With NFL Win, CBS Lands an Even Bigger Bang

Network wins rights for new Thursday night package

In a somewhat surprising turn of events, CBS appears to have outbid its broadcast competition for the rights to the new Thursday night NFL package.

While NBC was thought to be the lead dog in the hunt for the eight-game parcel, CBS emerged the victor. The broadcaster will air Thursday night games in September and October, all of which will be simulcast on NFL Network. 

The agreement is for the 2014 season although if the NFL is pleased with the pilot program, it has the option of offering CBS an additional year.

While financial terms were not disclosed, sources estimate that the winning bid was in the neighborhood of $275 million.

CBS’ top NFL broadcast battery, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, will man the booth for all 16 Thursday broadcasts, and the network will produce the entire slate. (This includes six November-December Thursday night games as well as a pair of Saturday night contests.) NFL Network host Rich Eisen and analysts Michael Irvin, Deion Sanders et al will handle pregame, halftime and postgame duties along with a team of yet-to-be-determined CBS Sports announcers.

As of Wednesday afternoon, there was no word as to what role (if any) Thursday Night Football signal callers Brad Nessler and Mike Mayock would play in the new formation.

“NFL Network built Thursday into a night for NFL fans,” said league commissioner Roger Goodell, by way of announcing the deal. “Our goal is to bring these games to more fans on broadcast television with unprecedented promotion and visibility for Thursday Night Football on CBS.”

Oddly enough, CBS is arguably the only broadcaster that doesn’t necessarily need a boost on Thursday nights. The Big Bang Theory is the top-rated non-NFL broadcast series, and the network’s two-hour comedy block and the 10 p.m. procedural Elementary consistently beat the competition in total viewers and the 18-49 and 25-54 demos.

With the eight-game package cemented for fall 2014, Big Bang and the other CBS scripted series will be riding the pine until at least Nov. 6. (A late start would also allow the network to launch some new comedies outside the noisy late-September window.)

Of all the networks that put in bids for the package—the Big Four were joined by Turner Sports—perhaps no outlet was more in need of the NFL halo effect than NBC. The Peacock this season has already canceled two underperforming Thursday comedies and rarely exceeds a nightly 1.0 rating in the dollar demo.

CBS’ late national AFC suite is the second-biggest show on television, averaging 26.4 million viewers and a 15.2 household rating. Fox’s NFC package this season delivered 27.4 million viewers and a 15.7 rating.

“The NFL is the most powerful programming in television,” said CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus. “To add a prime-time NFL package to our successful Sunday AFC package further strengthens our position in the sports marketplace. We look forward to having Jim and Phil and our top production team showcased in prime time on Thursday nights.”

While there’s no way of knowing how the matchups will shake out, the new NFL package is likely to be much more competitive than NFL Net’s legacy product. Saddled with more than one stinker (Bills-Browns! Skins-Vikings!), Thursday Night Football last season averaged 7.06 million viewers and a 4.2 household rating.

The NFL releases its annual schedule in early April.

The simulcast demands took some of the wind out of the NFL’s sails, as the league was said to be looking for a much higher rate for the eight broadcast games—as much as $800 million, according to insiders. (A proposed $600 million cable package was shelved in 2011.) But pulling the games off NFL Network was never really an option. Not only would it violate terms of the channel’s agreements with cable and satellite operators, but also a winnowing of live games would undoubtedly hamper the network’s growth.

Per SNL Kagan estimates, NFL Network in 2013 charged operators an average affiliate fee of $1.34 per subscriber per month, making it the second most expensive national cable outlet behind only ESPN.

If NBC was stung by losing out on the bid, ABC’s cable sibling can’t be thrilled with the result, either. While its ratings are highly dependent on strong matchups, ESPN’s Thursday night college football showcase generally draws around 2.1 million viewers per game. (Last season, the biggest turnout happened on Nov. 7, as a meeting between No. 3 Oregon and No. 5 Stanford drew 5.73 million viewers. The low-water mark—972,000 viewers—was reached with a Nov. 21 Big East matchup between the unranked Rutgers and the University of Central Florida.) Naturally, a broadcast football package is likely to undermine Bristol’s Thursday night ratings.

At least one analyst expressed misgivings about the CBS-NFL deal. In a note to investors, Bernstein Research’s Todd Juenger characterized the pact as a real head-scratcher. “It must be a defensive move,” Juenger surmised. “CBS is already No. 1 on Thursday nights. This deal hampers their ability to launch and maintain their entertainment lineup, which in turn puts their syndication pipeline at risk.”

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