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CBS Bets Big on Thursdays, but Will the Fans Follow?

For the NFL and CBS, it will be a whole new ballgame on Thursday night.

Following eight years of games on NFL Network — including five consecutive seasons of record viewership — the National Football League wants to further grow its Thursday Night Football franchise.

After increasing the schedule to 13 games during the 2012 and 2013 seasons, the league is bolstering the package to 16 (including a pair of Saturday affairs) with CBS stepping onto the field on one of TV’s most-watched nights and an evening favored by Madison Avenue and its studio, auto and retail clients.

For a reported $275 million in rights fees, the nation’s most-viewed broadcast network will air games during the first half of the season that will be simulcast on NFL Network. The back end of the schedule will feature CBS-produced games airing on NFL Network, as well as broadcast stations in the participating teams’ home markets.

“This is part of a long-term game plan, to gauge fans’ appetite for NFL football on Thursday night. We started NFL Network with an eight-game package, without great distribution, in 2006,” NFL Media executive vice president Brian Rolapp said, noting that the league went to 13 games two seasons ago and NFL Network has 73 million subscribers. “Now we’re going to broadcast with the biggest network and simulcasts, and we’ll see how that does.”

CBS said it already sees the move as a touchdown. “The NFL is the most attractive property in television,” CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said. “When the opportunity for Thursday Night Football presented itself, we went after it very aggressively. CBS is the No. 1 network with a dominant position on Thursday. Thursday Night Football is going to make us stronger.”

The network’s No. 1 team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms will call the games on CBS, as well as on NFL Network, flanked by its top production crew. “Thursday Night Football is the very highest priority for CBS Sports this year and one of the top for CBS Corp.,” McManus said. In addition to TNF, Nantz and Simms will also work key doubleheader games on Sundays. “They have a somewhat grueling task” with 22 regular season games, up to 25 with playoffs. “I’d have some concerns if Jim and Phil didn’t have such a great love for the game.”

For his part, McManus said he’s “not in the ratings prediction business,” before noting that CBS games “will be big and the best on Thursday night. How big will be determined by matchups and competitiveness of the games.”

Last season, NFL Network scored record marks, including contributions from the over-the-air stations of the participating teams, with a 5.0 rating and 8 million viewers. Those numbers were up 9% and 10%, respectively, from 2012. And NFL Network’s TNF telecasts were the mostwatched programming on cable each of its 13 game nights.

This year, the CBS/NFL Network combination is reportedly guaranteeing a 12.3 rating. Although inventory remains both on Thursday night and Sunday afternoon, McManus said CBS is ahead of ad-sales projections for both.

“The NFL wants to make Thursday night the same kind of destination that has been established on Monday and Sunday nights,” he said, noting the NFL holds a renewal option for the 2015 season. “We’re going to put our best product forward and would like to be in a position to get involved further.”

CBS is also front and center with another significant scheduling change: “cross-flexing.” As part of new, nineyear contracts with its Sunday broadcast partners, Black Rock on occasion will air national NFC matchups that previously would have run on Fox before a smaller regional audience. Similarly, Fox will televise AFC matchups that were formerly the province of CBS.

“We’ve been talking to the NFL about this for years,” said McManus. “There are lots of good matchups in [the] NFC East and West, and more exposure is in everyone’s best interest. … I think it will increase ratings for both CBS and Fox, and be better for fans.”

The Washington-San Francisco game on Nov 23. and Chicago-Detroit on Thanksgiving Day are among the games being cross-flexed to CBS.

The flex scheduling for Sunday Night Football will also change under the new deal. In addition to substituting games on the NBC package from weeks 11 through 17, a pair of changes can be made during weeks 5 through 10.

“It’s an insurance policy,” Rolapp said, noting the plan goes back to the 2011 season when Peyton Manning was injured. What before the season appeared on paper to be a great matchup between the New Orleans Saints and Manning’s former team, the Indianapolis Colts, didn’t turn out that way. “We were locked into a non-competitive game,” Rolapp said of the Saints’ 62-7 demolition in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in Manning’s native New Orleans, as he sat out the entire season with neck injuries requiring surgeries.