularly scheduled matchup the week after, and the Giants hosted the Panthers one week after playing the Dallas Cowboys in Texas Stadium, the 49ers played the Seahawks in Seattle one week after playing at the Patriots. The Vikings were flexed into a matchup with the Bears then hosted the Packers the next week. The Rams were flexed into a matchup also with the Bears then hosted the Eagles the next week).
Under the system, Sunday games in the affected weeks in the Eastern and Central time zones will tentatively have the start time of 1:00 p.m. ET (10:00 am PT). Those played in the Mountain or Pacific time zones will have the tentative start time of 4:05/4:25 p.m. ET (1:05/1:25 p.m. PT). Also, there will be one game provisionally scheduled for the 8:20 p.m. ET slot. On the Tuesday twelve days before the games (possibly sooner), the league will move one game to the prime time slot (or keep its original choice), and possibly move one or more 1:00 p.m. slotted games to the 4:00 p.m. slot.
Fox and CBS each may protect a total of five Sunday afternoon games, not more than one per week, during weeks 11–17 and NBC selects which game they want to air. For example, in 2011, NBC wanted a late season game between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots which featured Tim Tebow as the Broncos quarterback. CBS protected the game and NBC got a game featuring the San Diego Chargers instead. Networks have the option of waiving protection to allow for a Sunday night airing, as happened with a game between the unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs and one-loss Denver Broncos in Week 11 of the 2013 season. The contest was protected by CBS, which would have to air it in the regional 4:05 p.m. timeslot because the game was in Denver and the network did not have doubleheader rights that week. CBS thus allowed NBC to pick up the telecast for a nationwide broadcast.
Neither CBS or Fox can protect games in week 18. In years when Christmas falls on Sunday (like in 2016) or on Monday (like in 2017), the NFL schedules its main slate of afternoon games on Christmas Eve (which would fall on Saturday or Sunday) without a prime time game, as NBC's game would be moved to Christmas night (see below). Thus, Sunday Night game flexible scheduling can not occur in week 16; NBC is then given flexible scheduling in week 10 instead. However, the other two types of flexible scheduling changes—moving a game from early to late, or changing networks—is still possible during such weeks. The NFL went around the flexible scheduling procedure prohibition in the 2016 NFL season where Christmas falls on a Sunday by scheduling two Sunday games at 4:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. ET, respectively.
During the last week of the season, the league could reschedule games as late as six days before the contests so that as many of the television networks as possible will be able to broadcast a game that has major playoff implications, and so that several division races or Wild Card spots are on the line at the same time. The week 18 game on Sunday night is decided exclusively by the NFL; networks cannot protect or choose during the final week. For this final Sunday Night contest, the league prefers to flex-in a matchup in which at least one team must win in order to qualify for the playoffs, regardless of what happens in the other week 18 games. Since 2010 when the NFL began scheduling only divisional matchups in the final week, it is possible an intradivisional game that appeared on national TV previously could be selected again. The NFL will only select such a game if there is no other suitable option. This example happened in the 2011 season concerning matchups between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants. In week 14, both teams played a game with major playoff implications that could have all but eliminated the Giants from playoff contention with a loss. Instead, that game marked the start of a four-game winning streak to end the season which included a game where the Giants eliminated the Eagles from playoff contention (despite a win over the Cowboys) with a win over the New York Jets. This win flexed the following week's matchup, where the Giants hosted the Cowboys, into NBC's slot, which determined the NFC East champion.
Individual teams may make no more than four appearances on NBC's Sunday Night Football package during the season. Only three teams may make as many as six prime time appearances (Sunday night, Monday night, Thursday night, and Saturday night combined). The remaining teams may make a maximum of five prime time appearances. In addition, there are no restrictions amongst intra-division games being "flexed."
