In an era of super-sized excess, television and football will combine this season to test the notion that you can't get too much of a good thing.
The approaching onslaught of televised football is sure to challenge even the most dedicated armchair quarterbacks. The college football season begins Labor Day weekend with the broadcast of 40 games in a spectacular stretching from Thursday through Monday. The NFL adds to this gridiron gluttony when it kicks off the following weekend.
The first college football weekend features national TV coverage for such highly anticipated clashes as Friday night's battle between Indiana and Central Michigan, two teams that won a combined seven games last year, and Saturday's showdown between Duke and East Carolina, teams that each went 2-9 last year.
On Saturday, a fan could settle in at noon Eastern time and watch college football until about 2 a.m., the end of the UTEP and New Mexico State game.
That would be four games, kickoff to final gun, with portions of others along the way. Humorist Erma Bombeck once said any man who watches three football games in a row should be "declared legally dead." Football coroners could be busy Labor Day weekend.
The Thursday night game at Tulsa with visiting Minnesota will start at 9:15 p.m. local time, which means the game will end about 1 a.m. That should put a dent in attendance for Friday classes.
During this ESPN broadcast season, there will be 26 games on Thursdays and seven each on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, as universities sell out education for football exposure. There will be 15 college games on Friday nights, an evening traditionally reserved for high school games in a more courteous era.
Football and television make for the perfect cultural synergy. Football provides fast and rough drama with underdogs and heroes. There are good guys and bad guys with bigger-than-life personalities.
Throw in the fate of bad bounces and the spectacle of bands, cheerleaders, and mascots, and you couldn't have a better reality show. Television delivers these events as only television can - with bright lights, hype, emotion, and ornaments masquerading as sideline "reporters."
Football is great for television program executives, not only for the all-sports cable channels, but also for the on-air networks. Football fills lots of time and has built-in breaks for commercials. It has wide audience appeal by age, region, and gender, especially for that hard-to-capture young, adult male demographic. Thus, football is a great platform to promote everything else a network does during the non-football hours.
People want to watch football live, so it is virtually TiVo-proof, which makes advertisers and broadcast execs happy.
The National Football League has networks so desperate for pro football that the rights package that goes into effect in 2006 will give the league $3.7 billion a year, a 43 percent increase over the current package. The NFL rakes in more TV rights fees than the NBA, Major League Baseball, NASCAR, and pro golf combined.
NBC, which walked away from pro football in 1998, felt compelled to get back on the NFL field as a way to help its overall sagging network profile.
NBC will pay $38 million per game beginning in 2006 to broadcast Sunday night games, at the end of weekends that will have already deluged viewers with college and early Sunday games.
ESPN will take over Monday night NFL games next year and will surely lose money on its $1.1 billion per year package, but the cable sports giant felt it had to maintain an NFL presence for image and promotional purposes. Bad business decisions mean nothing to networks when being lured by football glitz. Network execs are as addicted to the pigskin as are the fans.
When it comes to football and television, Americans don't see moderation as a virtue. Television fuels the cultural football gluttony that extends deep into the lifestyles of the many fans who devote immeasurable time to Internet football chat rooms, fantasy leagues, video games, and gambling.
This football super-saturation, of course, will continue on television until the ratings and advertising revenues drop off drastically. The odds of that happening any time soon are about the same as Terrell Owens being named the NFL's sportsman of the year.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.