Although it officially began on Thursday night, today the premiere of the new season of the Greatest Reality Show On Earth gets underway once again with 13 episodes airing from coast to coast this afternoon, including one based at Ford Field in Detroit featuring the talents of the Vikings and the Lions. In an era where reality TV is dominating the airwaves – from talent competitions to redneck hijinks to horrible parents and their equally horrible children – the NFL is the king of the genre.
The NFL has dominated the sports fan market for years and there appears to be no end in sight in the foreseeable future for that graph line to level. Regular season NFL games get higher Nielsen ratings than the World Series, the Stanley Cup or the NBA Finals – by a significant margin. Local ratings shares for mid-Sunday afternoon games are so dominant that the local NFL team garners more viewers than all the other channels combined. A 50 percent share of the audience is viewed as a disappointment. That's how huge the NFL is.
What makes the NFL TV viewing experience so widespread is that there are only 16 games. There are 82 NBA and NHL games in a regular season and a whopping 162 in Major League Baseball. They're marathons that you have to commit to in order to be viewed as a hard-core fan. You can endure long losing streaks and still be a playoff team in other sports. In the NFL, if you lose two games in a row, you dig yourself a hole. Every game counts. Every game has consequences, short-term and long-term. It's drama on a Shakespearean level.
The NFL provides a population that has a seemingly endless capacity for reality TV with all the elements that is reality TV at its finest. There is drama. There is humor (typically a bit too forced, but humor nonetheless). There is tragedy. There is danger. There is intrigue. There are consequences for mistakes. There are "characters" that fans root for. There are "characters" that fans despise. Go anywhere outside of Texas and Tony Romo may as well be Snooki or one of the Kardashians. The NFL has it all and puts it in a package that has appeal across the board to fans of different races, nationalities, political beliefs or creeds. It's got it all and essentially sells itself.
The league has increasingly blurred the line between itself and the world of entertainment because its stars are so popular and their product is in such demand. As the popularity of the league increased, the NFL made it possible for fans to see every play of every game – either live or on downloadable delay. There is a channel devoted exclusively to showing games when a team is inside the opponent's 20-yard line and is likely to score. Fantasy football used to be a shunned secret shame to the NFL. Now the capitalistic league embraces it and American workplace productivity takes a significant dip on Mondays as employees make waiver claims and trade proposals.
Sports have always been reality television at its best. When the world moved at a slower pace, baseball was the background music of the era. When fans wanted a rush of adrenaline, they watched boxing – which, if one was to view with the sound turned down and opera music playing, would synchronize in a strange and poetic way. Baseball has been replaced by the NFL. Boxing has been replaced by the UFC, whose soundtrack would be more in line with thrash metal. The consumer has driven the product and the consumer has a love affair with the NFL that has shown no signs of waning.
In what are considered the four major television networks, all of them have a piece of the NFL. CBS has the AFC contract. FOX has the NFC contract. NBC saves its ratings by having network TV's top-rated prime time show in Sunday Night Football, and ESPN, which, along with ABC, is owned by the Disney Corporation, has the Monday night contract. It's hard not to consider NFL football as mainstream entertainment when every major network has a taste. Disney made a business decision to move Monday Night Football from ABC to ESPN to build the self-proclaimed Leader In Sports' brand.
The 21-week season, which is roughly what all television series tend to run each year, will be the highest rated, the most coveted by advertisers and the most watched by viewers. Every episode will broken down in the same way fan-boys break down the intricacies of science fiction television. You can go from hero to goat in a week and back again the next episode.
For some, the show should be cancelled after four episodes – teams like the Jets and Jaguars come to mind. Others will have a faithful fan following only to have a tragic final episode. Fans of just one show will end the sweeps week season of early February celebrating a happy ending. In the end, they all look back on the season, gaining an appreciation for some of the actors and saving their venom for other characters who they didn't like.
At a time when reality television has spawned faux-reality television – scripted reality that sullies the genre and takes the pure documentary-style narrative into scripted writing – the NFL has taken its place as the Godfather of reality TV. It has given America an offer it can't refuse. Today it gets started. The United States begins the pre-holiday season process of gaining weight and, despite problems at home and abroad, for six hours on Sunday (and then again after supper on Sunday and Monday night), all is right with the world … unless your favorite team loses.
Are you ready for some football? If you're that "one in a million" type, there are 50 or 60 people just like you out there this afternoon. The new season of the USA's No. 1 reality show is ready to light the candle and capture the minds and hearts of a viewing public … again.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
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