In the 2014 NFL season, a related policy known as "cross-flexing" became available, where games can now be swapped between CBS and Fox, regardless of conference, in order to improve balance between the two networks, and expand the distribution of noteworthy games. A notable example occurred in the final week of the season, where a game featuring the Atlanta Falcons hosting the Carolina Panthers playing to clinch the NFC South division (which was tentatively scheduled for Fox with a 1:00 p.m. kickoff) was cross-flexed to CBS and moved to a 4:25 p.m kickoff, in order to give the network a late-afternoon game with playoff implications (since Fox was also, by virtue of its package, to air a game between Detroit and Green Bay that would determine the NFC North champion, and the AFC North title game between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh had been flexed to Sunday Night Football).
In the 2020 offseason, the NFL queried its teams on the possibility of expanding flexible scheduling to Monday Night Football. No consensus was achieved on whether or not such an expansion would be viable, as travel and lodging reservations are set in advance and would require visiting teams to book hotels for an extra day because of the uncertainty such a flex option would entail. Flexible scheduling would not take effect until Monday Night Football's next contract begins in 2022.
In 2020, because of numerous pandemic-related issues that led to CBS losing a 1 PM (Pittsburgh vs Tennessee) and a 4:25 PM (New England at Kansas City) game during Week 4, the NFL used the flexible schedule rule to move Indianapolis at Chicago from 1 PM to 4:25 PM.
Further information: NFL on Thanksgiving Day
Thanksgiving Day contests have been held since before the league's inception. The Detroit Lions have hosted a game every Thanksgiving since 1934 (with the exception of 1939–1944 due to the "Franksgiving" confusion and World War II), and they have been nationally televised since 1953. The first color television broadcast of an NFL regular season game was the 1965 Thanksgiving contest between the Lions and Baltimore Colts. In 1966, the NFL introduced an annual game hosted by the Dallas Cowboys, which has been played every year except in 1975 and 1977 when the St. Louis Cardinals hosted a match instead. However, fans both inside and outside St. Louis did not respond well to an NFL fixture on Thanksgiving, and thus Dallas resumed hosting the game in 1978.
When the AFL began holding annual Thanksgiving Day games, the league chose a different model, circulating the game among several cities. During the 1967–69 seasons, two Thanksgiving AFL games were televised each year.
After the 1970 merger, the NFL decided to keep only the traditional Detroit and Dallas games. Due to the broadcast contracts in place since 1970, three NFC teams play on Thanksgiving, as opposed to only one AFC outfit. During even years, the Lions play their Thanksgiving game against an AFC team, and thus are televised by the network holding the AFC package (NBC and later CBS since 1998); the Cowboys host an NFC team and are shown by the network with the NFC package (CBS and later Fox since 1994). During odd years, Dallas hosts an AFC team and Detroit plays an NFC opponent (usually another NFC North team, and often the Green Bay Packers, who draw high television ratings). Every decade or so, this even-odd rotation was reversed, Detroit hosting an NFC team in even years and an AFC team in odd years, Dallas hosting an AFC team in even years and an NFC team in odd years. Detroit is always the early broadcast and Dallas the mid-afternoon broadcast.
Following the introduction of Thursday Night Football in 2006, a third Thanksgiving game was added, a primetime game hosted by one of the remaining 30 NFL teams each year. While the first game featured two AFC teams, conference affiliation has varied since. Starting in 2012, the prime time Thanksgiving game has aired on NBC. In the future, the NFL may use flexible scheduling to allow the Lions or Cowboys to host a prime-time game, provided an Eastern time zone team is given the early (12:30 p.m.) slot.
Starting in 2014, changes to the NFL television contract allow either traditional Thanksgiving game to prime time (and NBC) and schedule an AFC game in either window to accommodate CBS, while Fox would get the other traditional game with Dallas or Detroit; to date, this has never happened. Cross-flexing also liberated CBS and Fox from their usual conference affiliation on Thursdays; thus Dallas and Detroit both hosted NFC opponents in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2018 (in 2014, 2015, and 2018, the prime time game also featured two NFC franchises, so the AFC was completely shut out of the holiday those years). Fox has yet to broadcast an AFC team on Thanksgiving.
