With one second left in the first quarter of Sunday’s Steelers-Packers game, Tony Romo marveled at just how quickly the opening 15 minutes of the broadcast had flown by. “I don’t know if I’ve ever done a quarter of football without a commercial,” the CBS analyst said, echoing what more than a few fans in the Pittsburgh and Milwaukee markets must’ve already been thinking.
Thanks to some strange doings that were going down some 990 miles to the east and a confluence of other peculiarities having to do with the business of TV, CBS chose to forge ahead with a special ad-free, no-huddle edition of its big NFL production.
CBS managed to get through the entire quarter without airing a commercial break—this despite the fact that the standard allotment of four interruptions had been built into the broadcast schedule. In the absence of the usual barrage of Geico, Verizon and Bud Light Seltzer spots, the first quarter was completed in a brisk 26 minutes and 16 seconds.
As the technicians in the truck aired a shot of Equanimeous St. Brown dropping an Aaron Rodgers pass at the Steelers’ 20, Jim Nantz gave a hint as to what was going on. Back in New York, the Titans had just missed what would have been a game-tying 49-yard-field goal with nine seconds to go in overtime, giving the Jets their first win of the season. Although fans in 90% of the markets served by CBS had expected to be taken out to Green Bay for the 4:25 p.m. ET national window, the affiliates instead diverted traffic to the overtime duel in MetLife Stadium.
Randy Bullock’s kick sailed wide left just as the quarter was running out in Green Bay. Thus, viewers in the home markets encountered their very first ad break of the afternoon during the interval between the end of the first quarter and the start of the second quarter. (The ad pod led off with the seemingly ubiquitous Verizon “Every Sister” spot, featuring Kate McKinnon. According to iSpot.tv, that spot aired 99 times last Sunday, a bombardment that included no fewer than 27 in-game NFL airings.)
Two plays into the new period, at the 14:17 mark, Nantz boomed, “We want to welcome the full nation to Lambeau Field,” at which point the last of the affiliates airing the Titans-Jets game switched over to CBS’ late-afternoon showcase. Moments later, Rodgers rumbled for a 4-yard touchdown, knotting up the game at 7-all and providing CBS an opportunity to start making up ground on the four pods it didn’t run in the first quarter.
While fitting 16 breaks into three quarters of football took a bit of scrambling on CBS’ part, each of the paid spots aired to completion. The decision to proceed with an ad-free show until the affiliates were all in place was a practical business decision; when marketers are paying up to $750,000 for a 30-second sliver of airtime in what’s meant to be a nationally televised game, there’s no benefit to running those spots until every market that’s scheduled to carry the broadcast is synced up with that primary feed. If CBS had aired the standard ad load in the first quarter, when only the home team affiliates and select “mandatory kickoff markets” were airing the Steelers-Packers signal, it would have been charging Wagyu sirloin rates and serving up cafeteria hamburgers.
As it is, the national broadcast window averaged 22.3 million viewers, making it the fifth most-watched NFL game of the season thus far. Because the size of the audience is functionally irrelevant if the people who are watching aren’t being fed any commercials, Nielsen officially did not begin measuring the CBS deliveries until that first Verizon ad dropped, at approximately 4:50 p.m. ET.