This fall, let there be an understanding in the land. Let the word go forth from sea to shining sea that Pete Rozelle and his minions make up the NFL schedule with one thought uppermost: the league's reported $2.2 billion, five-year contract with the three networks.
Although both the NFL and the networks insist that television plays no direct role in deciding the schedule—"We give it to them the same way we give it to the clubs," says Val Pinchbeck, the league's director of broadcasting—any armchair quarterback is likely to have questions. Chief among them: Does Howard You-Know-Who help decide the Monday night schedule? If not, whom do we blame? Hal the Computer? Astonishly in this day and age, three NFL officials put the schedule together by hand. We'll call them PRW: Pinchbeck; Joe Rhein, assistant to the president of the NFC; and Al Ward, assistant to the president of the AFC.
Deep within the inner sanctum of NFL headquarters in New York City is a 4'-by-5' wooden schedule board displaying all 28 teams and the 16 weeks of the regular season. A visitor gets the feeling that if he were to touch one of the buttons representing a certain team at a certain stadium at a certain date, some great hand would pluck him out of the room and plop him into the East River. No one lays a finger on the schedule once it's completed—neither team owner, network executive nor mortal fan.
Match-ups and game sites are predetermined by how the teams finished the previous season. PRW's job is to establish game dates. Sound simple? Because' of the great number of variables, the process takes 500 man-hours between February and April.
The biggest complaint PRW hears involves the prime-time games it schedules on ABC (this year 16 Monday nights, three Thursdays, two Sundays). "How come my team isn't on more?" half of America wants to know. "Doesn't Howard like my Packers?" or, "my Cardinals?" To be sure, the Cardinals haven't appeared on Monday Night Football since 1977, and Green Bay will be on this season for the first time in three years. But feeble play, not ill will, is the reason. Because its games are prime-time, ABC pays more per game than does CBS or NBC, so PRW tries to give ABC the best match-ups. Rule of thumb: If your team made the playoffs or broke even last year, it stands a good chance of being on the same marquee as the Giffer, Howard and Danderoo.
Indeed, the first game PRW schedules each year is the final Monday night game of the season. PRW must know what it's doing—the concluding Monday game has determined playoff berths in each of the last four years. After that final Monday is disposed of, PRW works back through the season, taking plum games away from CBS and NBC and awarding them to ABC for Monday nights. (CBS has rights to NFC games, and NBC has the AFC. Interconference games are televised by the "visiting" network.) Something has to be left in CBS's and NBC's cupboards, though, so PRW doesn't give all premier match-ups to ABC. For example, CBS got to keep Dallas at San Francisco on Nov. 14 this year, a decision that no doubt annoyed ABC.
Now about those buttons. Before scheduling the 181 regional Sunday TV match-ups, PRW places buttons on its board to indicate all national games. This year there are 43: the 21 prime-time games on ABC; eight Sunday games each for CBS and NBC, which constitute the second half of TV "doubleheaders"; two Saturday games apiece for CBS and NBC; one Thanksgiving game each for CBS and NBC. By the time all the national games are tentatively scheduled, it's nightmare time. Let's say NBC complained last year that it lost more games to ABC than did CBS. Let's also say Green Bay doesn't want to play at home in December because it's cold outside, which is fine with the NFL because too many brrrrrrs equal too many fumbles equal low-quality games equal low ratings. Now, let's say seven clubs can't play at home the second and third weeks of October because post-season baseball games may be held in their parks. Assume that CBS doesn't want a double-header game the second Sunday of September because it's carrying tennis' U.S. Open at 4 p.m. and that NBC would rather not have one during the World Series. Add to the equation the fact that CBS and NBC do want doubleheader games on alternating Sundays in November, which is a "sweeps" month. That's when local stations use ratings to set their advertising rates.
Finally, for sheer devilment, consider a list of special requests PRW must study. "We don't want to schedule a home game in a heavily Jewish area like Miami during Yom Kippur," Pinchbeck says. "We got a lot of calls about that one year." This year, PRW had to avoid scheduling three particular Sunday games in Chicago because conventions at nearby McCormick Place are expected to attract a total of 110,000 people and fill up the Soldier Field parking lot. Then there are requests from the networks to move 1 p.m. games to 4 p.m. or vice versa—a final fillip in the scheduling process that drives ticket-holding fans, if not viewers, crazy.
Before the season is a month old, Pinchbeck, Rhein and Ward will be knee-deep in complaints. "How come we don't see more doubleheader games?" viewers will mutter in the New York metropolitan area. Answer: The NFL has a rule that whenever a club is playing at home, each network can bring only one out-of-town game into that team's market. The remedy is to schedule the Giants and Jets on special dates, freeing local airwaves for other games. More grumbling will be heard from viewers who for years have been getting the Redskins, say, and now are seeing the Falcons. "How dare you gerrymander me?" folks in the Carolinas might scream. PRW's answer: "Call the network or your local affiliate. CBS and NBC can air their regional games wherever they please."
Which is another way of saying, "We're all in this mess together." So here's a sane suggestion. Just flick on the tube and take what the one-eyed monster gives you. Over amber waves of grain, let there be agreement among viewers, schedulers and teams alike. As Pinchbeck says, "What television wants and what our teams want is pretty much the same thing: We're both in the business of entertainment."
Once Pinchbeck's buttons are in place on the sacred board, no one—not even Howard—can make a change.