Further information: National Football League Christmas games
In recent years, the NFL has generally scheduled games on Christmas only if it falls on a day normally used for games (Saturday, Sunday, Monday). If Christmas falls on a Sunday, most of the games are to be played on the preceding day, Saturday, December 24, with two games scheduled for Christmas Night to be broadcast nationally (which most recently happened in 2016).
The first NFL games played on December 25 came during the 1971 season. The first two games of the Divisional Playoff Round that year were held on Christmas Day. The first game that day was between Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings. The second of the two contests played that day, the Miami Dolphins versus the Kansas City Chiefs, ended up being the longest game in NFL history. The league received numerous complaints due to the length of this game, reportedly because it caused havoc with Christmas dinners around the nation. As a result, the NFL decided to not schedule any Christmas Day matches for the next 17 seasons.
In 1976 and 1977, the last two years before the advent of the 16-game schedule and expanded playoffs, the NFL came up with different approaches to avoid Christmas play. In 1976, when Christmas fell on a Saturday, the league moved the start of the regular season up one week to Sunday, September 12. The divisional playoffs were held on the weekend of December 18 and 19, leaving the conference championship games on Sunday, December 26. Super Bowl XI was played on January 9, 1977, the earliest it has ever been held. In 1977, with Christmas on Sunday, the NFL split the divisional playoffs, and for the only time since the AFL–NFL merger, each conference held both divisional playoff games the same day (AFC Saturday, December 24 and NFC Monday, December 26), ostensibly not to give one team a two-day rest advantage over the other for the conference championship games. Since two of the venues were in the Western United States, it was not possible to have regional coverage in both time slots on either day.
The NFL continued to avoid Christmas even after it started to increase the regular season and the playoffs. The league expanded to a 16-game regular season and a 10-team playoff tournament in 1978, but it was not until 1982 that the regular season ended after Christmas, due to the players' strike. In 1989, the NFL tried another Christmas Day game, with the Cincinnati Bengals hosted by the Minnesota Vikings, but it was a 9:00 p.m. ET Monday Night Football contest, thereby not conflicting with family dinners. In the years since, the NFL has played an occasional late-afternoon or night game on the holiday but there has not been a Christmas Day game starting earlier than 4:30 p.m. ET since 1971.
There have also been several games played on Christmas Eve over the years, including an Oakland Raiders–Baltimore Colts playoff contest in 1977 which culminated in a play known as "Ghost to the Post". These games have typically been played during the afternoon out of deference to the holiday.
The broadcasting contract to begin in 2022 will allow Fox to air games on Christmas Day if the schedule allows for it. However, the 2022 season is the only season when Christmas falls on a Sunday during the entirety of the media rights deal, so all three Sunday networks will have a single game each.
The NFL only stages games on New Year's Day when it falls on a Sunday or Monday. Historically, this was in deference to the numerous college football bowl games traditionally held on New Year's Day; in recent years, New Year's Day has consistently fallen in the last week of the NFL's regular season, and the league's policy is to play all of the last games of the week on one day (Sunday, which, if it falls on January 1, typically preempts the bowl games on that day, as well as the NHL Winter Classic, to be played on Monday, January 2) to ensure an equal amount of rest heading into the playoffs. In years when January 1 falls on a Monday, all 32 teams will play on New Year's Eve.
The AFL played its first league championship game on January 1, 1961. Thereafter, pro football has been played on New Year's Day in 1967 (the 1966 NFL and AFL Championship Games), in 1978 (the 1977 NFC and AFC Championship Games), in 1984 (the 1983 NFC and AFC Divisional Playoff Games), in 1989 (the 1988 NFC and AFC Divisional Playoff Games), in 1995 (the second half of the 1994 NFC and AFC Wild Card Games), and in 2006, 2012, and 2017 (the final weekend of the 2005, 2011, and 2016 regular seasons), with scheduling likely for 2023 and again in 2034.
