When ESPN televises its next wild-card playoff game in January 2016, the game won’t be broadcast only on a four-letter network. The game will go three-letter, too.
ESPN has announced that it will simulcast the postseason contest on ABC, which is commonly owned with ESPN by Disney. While that necessarily will undermine ESPN’s ratings, it will increase the total audience — further confirming the NFL’s desire to put significant games on free broadcast TV.
Despite the many technological gains of the last 40 years, millions of Americans still get the bulk of their boob-tube programming from rabbit-ear antennas. While cable may pay better since their justify increased subscription fees paid by cable and satellite providers, broadcast brings maximum eyeballs to the party.
That’s why it’s difficult if not impossible to see the NFL making a dramatic change in its current TV model when the current contracts expire in 2022. Ultimately, the biggest games will get the biggest audiences on free, over-the-air network TV.
Besides, yanking big games from broadcast TV could eventually persuade Congress to strip the NFL of its broadcast antitrust exemption, which allows the league to require networks to buy games involving all teams and not just the games that would generate the highest ratings.