The impetus for flex scheduling is to avoid late-season games that could crush ratings for NBC, and deprive the NFL of a chance to showcase a match-up with playoff implications. And it appears as if it will play out that way.
Even with the five games Fox and CBS have each opted to "protect"--which prevents NBC from inserting them into "SNF" and the untouchable games on both ESPN and the NFL Network--NBC has appealing match-ups. They are either already on its schedule or magnetic ones to replace lackluster competitions.
(NBC actually can only recommend games it wants to "flex" in; the NFL has ultimate imprimatur.)
Still, the 10 games Fox and CBS have kept for themselves--plus the weekly "Monday Night Football" contests and NFL Network games NBC cannot poach--impact the net. Some weeks, it deprives NBC of airing more captivating broadcasts. But its options are solid. Its most unattractive scheduled games, Tampa Bay/San Francisco on Dec. 23 and Kansas City/New York Jets the following week, can be replaced with upgrades.
(NBC's "SNF" ratings have been a mixed bag this season, but that may be due to the vagaries of the schedule. In the key men's 18-34 demo, ratings have improved from a 7.6 to a 7.8 through Nov. 18, versus the same period last year. But in men 18-49, they've dropped from a 9.1 to an 8.4. Household figures have also dipped from a 10.7 to a 9.5. "SNF" remains the top show on TV in men 18-49, and is second behind "Family Guy" this season in men 18-34.)
Take this week's Cincinnati-Pittsburgh game, which NBC had scheduled and has opted to keep. While not the week's most appealing game, since it features the last-place Bengals, the Steelers lead their division and are a strong draw. NBC was limited by CBS protecting the Jacksonville and Indianapolis game, and Fox having walled off New York Giants and Chicago. Games with Dallas and New England are off the table.
The next week offers Indianapolis and Baltimore on "SNF"--another game NBC is likely to keep, given the big draw of Indy's Peyton Manning. In addition, CBS has protected the potential hit game between Pittsburgh and New England, and Fox the big-market New York Giants and Philadelphia battle. Dallas-Detroit would be an option, but the Cowboys' NFL-limit six games in prime time are already accounted for.
On Dec. 16, Manning is available, but he's going against the last-place Oakland Raiders. CBS is blocking Jacksonville and Pittsburgh, while Fox is blocking the surprising Detroit Lions and first-place San Diego. NBC is then likely to keep its scheduled New York Giants and Washington rivalry, with the added bonus of its owned-and-operated stations carrying the games in each market, presumably yielding more ad dollars for the broader NBC Universal.
That night, NBC cannot "flex in" the New England-New York Jets game (on CBS), which is likely to be a big draw. The Patriots want to punish the Jets after they reportedly informed the NFL that the Patriots were using illegal video equipment to gain an advantage (known as "Spygate").
Then, the next two weeks, NBC may employ its swap-in option. On Dec. 23, the network has scheduled Tampa Bay (which leads its division) against struggling San Francisco. CBS has blocked Houston and Indianapolis; Fox keeps the rivalry between Green Bay and Chicago.
Dallas, Pittsburgh, New England and San Diego games are off the board. But the New York Giants against Buffalo and Seattle-Baltimore could supply options.
In the last week of the season, neither CBS or Fox can protect games, and there is no Monday night affair. But the NFL Network has the boffo New England and New York Giants game. NBC's game--Kansas City and the Jets--looks to be a sure-fire replacement. The network might then pick up the strong Detroit-Green Bay game or Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
CBS and Fox must submit their protected games to the NFL after the fifth week of the season. In week 11, Fox walled the Giants and Detroit; in week 12, CBS did the same with Denver and Chicago.