Main article: National Football League television blackout policies
Since 1973, the NFL has maintained a blackout policy that states that a home game cannot be televised locally if it is not sold out 72 hours prior to its start time. Before that, NFL games were blacked out in the home team's market even if the game was a sellout. The NFL is the only major professional sports league in North America that requires teams to sell out in order to broadcast a game on television locally, after INDYCAR lifted the blackout of the Indianapolis 500 in the local market for the 2016 edition.
Before 1973, the lone exception to the blackout rule occurred in 1970 when the Giants and Jets played at Shea Stadium. The NFL allowed the game to be broadcast by WCBS so Giants fans would not be denied to opportunity to see an away game on their local station (that same season, Raiders owner Al Davis enforced the blackout of his team's regular season finale vs. the 49ers, even though the NFL granted CBS affiliate KPIX permission to telecast the game in the Bay Area).
Furthermore, the NFL is the only network that imposes an anti-siphoning rule in all teams' local markets; The NFL sells syndication rights of each team's Thursday and Monday night games to a local over-the-air station in each local market. The respective cable station must be blacked out when that team is playing the said game.
In the other leagues, nationally televised games are often blacked out on the national networks they are airing on in their local markets, but they can still be seen on their local regional sports network that normally has their local broadcasting rights.
Until September 2014, the NFL blackout rules were sanctioned by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which enforced rules requiring cable and satellite providers to not distribute any sports telecast that had been blacked out by a broadcast television station within their market of service. On September 9, 2014, USA Today published an editorial from FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, who stated that "sports blackout rules are obsolete and have to go", and that he was submitting a proposal to "get rid of the FCC's blackout rules once and for all", to be voted on by the agency's members on September 30 of that year. On September 30, 2014, the Commission voted unanimously to repeal the FCC's blackout rules. However, the removal of these rules are, to an extent, purely symbolic; the NFL can still enforce its blackout policies on a contractual basis with television networks, stations, and service providers, a process made feasible by the large amount of leverage the league exerts upon its media partners.
Ultimately, no games would be blacked out at all during the 2014 season. On March 23, 2015, the NFL's owners voted to suspend the blackout rules for 2015, meaning that all games will be televised in their home markets, regardless of ticket sales. The blackout rule was again suspended for 2016.
However, the NFL's syndication exclusivity rule was still in effect through the 2019-20 season.
During each half of a network-televised game, there are nine prescribed commercial breaks following the official kickoff. Two are firmly scheduled, and seven others are worked in during breaks in the play.
Pre-scheduled commercial breaks:
Other instances used for commercial breaks (seven total required per half):
Two commercial breaks during the typical 12-minute halftime period are considered separate.
Networks are more apt to front-load their commercials in the first and third quarters, to prevent an overrun in the second and fourth quarters respectively. However, in the event that at least one early-window game is running long (after 4:25 p.m. ET) on the doubleheader network, the network will normally hold its commercials for the late window until all audiences have joined the late games, to ensure maximum coverage for its advertisers. In the rare event that the first quarter of a late game ends before all early games on that network have ended, the network may either take a break consisting entirely of network promos / PSAs, or not take a break at all during the between-quarters timeout, and those commercials are rescheduled for later in the game.
If a team calls a timeout and the network decides to use it for a commercial break, a representative from the broadcast crew stationed on the sidelines wearing orange sleeves makes a crossing motion with his hands to alert the officials. The referee declares it a "two-minute timeout."
Once a broadcast has fulfilled the seven "random" breaks, game stoppages are no longer needed for commercials. The orange sleeve will hold his hands down in a twirl motion to alert the officials. If a team calls a timeout, the referee will declare it a "30-second timeout."
