CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus Says NFL Ad Sales Matching 2019 Pace; Social Justice Issues To Get Airtime But Balance Is The Goal

Las Vegas Raiders players practice at Allegiant Stadium, one of the many NFL venues not planning to allow fans this season. AP Photo/John Locher

With the start of an NFL season like no other just days away, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said advertising sales are on pace with the 2019 season, with a sizable chunk of Super Bowl inventory sold out.

On a Zoom call with the media lasting an hour and a half, McManus acknowledged that broadcasts will bear the marks of the two major themes of 2020: social justice issues and COVID-19. The network’s goal will be to strike a balance between acknowledging Black Lives Matter and other political and social flash points and serving fans looking only for game action.

“We’re not going to keep our heads in the sand,” McManus said. “We’re going to cover the stories as they exist, but we’re going to try to keep them in perspective with the fact that people are tuning in to watch a football game. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know what kind of expressions are going to take place on the field. So we’re going to be nimble and flexible. But I think people are really thirsting for live sports content, particularly NFL football.”

McManus rejected the possibility that potential coverage of non-game action could turn off some viewers, as networks have acknowledged was the case in 2016 and 2017. “I think the ratings are going to be terrific,” he predicted.

“Sales are very brisk,” the executive noted in his prepared remarks at the start of the videoconference. “We’re pacing at the exact same level we were last year.”

Super Bowl LV, currently scheduled for February 7, 2021, has already sold out “A” positions at the start of pods during the game’s first half.

After halting play for months, the sports world was upended by nationwide protests against racial injustice, which galvanized in May after the strangulation death of George Floyd during a traffic stop by Minneapolis police.

When the NBA season resumed in July in a “bubble” setting in Orlando, “Black Lives Matter” was painted on the courts. The league donated $300 million to various causes and permitted players to put a select number of names or slogans on the backs of their jerseys. That high degree of visibility was amplified by daily player comments to the media covering games, peaking in August during a multi-day strike over a police shooting in Kenosha, WI. Several NFL teams canceled practices in unison with the NBA walkout and there have been rumblings about potential action in coming days given the massive media platform of the NFL.

The national anthem, which flared up as a controversial feature of games a few years ago when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee in protest, will be shown on Sunday’s games. Beyond the first week, McManus said, “we will adjust” and will not automatically plan to broadcast that part of the lead-up to games.

As to what the network advises announcers about what to say or not say, “we give them some guidance,” McManus said, but they are “certainly free to talk about what they see on the field.”

About one-third of NFL cities plan to welcome fans to games with certain health and safety protocols in place. Even when broadcasting games from cities without any fans in attendance, CBS will not digitally insert fans into seats, as some broadcasters have done in other sports.

Lead play-by-play voice Jim Nantz said the 11 straight weekends of PGA Tour golf tournaments offered a taste of fan-less broadcasts, but the sport is completely different from football. “You can’t even really rehearse this until the ball is kicked,” he said. “I think we’ll be OK,” especially with authentic stadium sounds from NFL Films augmenting the telecasts. More than crowd-less games, he said he worries that his interactions with lead analyst Tony Romo could be compromised by the Plexiglas pane that will separate them in the booth. “We’re touchy-feely guys,” he said.

Jim Rikhoff, lead producer of CBS NFL games, said NBA telecasts have been an important precedent. (ESPN, ABC and TNT handle national NBA games.) “We found over the summer that you kind of get used to it” as a viewer, Rikhoff said. Without overhead shots or long cutaways being standard parts of the aesthetics this fall, he said, more detailed looks at coaches and players on the sidelines will be possible, possibly enhancing viewers’ understanding of the game. “The more we go along with this process [in COVID-19], the more comfortable I feel about how it’s covered.”

Harold Bryant, Executive Producer & SVP of Production for CBS Sports, said directors “will adapt,” given that games will alternate between empty stadiums and those with some of the largest fan contingents seen on air for months. “It will be the opportunity for the directors to build drama through their camera shots, using players and coaches and things that are happening on the field.”

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