“Thursday Night Football” will bounce around among CBS, NBC and NFL Network next season, and league executives are confident fans will find the games just fine.
The appeal for the NFL is that its new deals add another network — not to mention all of NBCUniversal’s other channels — to promote the package as Americans get into the habit of watching football on Thursdays.
The money is enticing, too.
The contracts are worth $450 million a year for the 10 games split between CBS and NBC, a person familiar with the details told The Associated Press on Monday. CBS paid $300 million for eight games in 2015.
The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the terms were not made public.
CBS will air five games early in the season, while NBC will have five late in the season in 2016 and ‘17 as part of the two-year agreements — increasing by two the number on traditional broadcastTV. Those will still be simulcast on NFL Network, which will also have eight exclusive matchups again.
The exact schedule has yet to be determined. NBC said its first game would be in Week 11 on Nov. 17.
Brian Rolapp, the league’s executive vice president for media, said the NFL Network-only matchups would be interspersed among the CBS and NBC games. He believes that will boost the viewership for the games solely on the cable channel because the broadcast networks can promote them to their larger audiences in the previous weeks.
Rolapp noted that when a playoff game was simulcast on ESPN and ABC for the first time this season, most viewers tuned into ABC and the total audience increased from the previous year’s ESPN-only telecast — even though ABC had not aired the NFL in more than a decade. He figures that as fans know to look for games on Thursday nights, they’ll be able to find them no matter which network broadcasts them. The main challenge is to make sure they know to look for games on Thursdays.
“It takes awhile to build a franchise and condition fans to know it’s there,” Rolapp said.
They’ve been watching in large numbers already — at least compared to everything except the NFL. The eight CBS Thursday night games in 2015 averaged 16.1 million viewers in prime time. That’s a big bump from CBS’s average prime-time audience for the entire 2014-15 TV season of about 11.3 million — which is No. 1 among the networks.
Then again, “Sunday Night Football” on NBC averages 22.5 million viewers, a reminder of just how big an audience the NFL can draw.
“Frankly, our goal — and what the NFL has challenged us with — is to grow the numbers,” NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus said.
He expects NBC’s younger audience will contribute to that. While CBS is the most-watched network overall, NBC leads in the advertiser-coveted demographic of adults ages 18-49.
Lazarus said he wasn’t concerned about the quality of play on Thursday nights, with players and coaches complaining they don’t have enough time to recover and prepare. He believes the caliber of football will keep improving as teams become more accustomed to playing on Thursday once a season.
NBC will still air the Thursday night season opener and its Thanksgiving prime-time game. NFL Network will televise some late-season Saturday games along with its Thursday matchups.
The league is also negotiating with digital companies for a separate “over the top” streaming rights deal for Thursday nights, which will be announced soon. That will make the games available to anyone with an Internet connection even if they don’t own a TV.
The NFL launched “Thursday Night Football” on NFL Network in 2006 with eight games, which grew to 13 by 2012. In 2014, the league partnered with CBS for a 16-game slate — half simulcast on CBS and NFL Network and half solely on NFL Network, with CBS producing all the games with its top announcing team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms. CBS received the rights again for 2015.
NBC will use its top announcing team of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth for its games, as well. CBS and NBC will also split producing the NFL Network-only games.
For NBC, Lazarus said, the second-half slate will allow regular Thursday prime-time programming to air uninterrupted through mid-November, then rake in advertising revenue during the holidays for the NFL games.
CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus said the first-half schedule will allow the network to promote its shows for the new TV season.
“I can’t underestimate the value of the promotional platform that this provides for us,” he said.