If you notice more split-screens and fewer commercial breaks on NFL broadcasts this coming season, credit the fans who served as football’s lab rats.
Last fall, as its TV ratings were in an unexpected tailspin, the National Football League invited fans into a lab designed like a living room. Technicians asked them to watch games, tracking their eyes, heart rates and skin response. They saw different ad formats, including split screens with commercials on one side and the field on the other.
The tests — which were planned prior to last season and were the most extensive ever by the league — are contributing to big changes in how games will be broadcast when the regular season starts Sept. 7 with a Thursday night matchup on NBC between the Kansas City Chiefs and champion New England Patriots. The goal is to keep viewers engaged and protect the $3.5 billion in annual TV advertising taken in by NBC, CBS, Fox, ESPN and the NFL Network.
“It’s really about the pace of the game and eliminating downtime,” Amanda Herald, the NFL’s director of media strategy and business development, said in an interview. “I do think there will be a positive impact.”
NFL TV viewership fell about 8% last year, according to Nielsen data, hurt by weak matchups and competition from the presidential campaign, along with negative publicity surrounding concussions and player protests during the national anthem. The average U.S. TV audience for a regular season game shrank to 16.5 million.
Measuring fans’ physical responses to commercials — dubbed “biometrics” — has been around for years and has its skeptics. The idea is to understand not just what viewers say in focus groups but how TV shows or ads make them feel.
“We’re really starting to study how people are watching games,” Tod Leiweke, the NFL’s chief operating officer, said recently at an event hosted by GeekWire. “We’re going into people’s homes and replicating the game experience and trying to watch everything from what their eyes are following to what their behavior is during commercials breaks.”
One big change is a cut in the number of commercial breaks — to four per quarter from five. They’ll be longer so the networks can still sell the same number of commercials but less frequent. There will be 30% fewer promotional messages, such as when CBS urges viewers to stick around after the game for “60 Minutes.”
“When you have touchdown, commercial,…