Since the nine total commercial breaks for the second half are to be finished prior to the end of regulation, commercial breaks are rarely needed in overtime situations, apart from a break immediately after the end of regulation and a break at the two-minute warning, should the overtime period reach that point. Commercials for these purposes are sometimes pre-sold on an if-needed basis (such as the specialized AIG "overtime" ads often seen during the early 2000s). In many cases, overtime periods are conducted without any commercials. By definition, a game that has entered overtime is tied, and so the game is still undecided, thus increasing the appeal of the given game. This also allows the extended broadcast to finish in a timely manner. In cases of long overtime periods, networks have been known to have a commercial break during a lengthy injury time out and in the regular season the two-minute warning of the overtime period. During postseason play, the very rare instances of a second overtime will feature a commercial between periods. Overtimes in the postseason are treated as if a new game has started, meaning most of the regular season commercial break rules are followed.
Beginning in the 2017 season, the ten breaks were reduced to nine per half. Networks are now required to have four breaks per quarter, along with the break after the first (or third) quarter, with each break extended by 30 seconds from 1:50 to 2:20. Also, commercial breaks are no longer permitted after kickoffs (except in the case of an extended stoppage in play after the kickoff, such as an injury), abolishing the quirk where a break occurs twice—once after a score, and then a second break on an ensuing kickoff. The break will only occur after the score.
Main article: History of the National Football League on television
The NFL, along with boxing and professional wrestling (before the latter publicly became known as a staged sport), was a pioneer of sports broadcasting during a time when baseball and college football were more popular than professional football. Due to the NFL understanding television at an earlier time, it was able to surpass Major League Baseball in the 1960s as the most popular sport in the United States.
NBC Sunday Night Football became the only second regular live prime time television program in U.S. history to emerge as the most watched overall U.S. television series, after ending Fox's American Idol's record of eight consecutive seasons on hold of the rank in the 2011–12 season. The series has held this rank every season since, except in 2013, 2014 and 2018 when CBS shows NCIS and The Big Bang Theory, and ABC show Roseanne, respectively earned the title. As of 2022, Super Bowl XLIX on NBC in 2015 remains the most watched telecast by average in U.S. history, attracting 115 million viewers for both halves of the game. Meanwhile, Super Bowl LI on Fox in 2017 remains the most watched telecast on peak conclusion in U.S. history, drawing 172 million viewers (more than half of the U.S. population of 340 million that same year) in the league's first overtime period ever for a Super Bowl.
In November 2017, ratings for the first seven weeks declined by 5% compared to the same period in 2016; and decreased by 15% when compared to the same period in 2015, a strong season. Although ratings for the NFL have declined steadily after the Super Bowl in 2015, the latter remains the only program on U.S. television to have attracted at least 100 million viewers on a single night annually since the 1983 series finale of M*A*S*H on CBS. The NFL telecasts are known for their relative stability in their TV ratings in the United States since the beginning of the 21st century. Since 2010, except 2019 and 2021, the annual Super Bowl telecasts (including the halftime shows) have regularly attracted more than 100 million viewers in the United States alone, making it the only broadcast in U.S. television history to exceed the said annual viewership threshold for at least 10 years overall.
The style of pro football broadcasting has seen several changes since the 1990s, including female hosts and sideline reporters, visual first-down markers, advanced graphics, new multi-camera angles, and high definition telecasts. The most recent contract extensions have, for the first time, allowed the networks to broadcast games on the Internet.
|Period||AFC Package||NFC Package||Sunday Night||Monday Night||Thursday Night||Sunday Ticket[a]||Total Amount[b]||Refs|
|1982–1986||NBC ($107)||CBS ($120)||—||ABC ($115)||ABC||—||$420|||
|1987–1989||NBC ($135)||CBS ($165)||ESPN (2nd half) ($51)||ABC ($125)||ABC||$473|||
|1990–1993||NBC ($188)||CBS ($265)||
|1994–1997||NBC ($217)||Fox ($395)||
|1998–2005||CBS ($500)||Fox ($550)||ESPN ($600)||ABC ($550)||ESPN||DirecTV ($400)||$2,200|||
|2006–2010||CBS ($622.5)||Fox ($712.5)||NBC ($650)||
||NFL Network (2nd half) ($0)||DirecTV ($700)||$3,085|||
|2022||Prime Video ($1,000)|
Current English-language broadcasters:
Current Spanish-language broadcasters:
Current mobility partners:
One-time and special broadcasts:
The NFL's status as a prime offering by the networks has led some to conclude that unbiased coverage of the league is not possible, although this may be true of most sports. However, with the current concentration of media ownership in the U.S., the league essentially has broadcast contracts with four media companies (ViacomCBS, NBCUniversal, Fox Corporation, and ESPN's parent company The Walt Disney Company) that own a combined vast majority of the American broadcast and cable networks.
