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‘Thursday Night Football’ Runs Up the Score for CBS

Shortly after last February’s Super Bowl, CBS signed a $275-million deal with the NFL to partner on the league’s Thursday Night Football franchise—airing seven early season games that would be simulcast on NFL Network, as well producing the entire 16-game slate.

Despite a number of lopsided games (including the three biggest margins of victory in TNF’s eight-year history), the seven games averaged 16.5 million viewers across both networks, nearly double the level from last year, when the games aired solely on NFL Network. CBS has one game remaining on the deal: A Week 16 Saturday doubleheader that it will split with NFL Network.

Even with that ratings success, it’s no given that the NFL will pick up its second-year option, as many observers feel the league could make more money putting TNF out to market for a long-term deal.

CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus spoke with B&C associate editor Tim Baysinger about establishing Thursday as a destination night for the NFL and why CBS should keep the franchise. An edited transcript follows.

Did the performance of Thursday Night Football meet your expectations?

In some ways they exceeded the expectations. I think the quality of the production and the interaction we had with the NFL Network was better than we’d even hoped for.

The presentation and the promotion and the ratings—considering the lopsided nature of so many of the games—were actually really good. It was hard to believe some of the blowouts we were having; we were sort of swimming upstream.

But even so, the ratings still dominated on Thursday night. They were still up dramatically over last year on the NFL Network. The seven games were a success. If we had had closer games it would have been even better, but you play the hand that you’re dealt.

Sunday and Monday night are established nights for the NFL, but Thursday-night games are still a relatively new thing; where does it stand as an established NFL night?

It’s much more established than it was last year. That’s due, to a large extent, to the mammoth amount of promotion we gave it on CBS, but I still think there is upside. We have a ways to go to firmly establish [Thursday] as a football destination.

You look at the amount of promotion we gave the series starting in February of this year, I think the awareness level and the acknowledgement that there is a football game on Thursday night is up dramatically over where it was last year. The fact that the ratings for the NFL Network-only games, even though those haven’t been very close either, are up significantly proves that if you give a product enough promotion, branding and quality production you can grow a franchise.

TNF is now a competitor to CBS’ primetime lineup. How do you balance promoting the rest of the Thursday games without siphoning viewers from CBS?

The network is continuing to promote its Thursday-night schedule, which obviously is an important night for CBS. But we undertook very specific obligations in terms of promoting the Thursday-night NFLN games. In our mind, if those games are successful then the concept of moving half the games to network TV has worked.

Obviously we want to get big ratings on Thursday night on CBS. But we also want to get really big numbers on Thursday night on the NFLN. It’s two different goals, and the two are not completely mutually exclusive.

It’s been a balancing act. We try to promote both CBS and NFLN aggressively and both have been doing really well, so the strategy has paid off.

When do you expect a decision on the 2015 option?

We’re in regular conversations with the NFL about the present and future, but we haven’t been given a timetable yet.

Why should CBS keep TNF?

I think we’ve done everything that the NFL wanted. It was the most extensive and expansive promotional effort in the history of CBS.

Everything that we’ve tried to do, we’ve done a really good job. We’ve also worked hand in hand with the NFL Network on the production of both the pregame show and the game itself.

By our promotion of NFL programming, I think we’ve elevated the profile and the viewership of the NFLN as well as the Thursday night games. The goals that we had were pretty lofty and aggressive. We’ve really exceeded the goals that we all set for ourselves. Hoping the NFL agrees with that. When we sit down with them we’ll certainly make our case.

How did you manage producing a primetime game Thursday night and then turning right around and producing a full slate of Sunday games?

It was demanding on our team. Giving our ‘A’ production and talent team off weeks when we were not doing a big doubleheader game [on Sunday] certainly helped.

It was a little bit taxing for everybody. But having the opportunity to produce two NFL packages was an incredible opportunity. The fact that it was a lot of work was not a negative as far as we were considered.

It was viewed by the entire division as a positive that we were the only network to carry two NFL packages. It’s been a demanding fall, but I think the entire team stepped up.

Why split that late-season Saturday doubleheader instead of an eighth Thursday night game?

It was the NFL’s decision. I think they wanted the opportunity for CBS to do a late-season game in primetime on the network. It’s a nice capping off on the combined season.

The idea of having NFLN doing one game and CBS doing the other game on a Saturday as a doubleheader is a good concept. It really illustrated the partnership that we have.

Saturday afternoon used to be a regular time slot on the networks. There were always two Saturday games during the last two weeks of the season. That went away a while ago. I think the NFL wanted to reestablish regular season Saturday football. It just seemed like a really good programming idea.

This season, the league had games on Sundays, Mondays, Thursdays, plus the upcoming Saturday doubleheader. Do you worry about reaching a saturation point?

We’re all studying it very carefully. I know the NFL thinks about that a lot.

If you look at the ratings in any one of those windows, it’s apparent that the saturation point has not been reached yet. There seems to be an almost insatiable desire for NFL football. I think we’ll all know it when we reach that point, but we haven’t reached it yet.

As long as the product is as compelling and dramatic as it is, I think it’s still the best programming in all of television. Once we reach the saturation level, we’ll realize it and hopefully we realize it before we get to that point.