David Zurawik

NFL Network sees Ravens-49ers game as one of channel's biggest ever

It might be hard to imagine that anyone is more psyched-up for Thursday night's matchup between the Ravens and 49ers than Baltimore and San Francisco fans.

But there is. The team at NFL Network, which is cablecasting the game from Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium at 8 p.m. Thanksgiving day, is sky high. Executives and announcers at the league-owned cable channel see the match-up between two division-leading teams coached by brothers as one of the biggest contests and most compelling story lines in its six seasons of telecasting games in prime time.

"What I've learned over the years about the NFL is that what looked good six months ago, doesn't always look so good now — and vice versa," says Mark Quenzel, senior vice president of programming and production at the NFL Network.

"But that said," he adds, "when I looked at the schedule six months ago and saw Thursday night's game, I thought that's going to be a great one because of the Harbaugh brothers' story. And what's happened now because of the standings so far this season, is that you have arguably our biggest game of the year. It's two great teams with great records. And then, you have this incredible brothers story — on Thanksgiving night when football on television has historically been such an important part of the holiday for many families."

Mike Mayock, analyst for "Thursday Night Football," thinks the game has even more import for the network that only a few years ago was known mainly for the anger it engendered among some fans who couldn't get it on their cable systems.

"We started out as kind of a curiosity, and nobody knew how many households we were in — and we weren't really sure how we were going to morph into the future," Mayock said. "And now, I take a step back and look at this Thursday night game you're talking about with the 49ers and Ravens, and I go, 'That's about as good as it gets for any network. That's as good as any Sunday night game, any Monday night game. You can take any prime time game out there on any network or cable channel, and you can stack this one in Baltimore Thursday night right up against it.'"

With as many as 60 staffers in town this week for the game, the network is committing major resources to Thursday's game, Quenzel says.

"Our people started arriving in Baltimore Monday night," he said. "And that's a little earlier than usual, but that's because we are going to do a special edition of 'Gameday Morning,' our pre-game show, which is normally on Sundays, live from Baltimore starting at 10 a.m. Thursday."

The show, which is hosted by Rich Eisen, will advance a full slate of Turkey Day football on other channels with the Green Bay Packers playing the Detroit Lions, and Dallas Cowboys against the Miami Dolphins.

The network is now in 60 million homes. In November 2006, when the prime-time telecasts began, the NFL network was in 37.5 million homes. Those were the bad old days when some fans who couldn't see their teams play because they didn't receive the network howled in protest.

Today, 16 of the top 20 television providers carry the NFL network. One the few that still doesn't is Time-Warner in New York. And, according to Quenzel, unless you have satellite TV, Verizon FIOS or RCN in the New York market, you are not going to see Thursday's game.

In the home markets of competing teams, viewers are offered the option of watching the game on a local broadcast channel -- a league mandate that took effect with the first cablecasts on ESPN in 1987. And so it is that viewers in Baltimore Thursday night will also be able to see the game on WBAL-TV, which won the right by submitting the highest bid among local stations.

WBAL has been enjoying Sunday night ratings bonanzas by nature of being the local affiliate for NBC's "Sunday Night Football," and should have another big night Thursday despite viewers also being able to watch on the NFL Network, which will be providing the coverage with Mayock as analyst and Brad Nessler doing play-by-play.

"Thanksgiving Day is one of the most watched regular season days for NFL football all year," says network spokesman Dan Masonson.

That large audience, which includes greater group viewing by families and friends, is one of the reasons the network's "Gameday" show will run for 2 and 1/2 hours from Baltimore on Thursday.

"When we first saw the schedule with this game on Thanksgiving, my first thought was, 'How cool is it that we're going to have the two Harbaugh brothers going at it?'" Rich Eisen said.

"Then, I thought, 'How cool is it that we're going to get to go to Baltimore on Thanksgiving where the football atmosphere is as good as anywhere else in the country?' And now, it's just the cherry on top that the 49ers are playing as well as they're playing. We're just overjoyed about having this game. I can't wait."