When CBS began carrying “Thursday Night Football” in September, the network did not expect one blowout after another during the first four weeks. It had promoted its new prime-time package throughout the CBS empire and moved a durable ratings hit, “The Big Bang Theory,” to Monday nights. For its efforts and a $275 million rights fee, CBS was getting this?
The Baltimore Ravens beat the Pittsburgh Steelers by 20 points, three days after graphic video surfaced showing Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée.
The Atlanta Falcons trounced the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by 42. The Giants overwhelmed the Washington Redskins by 31. And the Green Bay Packers wrecked the Minnesota Vikings by 32.
“No question, we were pulling our hair out,” said Leslie Moonves, the president and chief executive of the CBS Corporation. “We’d spent a lot of money promoting these games, and you’re watching one game after another tank.”
More competitive contests might have increased viewership of those games, but the next four (three on Thursday and one on Saturday) featured only one lopsided contest and did not produce bigger audiences. Indeed, the first four games and the last four games averaged just over 16 million viewers on CBS and NFL Network, which simulcast them.
For CBS, the games had done their job by helping it promote new programs, build up its Monday programming and show fewer repeats.
“As a network, we’re much stronger with ‘Thursday Night Football’ than without it,” said Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports.
An N.F.L. game has value beyond a half-hour sitcom, even one as valuable as “Big Bang,” said Brad Adgate, senior vice president for research at Horizon Media.
“First, the game is live, for three hours, and ‘Big Bang’ is one of the most heavily time-shifted shows on television, so there’s a concern about whether its ads are being seen,” he said.
According to Advertising Week, advertisers paid $483,333 for 30-second ads during Thursday night games last season. CBS executives said that price had risen by below 10 percent this season.
Kantar Media calculated that CBS had sold $254.8 million in advertising that capitalized on the desire of film studios, carmakers and retailers to prime buyers for weekend purchases.
“You wouldn’t want to sell against it,” said Jo Ann Ross, the president of network sales for the CBS Television Network, referring to the Thursday night games.
CBS, which will carry Super Bowl 50 in February, is the only network that owns two N.F.L. packages, an enviable position despite the league’s woes from concussion litigation, the mishandling of domestic violence cases and the deflated-football controversy that could keep New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady off the field for the first four games of the season.
From their inception in 2006, Thursday night games were the league’s lesser television offspring. Players and coaches were not thrilled by the short week of preparation. But the league — hoping to stretch its influence beyond Sundays and Mondays — viewed Thursday as another prime-time opportunity. Its channel, NFL Network, carried the games exclusively through 2013.
But the league gradually shifted its thinking, coming to believe that Thursday could truly be an appointment night for the N.F.L., as it had for college football.
In CBS, the league saw the most-viewed broadcast network in prime time and put the Thursday night franchise in its hands. Eight games were placed on CBS (and simulcast on NFL Network). The remaining eight were carried by NFL Network and broadcast stations in the markets of the teams playing.
CBS agreed to produce all the games and gave an added assignment to its No. 1 Sunday afternoon broadcast team, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms.
But the league has decided not to make a long-term deal with CBS. Last season’s one-year contract was followed by a similar one, at $300 million, for 2015. Take it or leave it.
“Is that frustrating?” said Moonves, who paused before responding. “Would we have liked more? Absolutely.”
Asked if he will remain patient if the league seeks another one-year deal for 2016, McManus said, “I’m not sure what the alternative is.” He added, “We weren’t shy about proposing a long-term deal.”
The N.F.L. is reluctant to agree to a contract longer than a year because of the changing media landscape. People are untethering themselves from cable and satellite subscriptions in which they pay for channels they do not want and are choosing Internet-based services instead. Whether the league wants to align Thursday night games with old or new media is a question it seems unready to answer. At what point will it be time to stream “Thursday Night Football” directly to consumers rather than distribute it by traditional means, where a long-term deal could yield a billion dollars or more?
“I think it’s fair to say everything’s on the table,” said Brian Rolapp, the league’s executive vice president for media. “We know we have a really good thing with CBS, and we’re focusing on this year. Thursday is the only package that isn’t long term, and we think a little differently about it. In this day and age, to lock into one model isn’t the smartest thing anymore.”
The future of Thursday night games, as a possible digital property, could become a bit clearer after Yahoo globally streams the Oct. 25 game in London between the Buffalo Bills and the Jacksonville Jaguars.
But CBS executives accept that the league is undecided — or is at least keeping its lucrative options open.
For now, Thursday night games will resume on CBS on Sept. 17, with the Denver Broncos playing the Kansas City Chiefs, followed by reprises of three matchups from last season — Redskins-Giants, Baltimore-Pittsburgh and Indianapolis-Houston. And CBS, happy to let the games enhance its prime-time power, will hope to keep them in 2016 and beyond.
Credit to the NY Times who originally published this article