Rupert Murdoch in 1993 lent his still-fledgling Fox broadcast network new life when he paid a whopping $1.6 billion for the rights to Sunday NFL games previously held by CBS. At the time, Fox was known best for shows like “In Living Color” and “Beverly Hills 90210” – a condition that wouldn’t last much longer.
Now Murdoch and his family are relying on a similar technique. Their 21st Century Fox won a coveted contract to air the NFL’s “Thursday Night Football“ for the next five seasons, a deal that will lend some heft to its Fox broadcast network as it separates from a significant passel of media assets its parent is selling to Walt Disney Co. “Fundamentally, Fox is built on football,” said Peter Rice, president of 21st Century Fox, discussing the deal with reporters Wednesday. “NFL football continues to be the most valuable commodity in all of media.” The sport and the big audience it brings will be of even more import for Fox after the completion of a proposed $52.4 billion deal that will see the bulk of parent company 21st Century Fox moving under the aegis of Walt Disney Co.
Under terms of the deal, Fox Sports gets to air 11 games on Fox Broadcasting that will be simulcast on the NFL Network and in Spanish on Fox Deportes. Fox will produce 18 games in total, seven of which will be broadcast solely on the NFL’s cable outlet. Fox will gain some rights to distribute both its Thursday and Sunday games to Fox subscribers over mobile phones and other digital outlets, but the NFL retains rights to find a digital partner to live-stream the Thursday games. The league expects to name one over the course of the next few weeks.
“We felt this was the best opportunity for the NFL to continue to grow the Thursday-night package,” said Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the National Football League. Fox will replace NBC and CBS, which had previously split an ten-game package for the past two seasons at a cost of around $450 million each season. Fox is said to be paying more than $650 million per year, according to a person familiar with the matter, but Goodell declined to speak about the financial terms of the deal. CBS and NBC are both believed to have lost money on their games – at the lower price.
NFL games remain TV’s top draw, luring the medium’s biggest audiences week after week. But viewership has begun to erode. The audience for regular-season NFL games fell 13%, while viewership for the league’s playoff games fell between 12% and 20%, according to research from Michael Nathanson, an independent media-industry analyst. “The NFL is experiencing a structural decline in viewership, and it is going to be an issue!” Nathanson wrote in a January 29 report. The Thursday-night games have drawn criticism in the recent past from broadcast executives and ad buyers, who suggest the lower quality of the match-ups and added games have diluted the overall schedule, crimping demand for some of football’s biggest events.
The NFL was drawn to Fox’s offer because of the company’s new need for live programming. After the completion of the sale to Disney, a “new” Fox will consist largely of the Fox broadcast network, Fox News Channel and Fox Sports 1. Without a formal connection to a production studio, the Fox network will rely more heavily on sports, news and live programs. That made the network attractive to the NFL, said Robert Kraft, the New England Patriots owner and chairman of the league’s broadcast committee. “That was what made us comfortable,” with Fox as a partner, he said.
Fox’s deal could augur some tough ratings comparisons for both CBS and NBC next season. Both are likely to rely more heavily on some of its top scripted programs on Thursday nights, which include “Big Bang Theory” and “Young Sheldon” on CBS and the powerhouse “This Is Us” on NBC.
“We explored a responsible bid for ‘Thursday Night Football,’ but in the end are very pleased to return to entertainment programming on television’s biggest night,” CBS said in a statement. “At the same time, we look forward to continuing our terrific long-term partnership with the NFL on Sunday afternoons, with more than 100 games per season including next year’s Super Bowl LIII.” CBS retains rights to broadcast Sunday-afternoon NFL games. “We made a competitive bid based on our 2 years of carrying ‘TNF,'” NBC said.” We’ll now continue to focus on keeping NBC’s ‘Sunday Night Footbal’l in its perch as primetime’s number one program, which has reached a record 7 consecutive years.”
Goodell said the deal represented a vote of confidence by the NFL in the power of broadcast TV to snare big audiences for its games. Big events, said Goodell, “continue to be on broadcast television.” But he also indicated the NFL remains interested in considering digital distribution of its content. “We are not making any determination of where we are going in the future,” he said.