CBS, NFL Eye Gains For 'Thursday Night Football'

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 NFL 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 one favored by Madison Avenue and its studio, auto and retail clients. For a reported $275 million in rights fees, the nation’s most-viewed 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 games produced by CBS that will air on NFL and 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,” said NFL Media executive vice president Brian Rolapp, 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 already views the move as a touchdown.

“The NFL is the most attractive property in television,” said CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus. “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.”

And CBS is certainly putting its best cleats forward. 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 Corporation,” said McManus. In addition to TNF, the teams will also work key doubleheader games on Sundays. “They have a somewhat grueling task” with 22 regular season games and up to 25 with playoffs. “I’d have some concerns, if Jim and Phil didn’t have such a great love for the game.”

McManus likened the TNF game plan to one sports have become familiar with over recent bouts of March Madness. “There are similarities with Turner and the NCAA tournament. There is lot of integration. The look, the graphics, the music will be the same. The talent is the same for both CBS and NFL Network, with the same crews behind and in front of the cameras, even when NFL Network takes over.” 

He underlined his point by saying viewers screen the “exact same product when they see a tournament game on CBS or TruTV.”

Rolapp said integration is key. “Talent and production are going to work together,” with NFL Network’s Rich Eisen, Steve Mariucci and Marshal Faulk working a 6:30 pregame show from outside stadium. From there, CBS’s James Brown and Bill Cowher will team with NFL Network’s Deion Sanders with the pregame show on CBS, kicking off at 7:30 from inside the venue. Rolapp said things will change over the course of the campaign with more NFL Network players getting into the game.

“We’ll see how to mix and match ideas and talent,” he said.

When it comes to the Nielsens, Rolapp said he doesn’t have a specific number in mind.

"We want to generate higher ratings and viewership,” he said, adding that’s it’s not only important that NFL Network games improve in the second half of the season, but its other programming as well, via cross-promotion and the additional exposure from CBS. “We want consumption to go up overall.”

For his part, McManus said he’s “not in the ratings prediction business,” before noting “they 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 numbers: a 5.0 rating, including contributions from the over-the-air stations of the participating teams, and 8 million viewers. Those deliveries were up 9% and 10%, respectively, from 2012. Led by the channel’s best-ever 7.0 and 11.1 million marks for the week three matchup between Andy Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs and his former team, the Philadelphia Eagles, NFL Network’s TNF telecasts were the most-watched programming on cable each of its 13 game nights. 

This year, the CBS/NFL Network combo is reportedly guaranteeing a 12.3 rating.

Although inventory remains in both the Thursday night and Sunday afternoon packages, McManus said CBS is ahead of ad sales projections for both.

Before the TNF opener between Baltimore  and Pittsburgh even kicks off on Sept. 11, McManus is already looking ahead.

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

Rolapp wasn’t tipping his hand about the league's next TNF play or the future of NFL Network with primetime games.

“Like anything else, we will evaluate what happens and what we need to do better,” he said. “We always want to work with our partners in that fashion.”

CBS is also front and center with another significant scheduling change: "cross-flexing." As part of new nine-year contracts with 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, 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 NFC East and West, and more exposure is in everyone’s best interest. It’s another tool in NFL’s arsenal to improve the schedule. I think it will increase ratings for both CBS and FOX, and be better for fans."

Rolapp shares that viewpoint.

"Cross-flexing is part of contract for next nine years and we think it will help generate more exposure for the NFL overall, Four games are set, and we have the ability to do two or three others," he said. "We’ll see how it goes."

Asked if the new schedule mechanism coulld hinder Fox and its bigger market NFC deal, Rolapp replied' 'I don’t think it’s detrimental to Fox. This is more exposure for games that otherwise would not have this kind of reach. This is not going to hurt, but enhance the package and generate extra viewers.”

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

The new contracts will also afford more flex scheduling possibilities on NBC. As was the case under expiring pact, the Peacock will still air better matchups from week 11 through 17 from the NFL’s original schedule. Now, two more games can be upgraded between weeks five and 10.

“It’s an insurance policy,” said Rolapp, explaining that the plan's roots 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,” said Rolapp of the Saints' 62-7 demolition in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in Manning’s native New Orleans, as the quarterback sat out entire season with neck injuries requiring surgeries.

Rolapp said the idea is to “maximize viewership, and to increase overall fan consumption for the league.”