Counterprogramming

puppy bowl

Lingerie Bowl

In Broadcast programming, counterprogramming is the practice of offering television programs to attract an audience from another television station airing a major event. The Super Bowl is among the most-viewed programs on American television. Thus, counterprogramming focuses on the pre-game period and the halftime show.

However, it is a common gentlemen’s agreement that the broadcast networks who carry the league’s game coverage (and in turn, other cable networks owned by the broadcasters) never counterprogram the Super Bowl, yielding to the game and airing either low profile reruns of their series or a middling film in the timeslot instead.

As all of the major broadcast networks now have some connection to NFL coverage (ABC does not carry NFL coverage but shares its sports department with co-owned ESPN; the network is nonetheless free to counterprogram, and has done so), this has meant since 2007, that the major networks not airing the game effectively shut down, do not counterprogram with original programming (generally instead airing reruns of their regular programs) and cede to the network that year carrying the game, which in turn has given many of the post-2007 Super Bowls among the highest viewing audiences in American ratings history. This cession of Super Bowl Sunday to the host network, however, can be detrimental to the networks’ (and the local stations’) financial health, because since 2002, the Super Bowl has aired during February sweeps, a time in which advertising rates are set for network programming.

NBC counterprogrammed the Super Bowl XXXVIII and Super Bowl XXXIX pregame shows with the World Poker Tour Tournament of Champions. In 1992, FOX counterprogrammed the Super Bowl XXVI halftime show with a special episode of ‘In Living Color.’ This episode, which, through the ‘Men On Football’ skit, adlibed that actor Richard Gere and track and field star Carl Lewis were gay. This was a fairly successful counterprogram; an estimated 20-25 million switched from CBS’ Super Bowl broadcast. Animal Planet has counterprogrammed the Super Bowl with their ‘Puppy Bowl’ since 2005. ABC has counterprogramed the Super Bowl with the game show Wipeout’ in recent years.

In 1999, World Wrestling Entertainment (then known as the World Wrestling Federation) counterprogrammed the Super Bowl halftime show with Halftime Heat ’99 on the USA Network, featuring a match in which Mankind fought The Rock in the first ever Empty Arena Match, recorded in Tucson, Arizona. This match was also successful, with over 20 million viewers switching to this event. Since 2006, the WWE has not been permitted to counterprogram on the USA Network because USA is under common ownership with NBC, which acquired the rights to Sunday Night Football that year, and counterprogramming against the NFL could jeopardize the contract.

Similar counterprogramming restrictions forced the National Hockey League to move the 2012 Winter Classic, traditionally scheduled for January 1, to January 2; NBC had an opening for the game in the Sunday afternoon timeslot but was not allowed to counterprogram against the last games of the NFL regular season that were airing on CBS and Fox. (NBC also expressed concern about a potential delay or overrun extending into Sunday Night Football.)

Fox has offered counterprogramming against the Academy Awards; traditionally, the Academy Awards are known for being the largest advertising block for women, with it being the second-highest advertising rates for any program, ranking higher than all but the Super Bowl. Fox, NASCAR, and the ‘Auto Club Speedway’ chose in 2009 to have the ‘Auto Club 500’ counterprogrammed against the Oscars; the start time of the race, traditionally a noon or 1 PM green flag local time, was moved to 3 PM local time (6 PM ET), with the race going into prime time. The practice was discontinued when NASCAR adopted a uniform start time for West Coast day races of 12 noon PT in 2010. Univision aired the final two episodes of the Mexican telenovela En Nombre del Amor opposite the 2010 Academy Awards ceremony. NBC has occasionally counterprogrammed against the Academy Awards with ‘Shrek,’ especially in years in which it has aired the Super Bowl since the NFL returned to the network during the 2006-07 TV season. TNT aired the 2012 NBA All-Star Game opposite the 84th Academy Awards. However, ratings that year’s Oscar ceremony drew an estimated 39.3 million viewers, a 4% increase over the previous year. Conversely, viewership for the All Star Game measured at 7.1 million, a 22% decline from last year’s 9.1 million.

In college football competing networks will often change the kick off times of high profile games at the same time as other high profile games in an attempt to draw viewers away from other games. For example, in week 14 of the 2010 season the kick off time of The Civil War game between #1 Oregon and Oregon State was changed to 3:30 P.M. EST and shown on ABC in the afternoon college football block, this was done in an attempt to lure viewers from the SEC Championship Game, that kicked off at 4:00 P.M EST pitting the #18 South Carolina Gamecocks against the #2 Auburn Tigers. This attempt failed though as Oregon would go on to win by 17 points and the SEC championship had 10.2 million viewers, the second most viewed game of the year.

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