ESPN attempted to run a dramatic series showing steamier aspects of pro football, Playmakers, but canceled the series after the league reportedly threatened to exclude the network from the next set of TV contracts. The network also withdrew its partnership with the PBS series Frontline on the 2013 documentary "League of Denial", which chronicles the history of head injuries in the NFL, shortly after a meeting between ESPN executives and league commissioner Roger Goodell took place in New York City, though ESPN denies pressure from the NFL led to its backing out of the project, claiming a lack of editorial control instead.
Then in July 2015, The Hollywood Reporter reported that sources within ESPN believed that the NFL gave them a "terrible" 2015 Monday Night Football schedule as "payback" for remarks made on air by both ESPN commentators Keith Olbermann and Bill Simmons that were critical of the league and Goodell; ESPN parted ways with both Olbermann and Simmons during that same year.
In a 2019 interview with ESPN, longtime NBC Sports anchor Bob Costas revealed that he had been relieved of duties as host of Super Bowl LII the previous year after he made comments at a University of Maryland symposium that the sport of football "destroys people's brains." A few years earlier, Costas had been told by NBC brass he could not present an essay on Football Night in America about the 2015 film Concussion because the network was in the process of bidding for the rights to Thursday Night Football.
Counterprogramming, where other networks attempt to offer a program which is intended to compete with the NFL audience for a regular season game, playoff game or the Super Bowl (as Fox did in 1992 with a special segment of the sketch comedy series In Living Color during Super Bowl XXVI), has also been heavily discouraged with the consolidation of rights among the major networks; ESPN generally airs low-profile niche sports, non-conference men's and women's college basketball (often featuring teams in non-NFL markets or non-football schools, as high-profile non-conference games usually occur in November and December during the Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks), and minor league sports on Sunday afternoons, along with basic audio-only 'carousel' reports of current NFL scores by reporters from NFL stadiums on their other networks resembling those on ESPN Radio or Fox Sports Radio. Since 2013, ESPN has done some limited counterprogramming using Canadian Football League coverage from sister network and licensing partner TSN; in most cases, ESPN carries games in times when the NFL is not airing (except in cases, such as the Grey Cup, when a conflict is unavoidable). ESPN has also counterprogrammed the NFL's Thursday Night Football games with college football games of its own; the network had been carrying college football on Thursdays years before the NFL decided to play regularly on that night.
Programming on Fox and CBS when game coverage does not occur generally consists of brokered programming which feature extreme sports tours, Professional Bull Riders event coverage, and non-championship golf and Professional Bowlers Association broadcasts, along with related documentaries. Fox has utilised the position for a "football-futbol doubleheader" with a 2:00 p.m. or 5:00 p.m. Major League Soccer match, depending on market (the early game goes to markets with a late NFL game, and the late game goes to markets with an early NFL game; MLS, Fox, and the markets in question will work to ensure the late-season push for the playoff games will not clash with the NFL game in the same market; teams with shared ownership in close markets will not be allowed to have games on at the same time, such as the New England Patriots and New England Revolution with Robert Kraft, Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United FC with Arthur Blank, Cleveland Browns and the Columbus Crew with Jimmy Haslam, and the Kansas City Chiefs and FC Dallas with Clark Hunt). Fox uses the time also for the PBA Clash bowling event starting in 2018, and in 2021 will feature the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series in a similar manner (early game markets will air the race on tape delay, late game markets will air the race live). In many cases, primary market stations will usually air a local postgame show from their station's sports department with analysis and interviews and push the brokered programming to late night or a secondary station, if they carry it at all (there are network mandates to carry the PBR and PBA, for example). NBC, which has the Sunday night package, will run Golf Channel on NBC coverage, including the Evian Championship (a women's major held in France), an early season PGA Tour event (since the 2019–20 season; prior to the calendar change, late-season PGA Tour events were held in September), or an international team tournament (depending on year, Ryder, Solheim, or President's Cup), motorsport (NTT IndyCar Series and NASCAR Cup Series late-season events; all serve as lead-in programming to Football Night in America), and Olympic sports which the demographic is focused towards women, such as ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating. Likewise, since 2010 ABC has run low-profile same-week repeats of their programming in solidarity with ESPN; in 2011, it did air the INDYCAR season finale in Las Vegas, which was abandoned after reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon, who resided in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers market, was killed on Lap 11 of 200.
