NFL Opener Has McCain Campaign Leery of Delay-of-Game Penalty

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 4, 2008

Hurricane Gustav blew away the opening night of the Republican National Convention on Monday. Now Republicans are warily eyeing a man-made event -- the NFL season opener between the Redskins and Giants -- hoping that it won't complicate the convention's climax tonight.

The game is scheduled to kick off on NBC at 7:07 p.m. Eastern time, which could put it directly in the path of the convention's paramount moment, Sen. John McCain's speech accepting the party's nomination. McCain's address is scheduled during the broadcast networks' one-hour convention-coverage window between 10 and 11 p.m.

NBC says it expects the game to wrap up within three hours, as both NBC and the NFL say such telecasts typically do. But that's far from guaranteed. An overtime game, or one extended by an unusual number of disputed calls or injuries, could send the contest past its allotted time. That raises the possibility that the game could conflict with McCain's speech, or that McCain will have to wait until later in the evening -- potentially losing early-retiring viewers.

On the other hand, a quick conclusion to the matchup between the reigning Super Bowl champion Giants and their traditional conference rival could be a boon. The game could deliver millions of football fans who would otherwise not be in front of the set when NBC's convention coverage starts.

NBC is contractually obligated to carry the NFL game until its conclusion. It plans to switch immediately to the convention once the game is over.

"We're going to cover both," said NBC spokesman Brian Walker yesterday. He said NBC's news and sports divisions "are regularly in close communication, and this will be no different."

At NBC's request, the NFL agreed earlier this year to move tonight's season opener from 8:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. because of the potential convention overlap, said Greg Aiello, a spokesman for the league.

Aiello said the average game last season lasted 3 hours and 3 minutes, a duration that would leave give McCain plenty of time to speak in prime time.

McCain spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said yesterday the prospect of an extra-long game has caused some concern: "I had talked on background with a Republican convention planner a couple of weeks ago who said, 'Don't mention overtime. Overtime is our rain-in-Denver scenario.' "

So it remains unclear what the candidate will do if Jason Campbell is still slinging passes at 10:30. But people in the television business speculated that McCain would delay his speech until NBC starts its convention broadcast. NBC was among the top-rated networks during the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Its coverage of Sen. Barack Obama's acceptance speech last Thursday attracted 6.1 million viewers -- the kind of audience that Republicans don't want to lose.

The NFL and NBC said they have no plans to speed up play in tonight's game. However, the league has encouraged faster play in recent years, in part because games scheduled at 1 p.m. on Sundays often overlapped games starting at 4 p.m. This year, for example, the league has eliminated the five-yard penalty for incidental holding of face masks, which could lead to fewer game stoppages.

NBC's telecast of the NFL season opener last year attracted about 17.8 million viewers in prime time. The network will remind viewers of McCain's speech during halftime, when NBC News anchor Brian Williams will host a brief preview segment.

In addition to its contractual obligations to carry the game to the end, NBC has some history that argues against an early cutaway. In November 1968, the network stopped covering an American Football League game between the New York Jets and Oakland Raiders with 65 seconds left to play, in order to show the movie "Heidi" at its scheduled time. Viewers on the East Coast never saw the Raiders score 14 points in the final minute to win.

NBC subsequently received thousands of complaints about what became known as "the Heidi Game."

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