CBS's Thursday Night Football: An Ambitious Alliance With A Lot At Stake

Sep 4, 2014
Originally published on September 4, 2014 10:49 am

How much football is too much for TV?

That's the question CBS and the NFL may face Sept. 11, when the curtain rises on their ambitious experiment to build a new broadcast television home for pro football on Thursdays.

NBC will air the first game of the season Thursday, Sept. 4, but CBS won the rights to broadcast eight more Thursday games starting with the Sept. 11 matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens. Those games will air simultaneously on CBS and the NFL Network cable channel; CBS's top-line talent will also handle the NFL Network games that don't air on the broadcaster — evidence of how badly CBS President and CEO Les Moonves wanted this deal.

For the TV industry, it's a no-brainer. The most-watched show on television last season was NBC's Sunday Night Football, drawing an average 21 million viewers each night. And among the top 10 programs of last TV season with young viewers, four of them were football-related shows on NBC or CBS.

Moonves, one of the industry's savviest deal-makers and programmers, knows this better than anyone.

"This is a sure thing," the CEO declared to an audience of critics and reporters gathered for a July press conference with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. "This is the program we know is going to work, we know is going to be on the air for many, many years on broadcast television. ... The entire network is behind it."

And when Moonves said the entire network, he wasn't kidding. Mentions of Thursday Night Football and the NFL have been sprinkled everywhere on CBS from the police drama Blue Bloods to the unscripted series Big Brother and the game show The Price is Right.

One reason why: Variety reported CBS was charging $500,000 per 30-second spot for ads.

Still, there is the possibility that fans, inexplicably, may not tune in. And what would that do to the TV industry?

As the football season kicks off, here are a few important things to remember about how much the CBS/NFL deal has affected all of television this fall, and sports TV in particular:

It's about building a partnership between two moneymaking giants. Because the deal lasts for only a year, CBS is working hard to prove it can be an effective and profitable partner for the NFL on Thursdays. The advantages for CBS range beyond advertising revenue that night; a successful Thursday can help CBS contend as the top network in young viewers year-round and allow them to ask for even more money from cable systems that carry their broadcast signals. NFL is playing the coy partner, while hoping to build another strong night for football-centered programming on a broadcast network to prove how valuable its increasingly costly TV deals remain.

It's about building viewership habits on broadcast and cable. CBS hopes to get football fans used to calling up their channel on Thursdays, so when highly rated comedies such as Big Bang Theory and Two and A Half Men return to the night Oct. 30, they may see even bigger ratings. The NFL likely hopes that fans who develop a Thursday-night game habit watching CBS might just turn to the NFL Network later. If enough of them show up on cable, the NFL could yank back the Thursday games entirely next year (I'm betting this won't happen, because the partnership with CBS will work well).

Rivals will mostly compete for the viewers left out. This fall, ABC has handed its Thursday night to its show creator most popular with female viewers: Shonda Rhimes. Her hits Grey's Anatomy and Scandal will air Thursdays before a new show she is executive-producing, How to Get Away with Murder. NBC has moved its weight loss competition Biggest Loser to Thursdays, along with the new romantic comedy A to Z and the family drama Parenthood. All these scheduling moves look like attempts to court female viewers and fans who prefer relationship-based programs to sports.

It's about the power of live programming. Football remains one of the most popular TV events that viewers insist on watching as it happens — a godsend for TV outlets struggling with ad-skipping DVRs and binge viewing on Netflix or Amazon. It's also programming that doesn't decline in viewership year-to-year, like so many other shows, especially on broadcast TV.

Overall, Thursday Night Football looks like the surest bet in the TV industry. But you can ask any gambler; sometimes, even the surest things don't work out.

And if the most reliable programming on television doesn't draw a huge crowd, that may become the biggest story of all.

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All right, what is the only thing better than watching NFL football on television? Watching even more NFL football on television. More fans, like myself, will now have the chance to do just that on Thursday nights, like tonight. The season kicks off with the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks. The question is - is a TV network taking a risk using a primetime slot for football - a time usually stacked with highly rated sitcoms, dramas and reality programs? To ask this question, we turn to two resident experts - NPR TV critic Eric Deggans and NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Guys, and we should really point out that we should focus on your precise areas of expertise because, Tom, you don't know much about TV and, Eric, you don't know much about football, right?