Generally, the only networks to counterprogram the Super Bowl currently are niche cable networks with no "sports fan" appeal such as Animal Planet with their Puppy Bowl and imitation programming, and various marathons by other cable networks. In years when it does not carry the game, Fox has often purposely burned off failed sitcoms and dramas to discourage viewers from tuning away from the game, with other networks generally running marathons of popular reality or drama programs (for NBC, The Apprentice has filled this role) merely to fill the evening rather than an actual attempt to counterprogram, and CBS notably runs themed 60 Minutes episodes consisting of past stories featuring figures that fit the episode's theme. In 2022, Super Bowl LVI is scheduled to overlap with the Winter Olympic Games. As NBC is the Olympics rightsholder for the United States, it sought to avoid a conflict between both events by trading Super Bowl LV to CBS in order to air the 2022 game, allowing NBC to maximize revenue in the process as it had in 2018 when it aired Super Bowl LII days prior to the start of the Pyeongchang Olympics. Under a new contract with the NFL, NBC gained rights to Super Bowls in 2026, 2030, and 2034, which are also Winter Olympic years (NBC's current contract expires after the 2032 Summer Olympics in Brisbane, in Australia).
Until 2014 when the highlights program Gameday Live was launched, the NFL Network during 1:00 p.m. regular season games and the playoffs merely featured a still screen with the data of ongoing games on-screen under the title NFL GameCenter, while Sirius XM NFL Radio played in the background with 'carousel' score reports, with only highlights of game action from radio play-by-play heard occasionally. Super Bowl GameCenter retains this format during the Super Bowl, but with the Westwood One radio broadcast of the game instead.
At the start of the game, a teaser animation is displayed on all broadcasts. "Name of broadcaster welcomes you to the following presentation of the National Football League" (or similar phrasing) is announced, while at the end of the game, the message is "Name of broadcaster thanks you for watching this presentation of the National Football League" (or similar phrasing). This announcement is designed to separate game coverage from news, sports analysis, or entertainment programming not under the NFL contract and ownership.
Since 1998, the NFL has owned the rights to game broadcasts once they air—a copyright disclaimer airs either before the start of the second half or after the first commercial break of the second half, depending on the broadcaster ("This telecast is copyrighted by the NFL for the private use of our audience [and] any other use of this telecast or [of] any pictures, descriptions or accounts of the game without the NFL's consent is prohibited.", or similar phrasing). Beginning in the 2016 Playoffs, this was slightly changed to "This broadcast is copyrighted by NFL Productions for the private use of our audience. Any other use of this telecast or of any pictures, descriptions or accounts of the game without the consent of NFL Productions is prohibited.", or similar phrasing). In the 2017 preseason, this was reverted to the original version. As wholly owned by the league, NFL Network has the exclusive rights to re-air games and a select few are chosen each week.
