Thursday Night Lights: Fox turbocharges new primetime NFL slate

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Nick Foles of the Philadelphia Eagles passes during Super Bowl LII against the New England Patriots last February in Minneapolis.
Nick Foles of the Philadelphia Eagles passes during Super Bowl LII against the New England Patriots last February in Minneapolis. Credit: Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

After spending the last few weeks hyping up their shiny new "Thursday Night Football" package to media buyers and advertisers, Fox Sports now has a tangible product to sell in the wake of Thursday night's release of the 2018 NFL schedule. And while there's no way of telling how fans will take to the refurbished primetime broadcast slate, at first blush the "Thursday Night Football" lineup looks to be greatly improved on last season's patchwork effort.

Fox's 11-game Thursday night roster features 10 of the 12 teams that made the playoffs last season, including the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, perennial AFC contenders New England and Pittsburgh and at least three up-and-comers in Jacksonville, Minnesota and the Los Angeles Rams. In what would normally be lined up as one of Fox's late-national Sunday afternoon games, the latter two squads will square off in the network's inaugural "TNF" broadcast on Sept. 27.

Other potentially intriguing draws include an Oct. 11 throwdown between NFC East rivals Philly and the New York Giants, a Nov. 1 Bay Area brawl featuring the Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers and, serving as the bread on either end of Fox's Thanksgiving Day turkey-and-cranberry-sauce sandwich, a Nov. 15 Packers-Seahawks rumble and a Nov. 29 battle between the Saints and Cowboys.

As is the case with the Vikings-Rams opener, many of the Thursday night games present the sort of top-tier pairing fans have come to expect from Fox's "America's Game of the Week" Sunday-afternoon window. But Fox Sports President, Chief Operating Officer and Executive Producer Eric Shanks insists that bulking up the Thursday primetime slot wasn't done at the expense of the Sunday juggernaut. (For the ninth year in a row, Fox's 4:20 p.m. national showcase in 2017 was TV's most-watched, highest-rated standalone program, accounting for seven of the NFL's biggest regular-season draws.)

"The new partnership has yielded what looks like real appointment viewing on Thursday nights," Shanks says, adding that the NFL did everything in its power to help Fox supercharge its primetime package without contributing to the erosion of the Sunday steamroller. "Our goal was to make sure the NFL knew we wanted to improve Thursday night while maintaining our Sunday window, which we believe should remain the No. 1 show on television."

All told, Fox's Sunday afternoon showcase includes four appearances by the Cowboys, which closed out last season as the league's most reliable TV draw. According to Nielsen, Dallas in 2017 played a part in three of the top five and seven of the top 10 regular-season NFL broadcasts, five of which aired on Fox.

Among the more promising "America's Game of the Week" pairings are a Sept. 23 Cowboys-Seahawks broadcast, an Oct. 7 rematch of last year's NFC Championship Game (Vikings-Eagles), a Dec. 2 interconference bruiser between Minnesota and New England and the following week's Eagles-Cowboys collision. And while the teams that will appear in the Week 11 national window have yet to be determined, Fox has a wealth of attractive options at its disposal, including Cowboys-Falcons, Bucs-Giants and Eagles-Saints.

$700,000 for 30 seconds

Advertisers last season paid an estimated unit cost in excess of $700,000 for each 30-second spot in the eight "America's Game of the Week" broadcasts, which on average delivered 23 million viewers and a 13.0 household rating. When the NFL Network simulcasts are stripped out, CBS and NBC's shared custody of "Thursday Night Football" averaged 10.9 million viewers, of whom approximately 4.12 million were adults 18 to 49. The average unit cost in last year's Thursday night showcase was around $550,000 a pop.

In a bid to shake things up on Thursday nights, Fox will air a live "TNF" pre-game show with studio stalwarts Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long and Michael Strahan. While the "NFL on Fox" crew shoot their Sunday afternoon show in Los Angeles, Fox will ship the trio off to New York each week for the new "TNF" opener. The decision to produce the primetime pre-game show in the Big Apple was done out of deference to Strahan's busy schedule; the former Giant and Hall of Famer has to wake up at around 5 a.m. on Friday mornings in order to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for that day's "Good Morning America" assignment.

