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‘Thursday Night Football’: Fox Eyes Ratings Gains as It Kicks Off New NFL Package

Fox agreed in January to pay the NFL $3.3 billion over five years for the broadcast rights to “Thursday Night Football.” It’s about to start seeing a return on that investment.

Fox’s regular-season “Thursday Night Football” package kicks off this evening with the Minnesota Vikings visiting the Los Angeles Rams — both considered Super Bowl contenders, the latter based in the country’s second largest television market. Their week-four matchup is the first of 11 Thursday-night regular season games Fox will broadcast this year.

“We’re kicking off the best Thursday schedule ever with the best game on the Thursday schedule,” said Michael Mulvihill, Fox Sports’ executive VP of research, league operations, and strategy. “So we’re encouraged by what we’ve seen so far and optimistic about what’s in front of us.”

Fox will, as CBS and NBC did last season when they split the “Thursday Night Football” broadcast package, simulcast its week-night games alongside streamer Amazon and cabler the NFL Network. But Mulvihill is bullish — somewhat — on the Thursday-night ratings outlook for this season.

“The expectation and the hope is just growth,” Mulvihill said. “If it’s 1% growth, 5% growth, 15% growth — I just want to see it trend in a positive direction.”

In addition broadcasting to “Thursday Night Football,” Fox continues to split the NFL’s Sunday-afternoon package with CBS. The Sunday 4:25 p.m. game remains the most watched show anywhere on television. Fox’s two top football goals this year are to maintain the important Sunday 4:25 p.m. game — which gives Fox Broadcasting Company a huge ratings boost going into that evening’s primetime lineup — and grow “Thursday Night Football.”

The pressure to do both is immense, given 21st Century Fox’s transitional state. With the Walt Disney Co. set to acquire the bulk of Fox’s entertainment properties, including its television and film studios, so-called “New Fox” is positioning itself as a lean company focused on news, sports, and broadcasting. With the acquisition of rights to “Thursday Night Football” and, beginning next year, WWE’s “SmackDown Live,” Fox is initiating a programming strategy for FBC heavily reliant on live sports, with pro football its biggest bet.

Whether Fox can muster an uptick in Thursday-night ratings will depend greatly on the strength of its games — past “Thursday Night Football” packages suffered from a surplus of lopsided matchups featuring featuring mid-market teams.

But larger viewership trends will also play their part. Three weeks into the season, NFL telecasts are down 2% year over year — an improvement from the last two seasons, when ratings were down 8-10% at the same point.

That apparent leveling of declines has sparked cautious optimism among the NFL’s broadcast partners, which initially rejected the idea that negative reaction to player protests during performances of the national anthem had contributed to the downturn. Now, TV sports executives are beginning to believe that reaction to the protests has effectively become “baked in,” and that most of the viewers who would decide not to watch games in part because of that issue have already stopped watching.

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