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Why CBS Shouldn't Get Too Cocky About Thursday Night Football

Fox and NBC Would Really Like to Get Their Hands on It for 2015

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Credit: NFL/Aaron M. Sprecher

During the upfront season, CBS has been thumping its chest about winning an estimated $250 million Thursday Night Football package from the NFL for the 2014 season. But it might be time for CBS to wipe that victory grin off its face.

Why? Because unlike its existing decades-long deals with the NFL -- and others between the league and NBC, ESPN and Fox -- CBS only has a one-year contract (with an option for another) for this season's package of eight, early-season Thursday Night games.

Fox Sports and NBC Sports, which already have NFL games on Sunday afternoon and Sunday night, are already eyeing CBS's current package for the 2015 season. Those eight games could help establish their respective sports cable networks -- Fox Sports 1 and NBC Sports Network -- with advertisers and viewers.

"Why wouldn't we be interested?" replied Fox representative Lou D'Ermilio, when asked if the network will bid for the 2015 season.

Previously, NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus told Richard Sandomir of The New York Times: "We wish we had won it, but we take solace in knowing it's a short-term deal and we'll compete for it again."

ESPN, which has Monday Night Football, and Turner Sports, which had Sunday Night games in the 1990s, also tried and failed to win Thursday Night, according to people with knowledge of the negotiations. ESPN wanted to put the games on sibling Disney network ABC, the only major broadcast channel without NFL games, and the former home of Monday Night Football.

But those networks will get another crack at Thursday night too. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league won't start talking to interested bidders until after the 2014 season. "We have to see how it goes this season," Mr. McCarthy said.

CBS Sports said it too will cross that bridge next year. Meanwhile, the network is already attracting "great interest from advertisers" for Thursday Night Football, according to chairman Sean McManus.

"I know we're going to get a lot of ads. It's NFL football," said Mr. McManus, before the 2014 Sports Business Awards in New York. "If there's one sure thing in the world of advertising, it's that there's a lot of interest in NFL Football."

The NFL is hoping CBS can do for Thursday Nights what NBC did for Sunday Nights. A disappointment when shared by ESPN and TNT during the 1990s, NBC has turned Sunday Night Football into the highest-rated, most watched show in prime time for three years running.

But here's another reality check: CBS's new package will still just be for half a regular season. While CBS gets eight early season games, the NFL Network will telecast the eight late season games leading up to the playoffs.

And unlike other NFL packages, CBS's game broadcasts will not be exclusive. All CBS games will also be simulcast on NFL Network, which showed 13 Thursday Night games last season. That lack of exclusivity worried one sports media executive. In the end, he asked, what exactly is CBS buying?

"What if viewers tune in for the pregame show on NFL Network -- and never move over to CBS?" he asked. "And how do CBS affiliates feel about their Thursday night schedule ripped up for football?"

Meanwhile, CBS's NFL games won't just be competing against dramas, sitcoms and reality shows. ESPN offers its own competing package of college football games on Thursday nights. As the popularity of college football continues to rise, ESPN analyst Jesse Palmer will be closely watching how the pro vs. college rivalry plays out.

"Fans can't get enough of [football] whether it's pro or college," said Mr. Palmer, a former contestant on ABC's The Bachelor, who'll team with Brent Musburger for ESPN's new SEC Network launching in August. "There's an insatiable appetite in this country for football -- from fans of both sports."

The bottom line: CBS has a 6-to-8-month window to take ownership of Thursday Night Football. The network is not taking any chances.

CBS is throwing lead NFL announcers Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, and the first-string production team that works its AFC Sunday afternoon package, at Thursday night. Mr. Nantz and Mr. Simms will broadcast 14 of the 16 games, meaning they'll be working on later-season games running only on the NFL Network. CBS is also producing the games and will also blend in announcers and analysts from NFL Network to keep the league happy and effectively make the two networks partners rather than rivals.

One reason CBS won the package in the first place was the NFL wanted the additional reach provided by a broadcast network rather than a cable channel, said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell back in February. That bodes well for CBS in round two if Fox and NBC pitch the merits of their start-up sports cable channels.

Ultimately, the ratings success of NFL games come down to match-ups. Just ask NBC, which uses flexible scheduling to cherry-pick the best games for Sunday Night. Or ESPN, which often gets stuck with dog games on Monday Night due to a lack of flexible scheduling.

CBS won't get the flexible scheduling option. But the NFL is publicly promising the "most marquee match-ups ever on Thursday night," including 14 division rivalries. CBS's schedule kicks off with the Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens on Sept. 11.

So can the NFL take over Thursday Night the way it conquered Sunday Night?

New York Giants linebacker Mark Herzlich thinks so. Particularly with Fox's former ratings juggernaut "American Idol" fading fast.

"It could turn into the new Monday Night Football. People will stay up late on Thursday night just so they can watch their team," said the cancer survivor from Boston College who made it to the NFL as an undrafted free agent.

Former Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl champion Franco Harris has seen the NFL grow over the years. Likewise, he does not doubt the ability of Thursday Night Football to take over the home night of former "Must-See TV" comedies such as NBC's Friends, Seinfeld and The Cosby Show.

"Why not?" said Harris.

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