CBS looks to NFL for a bigger bang on Thursday nights

A CBS sideline camera operator prepares for an NFL football game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Buffalo Bills in Pittsburgh.
(Gene J. Puskar / AP)

CBS is ready for some more football.

Already home to a popular Sunday afternoon package of National Football League games, the network will add seven or eight Thursday night games to its strong prime-time lineup this fall. Those games had previously been telecast exclusively by the league’s NFL Network.

For fans, this means that more NFL football will be on broadcast television at a time when most sports have migrated to cable. The NFL Network is in about 72 million of the country’s 115.6 million television homes — while just about everyone gets CBS.

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The agreement between the NFL and CBS is for just one year, with the league having an option to extend it to a second year. Terms were not disclosed, but people familiar with the pact said it was in the range of $275 million. Under the terms of the deal, CBS will air the majority of its games at the start of the season.

“When all is said and done it will be profitable for CBS,” Leslie Moonves, chief executive of CBS Corp., told The Times.

Moonves said having more football will allow the network to make more in advertising and in fees it receives from the affiliate TV stations that carry the network’s programming.

For the NFL, the new pact will give it a chance to show that it can dominate another night of prime-time television. Its package of Sunday night games on NBC is usually the most-watched show of the year.

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“We always felt that the NFL could own television on Thursday night,” said Brian Rolapp, executive vice president, NFL Media. If the package gets big ratings, the league will be able to command a much higher fee from CBS or another broadcast network for a long-term agreement.

While ratings for the broadcast networks continue to decline in the face of greater competition from cable and online services such as Netflix, the NFL has proved to be immune to audience fragmentation.

Ratings were up for all the networks that carry games last season. And even a rather dull Super Bowl this past Sunday set a record for the most-watched TV event in the United States. More than 112 million viewers tuned in, according to Nielsen.

“There is no content like the NFL,” Moonves said.

The NFL doesn’t think taking exclusive games off its own channel will be a significant blow. Besides simulcasting the CBS games, the NFL Network will also have at least six Thursday games and possibly two Saturday night games exclusively in the second half of the season.

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Although the NFL Network will no longer be the sole home of Thursday football, it will still have enough exclusive games to maintain the high fees the channel gets from pay-TV distributors, league insiders said. According to industry consulting firm SNL Kagan, the monthly cost of the NFL Network to distributors is about $1.40 per subscriber.

CBS will produce the NFL Network games, and its on air-talent — Phil Simms and Jim Nantz — will be used to provide the coverage for both networks.

The bidding for the package was intense among CBS, NBC and Fox. Time Warner Inc.'s Turner Broadcasting unit also expressed interest in the games, as did Walt Disney Co., parent of ESPN and ABC. Rival bidders said the CBS offer was not the highest.

However, CBS is the most-watched television network, which may have given it a strong card to play in negotiations. On Thursday night in particular CBS has strong ratings thanks to comedies such as “The Big Bang Theory” and the drama “Elementary.”

“It appears that the NFL saw a benefit to partnering with and not competing against the highest-rated network,” said William Bird, an analyst with FBR Capital Markets & Co.

Putting its own Thursday lineup on hold for a couple of months won’t necessarily hurt CBS. Moonves said the network will likely put “The Big Bang Theory” on a different night at the start of the season. The show is such a hit that its audience will almost certainly follow it, and help the network boost a weaker night.

Furthermore, having the NFL eat up the first two months of the fall TV season may allow the network to air fewer reruns Thursdays, a night on which advertisers — particularly car companies and movie studios — spend heavily on commercials.

The pact with CBS does not change the NFL’s deal with NBC for the first game of the season, which is traditionally on a Thursday. NBC also keeps its Thursday Thanksgiving game as well.

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Critics of the NFL Network’s Thursday package have said the games have not been as high-quality as the games on Fox, NBC, CBS and ESPN. That has been reflected in the ratings, which have been smaller than the NFL would like.

As the bigger CBS platform will no doubt increase the audience, NFL schedulers will be under pressure to provide better matches without diluting the Sunday and Monday games.

Moonves isn’t worried. Even a less-than-thrilling football game, the executive said, can still generate better numbers than most TV shows.

“The ratings on some of the games that may not have been the greatest matchups in the world are pretty good as well,” he said.