Strahan's TV duties aside, Shanks says that Fox plans to leverage the show's New York digs to carve out some unique marketing niches for some of its NFL advertisers. "We're in the planning stages, but there are a number of interesting integrations with brands that we can do in New York that we wouldn't have the opportunity to do in our studio in Century City," Shanks says. The Fox Sports boss adds that the Thursday night anchors will look to take advantage of the noise and energy of Manhattan—within reason. "Think how much fun it would be to watch Terry and Howie ride the subway to work every week," Shanks laughs, before immediately conceding "that's not going to happen."

Joe Buck on Thursday night did his bid for corporate synergy, appearing on NFL Network's two-hour schedule-reveal wingding to weigh in on the new slate. Fox's lead play-by-play man said that while he and his broadcast partner Troy Aikman are lobbying to call the Thursday night games, postseason baseball could present a few logistical logjams. If precedent is anything to go by, Buck should be calling Game 2 of the World Series on Wednesday, Oct. 24, or the night before Fox's scheduled Dolphins-Texans broadcast. If the Fall Classic requires a complete seven-game set, the Halloween rubber match would air about 24 hours before Fox's Raiders-49ers coverage.

Shanks says a final decision on the staffing of its "Thursday Night Football" booth has not been made. For what it's worth, Fox's upfront presentation is scheduled for Monday, May 14.

If Fox's $3 billion investment in "Thursday Night Football" is the big media story of the moment, the NFL's other broadcast partners weren't exactly left in the lurch. Parity and the return of a number of once-lowly teams to national prominence (see: Jacksonville, the Rams, San Francisco) allowed NFL VP for Broadcasting and Media Operations Howard Katz and his team to take a somewhat freer hand when constructing the 2018 schedule. As such, CBS, NBC and ESPN can all look forward to a greater concentration of proven draws and major-market franchises; case in point, the aforementioned Los Angeles squad, which this season will be featured in no fewer than nine national TV windows. Representing the nation's second-largest DMA, the recently-relocated Rams in 2017 appeared in just three coast-to-coast games.

"We call this 'Christmas,'" Shanks says. "We left milk and cookies out for Howard last night, and when we woke up we probably got more of our top 25 [requests] than we've ever had before."

For its part, CBS would seem to have not a dud in the bunch. The first half of the network's national schedule includes a rematch of last year's AFC Championship Game (Pats-Jaguars), plus a Saints-Giants intrigue and a pair of Cowboys games. Toward the end of the season, CBS is going all-in on the Steelers and their vaunted Killer B's offense, with Pittsburgh taking on Denver, New England and New Orleans in its final three big windows.

CBS's Sunday afternoon window is TV's second-biggest draw, and last December the network's Patriots-Steelers jamboree put up the biggest regular-season numbers. In a nail-biter that was ultimately decided in New England's favor thanks to the application of the league's dreadful "catch rule," CBS's coverage of the AFC grudge match averaged 26.9 million viewers and a 15.2 household rating.

Deluge of Dallas

As for the NFL's marquee prime-time package, NBC's "Sunday Night Football" offers what looks to be an embarrassment of riches. Including a Nov. 11 Dallas-Philadelphia skirmish, NBC has three Cowboys games in the hopper, and the previous week's broadcast pairs off last year's second- and third-biggest TV draws in the Pats and Packers. Three is the magic number for the Peacock this season, as the Packers, Eagles, Steelers also are slated to make as many appearances on "Sunday Night Football."

Among the more compelling games set to air on ESPN's "Monday Night Football" are Steelers-Bucs, Giants-49ers, Vikings-Seahawks and Saints-Panthers.

As befits the league's most reliable source of ratings points, Dallas once again will pop up in more national TV windows than any other franchise. The Cowboys are presently set to appear in no fewer than 11 coast-to-coast broadcasts, a roster that includes five primetime contests and six that will air in the late Sunday afternoon window. The Steelers, Saints, Eagles and Patriots will strut their stuff in eight national games, while the Seahawks will appear in seven widely-distributed windows and the Vikings, Packers and 49ers are locked in for at least a half-dozen each.

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