NFL RedZone: Friend or foe to broadcast networks?

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It's been estimated a typical NFL game lasts over three hours, yet contains a mere 11 minutes of action.  The NFL RedZone channel aims to solve that problem, by cherry picking the best 11 minutes from each game, to show every time a team scores.

Based in Culver City, the NFL-owned and operated RedZone channel offers programming accessible on cable, satellite, smartphones, and online. But it makes you wonder... if it catches on, will people still sit down to watch a traditional network broadcast of a single football game?

In promotions, the NFL depicts RedZone as football heaven for diehard fans.

But for CBS and Fox, which pay more than a billion dollars each for the privilege of airing NFL games, RedZone was seen as anything but heavenly, at least when it was first introduced.

"The networks, back when I was at the NFL, were extremely protective of their live-game windows," said Frank Hawkins, who was Senior Vice President, Business Affairs and head of strategic planning for the NFL’s media group until 2008.

Now he’s a partner at the New York-based media consulting firm  Scalar Media.

"The networks didn't want RedZone and I think it remains something they worry about every single year."

It's easy to see why. Because it's owned by the NFL, RedZone doesn't have to pay for a single camera or announcer at the stadium. It just shows the highlights of CBS and FOX's broadcasts.

At home, when you're watching the game and the clock stops, it’s time for advertising - that nettlesome interruption that pays those nine-figure rights fees. But not if you're watching RedZone, which regularly reminds viewers it doesn’t show ads.

RedZone not eroding audience

If the networks are concerned about RedZone, they don't admit it publicly. 

CBS declined to comment for this report. And Fox?

"I don't believe it's going to erode the audience at all," said David Hill, senior executive Vice-President of 21st Century Fox. He ran Fox Sports for almost two decades and also serves on KPCC's board of trustees.

Hill is also partly responsible for developing RedZone. When he was an executive at News Corporation over a decade ago, one of his deputies, Eric Shanks,  saw a similar channel in Italy that cut between soccer matches and suggested adapting the format to the NFL.

News Corporation owned Fox and also had a controlling interest in DirecTV, where RedZone started in 2005, only showing games that were broadcast on Fox.

The cable version debuted in 2009 and Verizon got mobile rights the next year.

Last year, many Los Angeles customers saw RedZone for the first time, when Time Warner finally reached an agreement to carry the NFL Network on its sports tier.

Hill says he’s not concerned that the NFL has expanded the channel’s distribution.

"Had Fox's ratings plummeted overnight or CBS’ ratings plummeted overnight, we would be on bended knee asking the NFL to cease and desist," said Hill.

But that didn't happen, because NFL ratings have been increasing while the numbers for almost everything else on network TV have been going down.

"When Fox Sports started 20 years ago, the NFL ranked 20th to 22nd in the most popular TV shows. Now it ranks number one,” said Hill. “That tells you whatever is out there is building the audience of the National Football League."

The rising tide that lifts all boats

The NFL doesn't share RedZone's ratings. It won't even say how many people subscribe, but says both numbers are increasing.

The league makes money from RedZone through subscriber fees, but it's also part of its overall media strategy: Give fans as much content as they want, wherever, whenever they want it.

"Our philosophy is any product that allows fans to interact with as many NFL games, as much NFL product as they can, is a good product," said Mark Quenzel, senior Vice-President of programming at NFL Network.

Quenzel's office is a short walk away from the RedZone set in Culver City. He slumps back in his chair with his feet kicked up on the desk. As an executive helping to preside over the most prosperous sport America has ever seen, Quenzel can afford to be comfortable.

"We don't want people to lose money on The National Football League,” said Quenzel. “We want them to make money."

He says RedZone is part of a rising tide that lifts all boats, including the networks. He believes it entices more viewers to stay on the couch and watch football on Sundays.

"They may switch back and forth to RedZone to see what's going on, but they're still going to watch the game they're most interested in," said Quenzel.

David Bank, Managing Director at RBC Capital Markets, agrees.

“I don’t really think people’s primary interest is in watching the highlights,” said Bank. “I think they want to watch the game. So, I think everybody wins.”

Getting people to go to the stadium

The bigger concern for the league is making sure people still want to go to games. While TV ratings have been rising, attendance around the NFL has dropped 4.5% percent since 2007.

"The byproduct of all this great coverage is it's very easy to sit on your couch and you can watch your game on TV and watch every other game on RedZone, and say, ‘Why should I go?"’ said Quenzel.

It’s a good question, and it's why the league has instructed every team to make RedZone available at games, whether it’s on a smartphone or on the jumbotron.

In other words, the NFL wants to bring all the benefits of watching the action in your living room - to the stadium.

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