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Exactly right.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: That is wise.

GREENE: I'm glad we have you both. Well, Tom, let me start with you. We've got NBC showing this game tonight, and then CBS takes over for a good number of Thursday nights into the season. Why's the NFL chasing an audience in the middle of the week?

GOLDMAN: Well, Thursday night is a big viewing night, as I believe Eric can confirm. And for the NFL, it brings in more viewers and fans who don't have cable. It's estimated that the NFL Network, which will be simulcasting these games with CBS - it's in about 70 million homes. Broadcast networks are broadcasted to be in about 115 million homes, and that's a lot more fans potentially for the NFL.

GREENE: And so we should say Thursday night games were on NFL Network last season, so you're saying this move to the networks - actually going to pick up more fans for the sport, for the league.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, it should, sure.

GREENE: Well, Eric, let me get the television perspective here. I mean, CBS - is it a wise move for them to air for football games and give up on the traditional sitcoms and dramas?

DEGGANS: Well, they're not giving up on the traditional sitcoms; they're just delaying them for the eight weeks that they're going air these eight games. And yes, it makes all kinds of sense. For NBC, the rival network, one reason why they were at the top of the ratings for viewers that advertisers love is because they have Sunday night football, which is the highest-rated program on television. And CBS has promised its advertisers ratings that will be just under the Sunday night football games, so they are excepting to be the number two highest-rated television with these Thursday night games.

They ponied up $275 million to get the rights to air these games, and they're going to have their broadcast stars not only to the CBS games, they're going to do the games that are on the NFL Network that will not be on CBS. That's how badly they wanted this package.

GREENE: So they're offering up their people to actually do the games they aren't even airing up on their network?

DEGGANS: Exactly. They only have the rights to the games for one season. And they want this partnership to extend, and Les Moonves, who's the president of CBS, has made a personal mission to forge partnership between CBS and NFL on Thursday nights.

GREENE: So they put up a ton of money to get the rights to this. They have to be expecting to make it up in advertising. I mean, if you're selling commercials during an NFL game, are you - if you're CBS - making a lot more on ads during shows like "Elementary" and "Two And A Half Men" that were airing in this slot last fall?

DEGGANS: Well, they're asking for a half million dollars per 30-second spot, and that is a really high number. We'll see if they get it from every advertiser, but yes, they are asking for a lot of money.

GREENE: Well, and, Tom, we should say when these games just aired on the NFL Network in past years, I mean, some of the matchups weren't that great. I mean, they were pretty cruddy. But CBS is really pushing for good matchups, marquee matchups from the NFL this year, right?

DEGGANS: Well, they are, but I will say that, you know, despite the matchups, there are drawbacks to any Thursday night game. I mean, it's a real short turnaround from the Sunday before. Players are banged up and hurting, and game plans really aren't as efficient or smooth or complex. Coaches sometimes feel like they have to rush a strategy because there's not enough time to teach or practice.

DEGGANS: Well, I've got to say as far as the TV industry is concerned, people are going to watch anyway because it's football.

GREENE: Well, if that's true, Eric, let me ask you this - I mean, do the other networks like NBC, ABC, if they know that, that people are going to watching CBS just for the fact that there's football on, do they start rethinking their lineups based on that?

DEGGANS: Oh, yeah, we've seen ABC and NBC both stack their Thursday schedule with female-skewing shows, assuming that all the guys will be watching football. So on ABC, they have Shonda Rines, their most successful showrunner with women, and they have her shows - "Grey's Anatomy," "Scandal" and her new show "How To Get Away With Murder." And then on NBC, we see "The Biggest Loser," a romantic comedy called "A To Z" that's new, "Parenthood" - these are all shows that do well with women. They figure they're going to cater to the football widows who may be in another room watching TV while their husbands are watching football.

GREENE: That's NPR TV critic Eric Deggans and NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Thanks guys.

DEGGANS: Thanks for having me.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.