CBS Lands Thursday Night NFL Package

Sunday Night Football
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CBS has landed the rights to air eight Thursday-night NFL games in the early part of the season,  in a pact likely to cement the Eye’s dominance on one of the most important nights of the week for programming and advertisers.

CBS will air eight early season games that also will be simulcast on NFL Network. NFL Network will also televise eight late-season games in the run-up to the playoffs. The mix of games will include 14 on Thursday nights and two late-season games on Saturday.The NFL has the option to renew the deal after the first year for another season.

“CBS is a premium content company and the NFL represents the best premium content there is,” said Leslie Moonves, chief executive of CBS Corp., in a statement. “I look forward to all this new deal will do for us not only on Thursday nights, but across our entire schedule.”

For sponsors, Thursday nights have long been viewed as one of the best nights to influence consumer behavior for the weekends. Movie studios and large retail chains use Thursday-night programming to drive viewers to opening weekends for big films or to weekend sales and promotions.

CBS has over the past few seasons transformed Thursday nights into a ratings powerhouse by importing several successful Monday-night sitcoms, including “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men.” Those two programs  lent the Eye momentum as it sought to tackle the second weekly episode of Fox’s aging ratings juggernaut, “American Idol.” This season, CBS added two frosh laffers to the Thursday-night schedule, “The Millers” and “The Crazy Ones.” What CBS might do with its Thursday-night comedies remains to be decided, according to a person familiar with the situation, though it could certainly opt to move one or more of the shows to Mondays, where it also features a two-hour comedy block, or launch them on Thursday later in the fall.

The NFL has been disappointed that its “Thursday Night Football” package hasn’t fared better in the ratings on NFL Network, though the net reaches just 72 million pay-TV homes. Broadcasters, by comparison, are in about 116 million homes.

One of the reasons why the “Thursday Night Football” package hasn’t resonated as well with fans is that the matchups aren’t as attractive. By league rule, every team must appear at least once in primetime during the season, so non-marquee teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars and Buffalo Bills have to be part of the mix.

What’s more,  college football has long aired games on ESPN and other networks on Thursday, which may take away some potential NFL viewers. This fall, the NFL will have to go up against Thursday matchups of top-25 teams like Auburn-Kansas State (Sept. 18), UCLA-Arizona State (Sept. 25) and Florida State-Louisville (Oct. 30).

By simulcasting the games on  NFL Network, the league is hoping to bolster the stature of the package, which will eventually create a Thursday habit for fans and lead to higher ratings for the NFL Network games later in the season. “NFL Network built Thursday into a night for NFL fans,” said Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner, in a statement. “Our goal is to bring these games to more fans on broadcast television with unprecedented promotion and visibility for Thursday Night Football on CBS.”

Maintaining a tie to the NFL Network was key to getting a deal done for the Thursday-night contests, according to a person familiar with the situation.  CBS will produce the full slate of 16 regular-season games  with its lead broadcasters and production team, including Jim Nantz and Phil Simms. CBS is also expected to promote the games via  its radio stations and other media properties. In a novel twist that illustrates how the NFL wants to burnish the reputation of its cable outlet, NFL Network hosts and analysts will be featured in the pregame, halftime and postgame shows along with CBS Sports announcers.

The eight-game CBS Thursday package is expected to run from Sept. 11 through Oct. 30. The NFL’s annual Thursday kickoff game and Thanksgiving night game will continue to air on NBC.

CBS vied with Walt Disney, 21st Century Fox and NBCUniversal for rights to air the games, according to the person familiar with negotiations. Time Warner’s Turner Sports may have demonstrated interest, but the NFL was keen on having the games televised by a broadcast network and thereby reach the broadest possible audience, this person said.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but one of the people familiar with the situation suggested the NFL was less interested in scoring an extravagant price than it was in building the Thursday-night games into a more solid franchise. One analyst, Michael Morris of Guggenheim Securities, estimated the value of the deal to come in between $250 million and $300 million.

If the Thursday-night games become an entrenched viewing habit for sports fans, the league could in time decide to bring the games back to a sole NFL Network broadcast or gain more leverage in another bidding process when the current deal expires.