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Weekend Starts Early for NBC’s ‘Thursday Night Football’

Some of us may have work to do before we can declare it a weekend, but NBC Sports—and much of NBC, for that matter—is in weekend mode already with the launch of Thursday Night Football on NBC. NBC split the Thursday package with CBS, which had the first half of the midweek run. The games also air on NFL Network and stream on Twitter. The NFL received a combined $450 million from the various networks for its Thursday package. Ten Thursday games went to the two broadcasters and eight were TV-exclusive to NFL Network.

NBC’s Thursday action starts off with the Carolina Panthers, who made the Super Bowl last year, and the New Orleans Saints. NBC Sports sees Thursdays as an extension of its mighty Sunday Night Football franchise, with a few key differences, most notably the pre-game. Sunday’s Football Night in America is a look back on the day’s action, while Thursday’s Football Night in (insert home team’s market here, such as Nov. 17’s Football Night in Carolina) is a look at the game ahead.

“It’s our job to get the audience fired up to watch,” says Sam Flood, executive producer at NBC Sports.

NBC Sports has had a few weeks to get its gameplan in action, producing the last two Thursday night games for NFL Network. Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth and Heather Cox handle the Thursday games, while Bob Costas, Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison do the pre-game. “Two out of the seven nights a week are driven by NFL football,” says Flood. “Nothing trumps football as an entertainment and ratings power, and we’re very optimistic the audience will follow the games to Thursday.”

While much has been made of a ratings decline for the NFL this season, B&C learned that ad buyers were mostly nonplussed. The culmination of the presidential election should draw some viewers away from cable news. Flood says strong ratings for the most recent Sunday games, Pittsburgh versus Dallas during the day and New England versus Seattle at night, bode well for the rest of the season. The latter, an NBC primetime game, drew 22.5 million viewers.

“That’s a really good sign,” says Flood, who expressed no concern about a ratings dip.

After Saints-Panthers, Dec 1. features Cowboys-Vikings, then Raiders-Chiefs Dec. 8, Rams-Seahawks Dec. 15 and Giants-Eagles Dec. 22. NBC also has the Thursday night game on Thanksgiving, Steelers versus Colts, though that one is technically a Sunday Night Football telecast. “On paper, there’s a lot of good stuff coming to the Peacock,” says Flood.

NBC’s TV series are putting their marketing might behind the Thursday franchise. Programs including The Blacklist, Blindspot, the Chicago shows, Law & Order: SVU, Superstore and The Voice, along with the Universal/Illumination film Sing, have created customized content to promote Thursday football. In one spot, the Blindspot cast deciphers a cryptic tattoo to find it related to Thursday Night Football on NBC.

Jenny Storms, chief marketing officer of NBC Sports Group, said the spots are targeted to millennials, who reportedly see Thursday a bit differently than the rest of the population. “We wanted to distinguish TNF with the proposition that millennials start their weekend early,” she said.