In securing the rights to the National Football League’s new Thursday night franchise, CBS effectively pulled the rug out from under its broadcast competition. While it’s no secret that NBC has been having a rough time of it on the crucial night, Fox isn’t faring all that well on fall Thursdays, either. (While its 8 p.m. time slot remains a quandary, ABC’s battery of the indefatigable Grey’s Anatomy and the smash hit Scandal make it bulletproof, especially among female viewers.)
Those who were absolutely convinced that NBC would spend its way to a rights win remain perplexed by how the Peacock let itself get outflanked by CBS. But according to sources with insight into the auction, CBS’ offer, which was estimated to be around $275 million, actually did not overshadow its rivals—in fact, one suitor suggests that NBC’s bid was the highest of the five.
Instead, the network’s dominance on Thursday nights and its willingness to shoulder the load on the production costs for all 16 games (this includes the eight telecasts that will run on NFL Network in the second half of the season) gave CBS the edge. And while the impact of erecting another broadcast NFL tent pole will be significant, CBS faces some uncertainty as it plans its fall schedule. Here are four of the biggest questions facing the network as of today:
1) What’s going to happen to The Big Bang Theory?
It’s a ratings monster and generates tremendous amounts of ad sales revenue, but the endearingly nerdy sitcom’s 8 p.m. start time is likely to overlap CBS’ pre-game show. (NFL Network’s Thursday Night Football games kick off at 8:29 p.m. ET.) So, while CBS could just as soon bench The Big Bang Theory until Nov. 6, it’s more likely to shift the show to Monday night in the slot currently occupied by the departing How I Met Your Mother. If nothing else, such a move would give a shot in the arm to the mix of returning and new comedies CBS is expected to program next fall,
That said, any such realignment almost certainly wouldn’t be permanent. Thursdays are too important for movie studios, automakers and retailers, and the NFL’s residency on CBS is a mere eight weeks. At the same time, should Bang find itself back on the Monday night grid, pulling it from the anchor spot after two months could destabilize the entire lineup. (And once Bang returns to its home base, what does CBS install in its stead?) There are worse problems to have, but this is definitely going to be one of the upfront’s biggest reveals.
2) Can CBS actually make money with a limited NFL package?
“We suspect on pure spot monetization versus cost per game basis, the NFL contract for the Thursday Night package would be a very modest loss leader,” RBC Capital Markets analyst David Bank wrote Wednesday night in a note to investors. Given the relatively sober price CBS paid for the games (back-of-the-envelope math puts the going rate at around $35 million per contest), and the estimated 112 units that are available in a standard NFL broadcast, a base rate of $300,000 per :30 would bring CBS pretty close to breaking even. If that sounds like a big chunk of change for a half-minute of airtime, it’s nowhere near what CBS commands for a spot in its late national games—which air outside of prime time. (Technically speaking, the 4 p.m. games run from early fringe through prime access.) Of course, none of the above factors in the potential windfall associated with landing presenting sponsorships and integrations…nor does it take into account production costs, salaries and other game-day expenses.
But the power of the NFL isn’t limited to its status as the foremost ad-delivery vehicle known to man. As Bank notes, CBS’ AFC package functions as a tremendously efficient promotional machine. “Because CBS owns so much of its own content, every show it ‘breaks’ or builds has not only value on the prime time schedule, but in the long-tail of syndication as well,” Bank said. “A hit on CBS is thus arguably worth more to its parent company than most other networks that tend to produce and own less of their prime time schedules than CBS.”