NFL to Split 'Thursday Night Football'
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

A coveted package of NFL’s “Thursday Night Football” will be split between CBS and NBC, a maneuver that will introduce new complexity into the next fall TV season and attests to the leverage the sports league has in the current media-industry landscape, where mass audiences are harder to draw to scripted programming and reality shows.

For the past two seasons, CBS held sole rights to an eight-game package, which was simulcast on cable’s NFL Network. Now, each network will show five games each season over the course of a two-year deal: CBS will broadcast the first half of the schedule and NBC will televise the second half. The NFL said all broadcast games will continue to be simulcast on NFL Network, which will  exclusively televise an eight-game schedule of regular season games comprised of Thursday Night Football,” late-season games on Saturday, and additional games to be determined.

The value of the pact was said to be $225 million per network, a big jump from the $300 million CBS was said to pay for eight games that were broadcast last year. The Wall Street Journal previously reported the news.

And the league has more to do with its mid-week franchise. The NFL said in a statement Monday that it’s “in active discussions with prospective digital partners” for streaming rights that would allow the games to be distributed by a digital player. “A deal announcement is expected in the near future.”

At stake for the traditional outlets is something increasingly hard to come by for TV networks: massive ratings. Each of the eight games shown on both CBS and the NFL Network in this current season was the most-watched program on TV on the night it ran, snaring a combined rating of between 14.8 million viewers and more than 21 million viewers. Such numbers would be highly desirable for NBC, which has had problems fielding a competitive Thursday lineup in recent seasons.

With those ratings come ad dollars. “Thursday Night Football” commanded an average of $462,000 for a 30-second ad this season, according to Variety’s annual look at primetime ad prices. Only “Sunday Night Football,” “Empire” and “The Walking Dead” cost advertisers more in the current season.

At the same time, implementing the new arrangement could bring new obstacles and wrinkles. NBC will have to interrupt its Thursday-night programming in the earlier part of the season. And could ad rates for the games that run closer to the holidays be higher than those that air earlier?

“It was important for us to get the games at the beginning to have the opportunity to launch our primetime schedule,” said Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports, in an interview. The executive called the deal “financially responsible,” and said CBS structured its proposal to the NFL knowing the league was looking to discuss digital rights with an entity other than CBS and NBC.

People familiar with discussions suggested the NFL wanted to gain more promotional power for its Thursday-football franchise, which launched in 2006. Adding NBC to the mix would allow for mention of the Thursday games during the network’s powerhouse “Sunday Night Football” and its popular latenight schedule, which includes “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and “Late Night With Seth Meyers.”

The NFL has long wanted its Thursday broadcasts to command the attention of its games televised on Sundays on CBS, Fox and NBC and on Mondays by ESPN. “We’ve made great strides since that point, and growing the base of games with CBS, now with NBC, and soon with digital streaming will only help us solidify this night in the consciousness of NFL fans here and globally,” said Robert Kraft, chairman of the NFL’s broadcast committee, in a statement.

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