NFL puts fans in lab to see what works as football seeks answers

If you notice more split-screens and fewer commercial breaks on NFL broadcasts this coming season, credit the fans who served as football's lab rats.

Last fall, just as TV ratings went into a tailspin, the National Football League invited fans into a lab designed like a living room. Technicians asked them to watch games, tracking their eyes, heart rates and skin response. They saw different ad formats, including split screens with commercials on one side and the field on the other.

The tests — the most extensive ever by the league — are contributing to big changes in how games will be broadcast when the regular season starts Sept. 7 with a Thursday night matchup on NBC between the Kansas City Chiefs and champion New England Patriots. The goal is to keep viewers engaged and protect the $3.5 billion in annual TV advertising taken in by NBC, CBS, Fox, ESPN and the NFL Network.

"It's really about the pace of the game and eliminating downtime," Amanda Herald, the NFL's director of media strategy and business development, said in an interview. "I do think there will be a positive impact."

NFL TV viewership fell about 8 percent last year, according to Nielsen data, hurt by weak matchups and competition from the presidential campaign, along with negative publicity surrounding concussions and player protests during the national anthem. The average U.S. TV audience for a regular season game shrank to 16.5 million.

Measuring fans' physical responses to commercials — dubbed "biometrics" — has been around for years and has its skeptics. The idea is to understand not just what viewers say in focus groups but how TV shows or ads make them feel.

"We're really starting to study how people are watching games," Tod Leiweke, the NFL's chief operating officer, said recently at an event hosted by GeekWire. "We're going into people's homes and replicating the game experience and trying to watch everything from what their eyes are following to what their behavior is during commercials breaks."

One big change is a cut in the number of commercial breaks — to four per quarter from five. They'll be longer so the networks can still sell the same number of commercials but less frequent. There will be 30 percent fewer promotional messages, such as when CBS urges viewers to stick around after the game for "60 Minutes."

"When you have touchdown, commercial, kickoff, commercial, it becomes unwatchable," said Andrew Donchin, chief investment officer at Dentsu Aegis Network in the U.S., whose clients include General Motors.

The networks will also experiment with different types of commercials, according to Herald. Some will be shown in split screen, with an ad on one side and what's happening in the stadium on the other. Fox has experimented with split screens during Nascar broadcasts. The NFL is allowing liquor commercials this season.

The league is also tweaking how games are run to speed them up. Instead of reviewing plays on a sideline monitor, referees will use a handheld tablet while consulting with officials in New York, in part to make decisions faster. Overtime will be cut to 10 minutes from 15. The league has even relaxed its rules on touchdown celebrations, allowing for more creativity.

Overall, games should be slightly shorter, Herald said.

In a nod to younger audiences, the league also granted broadcasters and tech companies more rights to distribute games over the internet. will stream Thursday night NFL games for the first time this season, after Twitter streamed them last year.

Broadcasters, meanwhile, have made some changes to their on-air talent. At CBS, former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo will take over as an analyst from Phil Simms. On Fox, former Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler will start doing color commentary. On NBC, Mike Tirico will call Thursday Night games.

Higher ratings would be welcome news for the broadcasters, which spend billions of dollars on long-term rights to air America's most popular sport, believing football will continue to draw the large live audiences that command such heavy ad spending. Last season's decline restrained the annual price increases broadcasters usually demand for football ads, one ad buyer said.

According to Donchin, the advertising executive, the best antidote for flagging viewership is good games, something that was missing early last season. This year looks different. In Week Two, NBC will air a prime-time rematch of the NFC Championship game between the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons.

"It's all going to come down to match-ups," Donchin said.

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