“There hasn’t been an initiative at the CBS corporation in decades as large and all-encompassing as this one,” says CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus of the network’s bet on “TNF”
“There is no programming on television in any daypart that’s as powerful as NFL football. It dominates the ratings, no matter when it is on. There is nothing that comes close to it. And if you have the opportunity to add more NFL football to your schedule, you jump at the opportunity.”
CBS was eager enough to get ‘Thursday Night Football” to make what amounts to a “show me” deal, where the network has to prove itself to the National Football League. It’s an unusual arrangement: CBS adds the most valuable weekly programming in American television to its primetime lineup for the first time, while the NFL shrewdly enlists CBS to promote its own NFL Network.
And CBS is taking no chances with “TNF,” making an aggressive push for the show as unprecedented as the deal it made to get it. “Nothing has gotten the kind of promotion and branding that ‘Thursday Night Football’ has gotten, probably in the history of CBS,” says McManus.
“TNF” has been promoted across all dayparts of the CBS television network, CBS Radio, Showtime, owned-and-operated stations and independent affiliates. CBS football analysts are popping up in scripted series: Phil Simms on “Elementary,” Boomer Esiason on “Blue Bloods.” Analyst Tony Gonzales appeared on “The Talk.” There’s even an NFL category on “Jeopardy!” throughout “TNF’s” launch week.
NFL ratings are consistently so much higher than other programming that CBS didn’t think twice about pre-empting its strong Thursday primetime lineup for seven weeks. “We’re dominant in primetime right now and we’re especially dominant on Thursday night,” says McManus, “so to have the opportunity to extend that dominance was also a very attractive proposition for us.”
Under this one-year deal, CBS will co-produce and co-brand the entire Thursday Night Football schedule. The games will be simulcast on CBS and NFL Network for seven consecutive weeks, starting Sept. 11. The next seven weeks have games on NFL Network only. The package concludes with two games on Dec. 20, one on NFL Network alone and the other simulcast. (Two Thursday night games are on NBC: the opening-night “NFL Kickoff” and Thanksgiving Night game.)
The two networks are pooling their talent and resources for “TNF.” “The NFL was very clear that this was going to be a co-branded production and a co-branded property with the NFL Network,” says McManus. Both network logos appear in the graphics. NFL Network on-air talent, including analyst Deion Sanders, will appear on the CBS pregame show, while CBS studio analysts will appear on NFL Network’s pregame show, which starts earlier. CBS’s top announcing team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms will handle all the games, whether simulcast or not, and CBS’s “A” production team will run the show. The same commercials will run on both networks during the simulcast. Ratings for the simulcast will be cumed; McManus expects the simulcast will increase the Eye’s overall ratings.
Assuming the NFL hits typical ratings for pro football, CBS will be able to use the “TNF” simulcasts to promote its other programming to a vast audience. But those watching on NFL Network won’t see all CBS promos: The cable net is obliged to give more time to local providers than CBS must give to local affiliates, so some Eye promos will be replaced by local spots on NFL Network.
Meanwhile CBS will actively promote the NFL Network on “Thursday Night Football.” It’s routine for the Eye to promote cable networks, but generally those networks are owned by CBS.
“There’s no question that one of their goals was to improve the branding and the promotion and the positioning of the NFL Network, and there’s no question that the promotion that we’re giving NFL Network and NFL Network programming is a huge benefit for that network,” says McManus. “We knew that going in. It doesn’t hurt CBS for us to promote the NFL Network, we’re in very different kinds of businesses.”
The expansion of primetime football to Thursday has been a long-term project for the NFL, which began with putting eight games on the NFL Network in 2006. “The goal was twofold: It clearly was to help build our own network, but it was also to figure out if the package would work,” explains Brian Rolapp, executive VP, NFL Media. “Would it work competitively from a football standpoint, and would the player stay healthy? We also wanted to make sure that as we eked inventory into the media market that we did so in a healthy way. We don’t just throw inventory in, because that could be disruptive to the ad market that has been so healthy to NFL football.”
By 2012, it was apparent that “TNF” was working for the NFL Network and the league, so the Thursday schedule was expanded to 13 games. The next step was to put it on national broadcast TV, since the NFL considers free TV essential for keeping its fanbase.
Now CBS is hoping to impress the NFL with its handling of “TNF,” so if it goes well as expected, the Eye can renew the package. Not only is CBS committing its top NFL talent on camera and off, says McManus, there will be “more bells and whistles on each one of these games than we do on any other game except the Super Bowl.” The graphics and animations are all bespoke, with the aim of making “TNF” look and feel unique. New music features a 60-piece orchestra and a song from Jay-Z and Rihanna, “Run This Town.”
“Being the only network that has two NFL packages I think puts us in a terrific place in the marketplace with respect to sales and maximizing revenue,” says McManus. “Now all we have to do is hope that we get good, close games for the rest of the season.”