FOXBOROUGH - Facing a situation in which millions of fans would have been shut out from watching the Patriots' historic bid for an undefeated regular season Saturday night, the NFL announced yesterday that the game against the New York Giants will be simulcast nationally by the NFL Network, CBS, and NBC.
The decision has a significant ripple effect in Boston, where Channel 5 was carrying the NFL Network feed and had the exclusive broadcast rights in the city. Now, Channels 4 and 7 will also broadcast the game.
Bill Fine, president and general manager of Channel 5, was hopeful the station's broadcast exclusivity would be protected, but was preparing for the likelihood it wouldn't happen.
"[Yesterday's] action by the NFL was designed to let all of America see this potentially historic game," Fine wrote in an e-mail. "WCVB-TV's contract with the NFL Network, for the Boston market exclusive broadcast rights to the Dec. 29 game vs. the New York Giants, was completed last summer and thus the Boston market was always going to be able to see the game via Channel 5. We are now awaiting word as to whether or not the NFL will abide by their contract with WCVB."
Sources said late last night the NFL wasn't planning on protecting Channel 5's broadcast exclusivity in Boston. Channel 5 has been promoting itself as the non-Sunday prime-time home of the Patriots in Boston, so the news was a considerable blow to the station. Channel 5 will get a jump on its competitors by starting its programming at 7 p.m. with the "Patriots All-Access" show.
In New England, the game also will be available on WMUR (Channel 9) in Manchester, N.H., and in New York on WWOR (Channel 9) in New York. The telecast begins at 8, with kickoff at 8:15.
The national three-way simulcast is unprecedented, and is the first national simulcast of any NFL game since Super Bowl I in 1967, which was carried by CBS and NBC.
Nationally, the Patriots-Giants game originally was scheduled to be broadcast solely on NFL Network, the league's in-house channel that is available on 240 cable systems.
Yet with some cable companies not placing the NFL Network on its most broadly distributed and affordable packages, more than half of the country could have been blacked out from seeing the Patriots potentially finish as the league's first undefeated team in the regular season since the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
"We have taken this extraordinary step because it is in the best interest of our fans," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement.
CBS and NBC will carry the NFL Network production with announcers Bryant Gumbel and Cris Collinsworth, and can sell 18 30-second commercials. There is a total of 70 spots sold on the broadcast.
On Monday, Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) appealed to Goodell to ensure that all Patriots fans would have a chance to see the game. Kerry applauded yesterday's decision, calling it a "great gift the day after Christmas."
Yet league officials said yesterday it wasn't pressure from Kerry or Congress that led to the decision. The NFL still desires congressional hearings on its ongoing issues with cable television.
"NFL Network is a programming service of great interest to fans and should be broadly distributed by the cable industry," said Steve Bornstein, president and CEO of the NFL Network.
NFL officials had been approached by CBS and NBC weeks ago regarding the possibility of a simulcast, with the networks saying they were interested in broadcasting the game if the league decided to expand beyond NFL Network.
The desire was likely fueled by the record television ratings produced by the Patriots this season, as three New England games are the highest-rated programs of any kind since the television season began Sept. 24. The team's Dec. 3 game at Baltimore is the most-watched program in cable television history, and the Nov. 4 game at Indianapolis was seen by 33.8 million viewers, making it the largest national audience for a Sunday afternoon regular-season NFL game.
NFL games are broadcast on CBS, NBC, Fox, ESPN, and NFL Network.
Only CBS and NBC had approached the NFL about a simulcast, according to a league spokesman. The networks were deemed a natural fit because CBS has the AFC package - meaning it would normally broadcast Patriots road games that weren't played in prime time - and NBC has the prime-time Sunday night package.
"We appreciate CBS and NBC delivering the NFL Network telecast on Saturday night to the broad audience that deserves to see this potentially historic game," Goodell said.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft, chairman of the league's broadcast committee, was unavailable for comment, but the team's vice president of media relations, Stacey James, said in a statement, "We are thrilled that so many of our fans will have an opportunity to watch Saturday night's Patriots game against the New York Giants. It is a great gift from the National Football League, not only to Patriots fans throughout New England, but also to football fans around the country. We are proud to be a part of such a historic and unprecedented broadcast."
Mike Reiss can be reached at email@example.com.