It’s Fourth and Goal in TV’s Fight for ‘Thursday Night Football’

Analysis: Fox and CBS are among the media companies fighting hard to snare rights to any and all of the NFL's eight 'Thursday Night Football' games

NFL TV Network Battle
Jorge Lemus/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

One of the greatest scrums in the history of football is taking place right now — but you’ll never see it on TV.

A multitude of big media companies would love to get their hands on the National Football League’s package of Thursday-night games, currently broadcast on CBS and the league’s own NFL Network. Their time could be at hand: A deal between CBS and the NFL to show some of those games is about to lapse, giving Time Warner’s Turner, Comcast’s NBCUniversal, Walt Disney’s ESPN and ABC, and 21st Century Fox’s Fox Sports room to make their case that the weekly contest should be placed under their aegis. CBS, of course, will fight to keep its current media trophy – eight games played in the first part of the season.

At stake 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 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 Fox, which is losing its aging ratings magnet “American Idol,” or NBC, which has had problems fielding a competitive Thursday lineup in recent seasons. Fox and CBS are believed to be competing the hardest for the rights, according to one person with knowledge of the talks.

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.

But snaring the Thursday package won’t be easy. For one thing, it’s quite costly. CBS reportedly paid $300 million for the games in 2015, up from about $275 million for 2014, when it first gained those TV rights. CBS Corp. chief executive Leslie Moonves has told investors at recent conferences that the company expects to pay some sort of increase — but won’t break the bank to keep the rights. (CBS also has rights to the NFL package of AFC games on Sunday afternoons through 2022.)

The media companies and the NFL declined to make executives available for direct comment on the negotiations, which, if recent history is a guide, ought to come to some sort of end before Super Bowl 50 is broadcast in early February.

Already, however, some things are clear. The NFL is interested in broadening the Thursday-night footprint. The League has approached the networks not only about a pitch for eight games, but also just a handful of them – an option that would likely cause scheduling havoc. “Whatever they do is all about increasing the viewership and the promotion and the destination-viewing of ‘Thursday Night Football.’ ” said CBS Sports chief Sean McManus during a presentation at the Television Critics Association press tour Tuesday. He confirmed an earlier report in Sports Business Journal about the new arrangement being sought by the NFL.

The NFL wants the games to have the massive reach of a broadcast network, according to people familiar with the talks, meaning it will be hard for the companies to make the case for their cable assets. And the league might be interested in separating streaming rights, perhaps using them to experiment with a nontraditional, digitally focused entity.

In a recent interview with Re/code, Brian Rolapp, the NFL’s exec VP of media, suggested the league would consider all options, and is not averse to letting a traditional media player handle both streaming and broadcast. Until the next contract is decided, it’s likely that everyone from ABC to Yahoo will at least kick the tires on this pigskin property.