While the NFL and its locked-out players continued court-mandated mediation sessions today in Minneapolis, the league went ahead and released its schedule for the 2011 season and so did NBC for its flagship Sunday Night Football. If the NFL finalizes a new collective bargaining agreement in time, the season will begin Thursday, Sept. 8 on NBC with the New Orleans Saints vs. the Green Bay Packers, the first of 17 games on the network. (Last year’s Thursday opener drew 27.5 million viewers, the network’s most-watched regular-season primetime NFL game to date.)

The Sunday Night Football franchise has become a major force in NBC’s fall schedule and a key to the ratings turnaround the new regime at the network is aiming for, so it would be extra rough on NBC if the season was scrapped (broadcast nets Fox and CBS and cable nets ESPN and NFL Network also have rights to games but Fox and CBS’ games are in the afternoon, so the impact on primetime wouldn’t be as big as it would be at NBC). SNF was the No. 1 show on Sunday all 18 nights last season, averaging 21.8 million viewers, up 12% over 2009, and dominating across all male demos and scoring well in some female ones too. It’s also the network’s turn to host the Super Bowl this year. “We are pleased to have another terrific schedule for Sunday Night Football,” NBC Sports Group chairman Dick Ebersol said in a statement. “The incredible success the league has enjoyed with every television partner experiencing increases each of the last three seasons is a testament to the league focusing its entire scheduling process to maximize viewership. The NFL remains the most powerful content in the entire sports and entertainment universe.”

Meanwhile, ESPN’s Monday Night Football begins with a doubleheader Sept. 12: New England vs. Miami and Oakland vs. Denver. It is the most-watched series in cable history, averaging 14.7 million viewers and a 10.5 household rating last season.

vince manze
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