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CBS Sports' Sean McManus on NFL Ratings, the Value of RSNs, and the Future of Rights


CBS Sports' Sean McManus on NFL Ratings, the Value of RSNs, and the Future of Rights By Ken Kerschbaumer, Editorial Director

Friday, October 19, 2018 - 2:13 pm

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Sean McManus, CBS Sports, chairman, sat down for the keynote conversation at the TVNewsCheck TV2020 conference at NAB NY this week. Top of mind was growing NFL ratings, the future of TV rights, and the role broadcasting plays in a multiplatform universe.

Sean McManus, CBS Sports, chairman, says sports rights will continue to be the most valuable programming asset.

McManus pointed out that all of the big sporting events are still seen on broadcast TV, whether it's The Masters, the Super Bowl, or the NBA Finals. Even NASCAR has migrated back to broadcast TV from cable.

I think that the men and women who control those rights believe in broadcast television, because part of the reason sport is as popular as it is is that the big events are available to every man, woman, and child in the television universe, he said.

McManus also discussed the rise in NFL ratings this year and pointed to a couple of factors. The Kansas City Chiefs have been a bigger draw than expected, and there is a dominant team in the Los Angeles market as the Rams have given new lift to ratings in one of the biggest markets in the nation.

But you need to keep it in perspective, because even though we were down for two years in a row, NFL programming is still as dominant as it has ever been, he said. And with everything going on in the world today people need the diversion of sports even more than they have in the past. And I think that is reflected in NFL ratings.

He also added that while the sports TV business is a competitive one, all of the entities involved with the NFL are rooting for each other.

Sunday Night Football [on NBC] is up over 30% from last year and that is good news for all the rest of us doing business with the NFL, he said.

Next year, CBS will have the Super Bowl, so any general bounces in rating could point to that event continuing to be the bell cow for CBS in 2019. McManus acknowledged the pressure of carrying the Super Bowl. He said that ad sales for the game are very strong right now and there is a lot of interest among advertisers with ad rates eclipsing $5 million.

I think it's going to be a great way for us to end what I believe is going to be a very successful NFL season and the local CBS affiliates [of the teams involved] will reap enormous benefits, he said.

Future of Sports Rights

Asked about the future of sports rights, McManus said that he has been hearing that sports rights were in a bubble since he first was in charge of programming at NBC in 1983.

Sports rights go up because they are the most valuable asset of programming in the media landscape and it generates large audiences on both broadcast and cable television, he explained. And although they may seem ridiculous, they always make sense.

Fox, for example, paid handsomely for the rights to the NFL Thursday Night Football package but McManus said it makes sense as it guarantees winning the Thursday night ratings for 11 weeks.

It was worth it to Fox to pay a huge increase over what NBC and CBS were paying last time, he said. So, the bubble we thought might have existed for Thursday Night Football evaporated, and I think you will see rights continue to go up.

The ratings success with the NFL doesn't mean the league and the broadcasters are standing pat. McManus says there is constant communication with the league on how to improve the pace of play, scheduling modifications, or have commercials that are less intrusive.

The next NFL rights deal will be after the 2021-22 season and McManus said the negotiations will be spirited and there will be a lot of competition.

I'm confident we're going to protect our territory and we have also talked to the NFL about ways to modify the package that could make the overall ratings go up, he said.

Does he expect the likes of Facebook Amazon, Netflix, or Google to be in the hunt?

They're all dipping their toe into sports rights, he said. And I do think the NFL would have to think very hard about taking one of its major packages off of broadcast or basic cable TV because of the exposure elements we've talked about.

Multi-platform Delivery

But multi-platform delivery is clearly becoming the norm for sports. For example, the NFL national games are available via not only TV but also via authenticated apps from the rights holder as well as on mobile devices without authentication (via or And Thursday Night Football games are even carried on both a broadcast network, Fox, and a cable network, the NFL Network. The key for the rights holder is having national commercials run on all of those platforms and count towards ratings.

And then there is the development of subscription OTT platforms like CBS All Access, which allows those without cable or satellite to subscribe and watch a wealth of CBS programming.

The fees that people are paying for all access are pretty significant and that is one more opportunity to reach more people on different platforms, said McManus.

McManus pointed to the deal CBS has with Turner Sports for the March Madness tournament as a perfect example of new approaches to rights deals and programming. The deal gave Turner the programming muscle it needed to get carriage of TruTV which carried games and it also allowed CBS to move beyond regional tournament coverage and also provide the money that cable TV can generate.

If I was there negotiating by myself without those cable resources, there's no way we would have been able to keep the men's Final Four, he added.

McManus also discussed the efforts CBS has done with respect to 4K and HDR programming. DirecTV has been the primary
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