The NFL has a strict policy prohibiting networks from running ads during official NFL programming (pre- and post-game studio shows and the games themselves) from the gambling industry, and has rejected some ads from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Commissioner Roger Goodell explained in 2007 that it was inappropriate for the sport to be associated with sports betting. These restrictions also apply to any hotels that contain casinos, even if the casino is not mentioned in the ad. Officially, wagers such as over/unders and point spreads cannot be acknowledged on-air. Despite this policy, Al Michaels has been known for subtly including gambling-related observations in his commentary, as did Jimmy Snyder during his time as an NFL analyst in the 1980s. Most teams insert similar clauses into their radio contracts, which are locally negotiated. The NFL injury report and required videotaping of practice are intended to prevent gamblers from gaining inside information. In contrast, fantasy football is often free to play. Daily fantasy sports, which are structured to prevent being classified as gambling, air advertisements on the NFL's partner networks on game days, but not during time controlled by the league.
On January 3, 2019, the NFL announced Caesars Entertainment Corporation as the "first ever official casino sponsor of the NFL," though was clear that the deal does not encompass sports betting.
The NFL also bans advertisements in several other product segments, including “dietary or nutritional supplements that contain ingredients other than vitamins and minerals, [..] or any prohibited substance”, energy drinks, birth control, condoms, and hard liquor. In the 2017 season, the NFL will, with restrictions, allow a limited amount of liquor advertising during broadcasts.
The NFL imposes restrictions on sponsored segments during game coverage; this does not apply to national or local radio broadcasts. These are permitted only prior to kick off, during halftime, and following the game; however, these segments (and other programming with title sponsorships, particularly halftime and post-game shows or other sports properties) can be advertised a couple of times during game coverage, and "aerial footage" providers (i.e. sponsored blimps) may be acknowledged, usually once an hour as is standard in other sports. Other acknowledgments (including HDTV or Skycam-type camera sponsorships) are limited to pre-kickoff and post-game credits. This is done so that, while competitors of the NFL's official sponsors may advertise on game broadcasts, they will not potentially become synonymous with the league through in-game and/or title sponsorship.
Sideline reporters are restricted as to whom they can speak to and when (usually a head coach at halftime, and one or two players before and after the game ends). Information on injured players or rules interpretations are relayed from NFL off-field officials to the TV producers in the truck, who then pass it along to the sideline reporters or booth announcers. Thus, CBS opted in 2006 to no longer use sideline reporters except for some playoff games. ESPN followed suit by reducing the roles of their sideline reporters in 2008. Fox hired former NFL officiating director Mike Pereira in 2010 as a rules analyst, who relays rules interpretations from Los Angeles to the games that network covers, leaving their sideline reporters able to focus less on that role. Likewise, CBS hired retired referee Mike Carey in 2014 in the same role from New York on Sundays and the NFL Network in Culver City during Thursday Night Football games, though he departed the network after the 2015 season and was replaced by Gene Steratore in 2018. During the 2020 season, NFL sideline reporters instead were stationed in the lower portion of seating areas due to COVID-19 protocols, with news relayed to them by team officials or off-air staffers instead.
The NFL owns NFL Films, whose duties include providing game film to media outlets for highlights shows after a 2- to 3-day window during which outlets can use original game broadcast highlights.
Main article: List of current National Football League broadcasters
The NFL operates NFL+, a streaming service that broadcasts live out-of-market preseason games, radio broadcasts from all 32 teams and Westwood One Sports, and live in-market games on mobile devices, in addition to library programming from NFL Films and NFL Network. A premium tier allows access to on-demand game replays.
The only outlier is Washington at Arizona at 4:05 p.m. EDT, which means viewers in the District of Columbia and Phoenix will likely see the conclusion of the final round of the Open on FS1.
CBS will have the final round of The Masters on Nov. 15 (Week 10), but its three games will all begin after 4 p.m. EST.
The league wants to play all Week 17 games in which division races or Wild Card spots are on the line at the same time ... Giants-Dallas moved because it was the only true win-and-you're-in game, whenever it was played, with no other game having any bearing on the outcome of the NFC East.