Last week, it was revealed that football ratings for every single network except for ESPN were up year-to-year. With a lead-in from a fierce Broncos-Steelers divisional game, CBS' 60 Minutes also reached a record ratings grab of 20 million viewers. The fact is that football is still the biggest show in town. In this era of cord cutting, it is one of the few things viewers continue to watch live as it happens.
America's past time has a lucrative package of games up for grabs and is attempting to use their power in order to garner their heart's desires. Unfortunately though, if their plan transpires, it will place CBS and NBC's Thursday night schedules under sabotage as the Wall Street Journal explains:
The NFL is attempting to throw its weight around by insisting on flexibility with how it divvies up the games between CBS and NBC, according to people familiar with the matter. Rather than have one network carry five games in a row followed by the other network, the NFL’s proposal has been to bounce the games back and forth between the two networks and the NFL Network. That approach would give the league more flexibility in scheduling high-profile games on its own network.
For the past two seasons, CBS has carried its portion of games at the start of the season. This time, games may end up on the broadcast networks later in the season, too.
Those scenarios aren't being embraced by the networks because it would be difficult to promote a haphazard Thursday football schedule, as well as disrupt their ability to consistently schedule—and build a following for—other fall programming on the Thursday nights without a game. Constantly juggling shows on the schedule can confuse and frustrate viewers.
The networks have been using the league to its advantage for years but this is extremely petty and grimy in my opinion, especially for CBS. After spending so much money and time to cultivate and promote Thursday Night Football, the reward CBS gets is a smaller amount of games for the same price (WSJ says each network could pay at least $300 million each) if not more?
By now, most NFL fans know that Thursday Night Football airs on the NFL Network. It has shown in the ratings whenever CBS's portion of the package has ended last season and the year before. I don't think it is in the NFL's best interests to confuse fans who don't have a clue where to find games week to week.
The belief that fans will decide to stick to the NFL Network every week in order to avoid confusion is definitely the wrong conclusion to make. Why? Because many fans still don't receive the network on their basic cable packages which means that if they can't find it on their television set, they'll find a way to watch it online.
With the league's impending deal with an online service for TNF rights, this purposeful confusion will most likely end up benefitting them rather than helping NFL Network's viewership. The other option might be that a confused viewer will give up and choose not to watch the game at all. If this happens, it hurts Thursday Night Football's chances of catching up to the prestige of the Sunday night and Monday night packages.
CBS and NBC will be in a ton of trouble with the studios that provide them with shows on Thursday nights. The only way to prevent major confusion among television viewers is to partner together on a massive campaign that begins after the schedule is released featuring NFL stars, commentators, and stars of CBS and NBC's respective shows. The campaign would need to be publicized everywhere across a plethora of CBS and NBC's platforms but especially during CBS's March Madness/Masters coverage and NBC's Olympics coverage.
The New York Times reports NBC's Olympics coverage will play a major role in determining who wins Thursday night rights.
NBC seems to have a strong case to succeed CBS because it would be able to use the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, which start Aug. 5, as a promotional platform for the games on multiple channels and online. That heavy promotion would end in 17 days, a few weeks before the N.F.L. season starts. Still, if the league wants to keep building preseason awareness, the Olympics would be a valuable tool. And NBC is familiar with Thursdays; it televises the opening-night game on Thursday, so adding eight games would provide continuity through late October.
The one question I ponder is who will handle the production of these games as well as who will serve in the commentators' roles. Will it be every network for themselves or will each entity pick an all-star roster to combine similar to CBS and Turner Sports' coverage of March Madness? Because CBS and NBC are not bidding together, I would have to guess that they will handle production of their games separately.
In my opinion though, this isn't a good idea. Fans will already be confused about where to watch the games, the last thing you need to do is also confuse them with the branding of these games. The NFL Network needs to have one set of graphics, commentators and production shown each week in order to provide viewers with a satisfying on air presentation that isn't all over the place.
The key to garnering loyalty among viewers - continuity. This is part of the reason football is still as popular today as it was 20 or 30 years ago, the characters have changed but the drama, excitement and intensity it promises each week has not.
There have previously been reports that this Thursday Night Football deal would also come with a minority stake in the NFL Network. Last week, there was also word from WSJ's Joe Flint that the NFL wanted one of its partners to produce a morning show in their studios for NFLN. Out of the two potential TNF partners, NBC may be better positioned to handle both duties.
NBC could help NFL Network gain more carriage through the pull of their parent company Comcast and they also have ample studio space to use in their Connecticut studios. One interesting option could be housing an NFL Network morning show on the top floor of Today Show's 30 Rock studios in order to create synergies and partnerships between NFLN's show and an established brand.
Today Show personalities and NFL Network personalities could appear on each other's respective shows and they could use each other to book big celebrity guests. NBC could even sell advertising units targeted at both men and women which would air on Today and NFL Network respectively. ESPN's Mike and Mike and Good Morning America were considering doing the same exact thing this year but Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg weren't able to come up with a deal monetarily that would help convince them to move to New York.
Hypothetically, if this came to fruition, I don't know where it would leave CBS in terms of its role in promoting the league-owned network. Maybe the NFL decides to sell all of the operational duties needed for their channel to another company looking to bolster their share in sports programming. Would Disney, Turner or Discovery (all companies who know how to operate successful cable networks) be interested in partaking in that type of voyage?
There have been some weird online trails which have connected Turner to the NFL including NFL tweets being promoted on Twitter by the TBS Network's account and the following entry found on Turner Sports' Wikipedia page.
After finding out when this edit was made and by whom, I decided to trace the IP address to see if this came from someone possibly in Turner's Atlanta offices or the NFL's studios in Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, I didn't find anything juicy. It was just a random person in Jacksonville, Florida who made an innocent error.
Sports media observers are definitely going to get some interesting news regarding the future of Thursday Night Football and the NFL Network next week as the league wants to sign a deal before Super Bowl 50. I would expect the news to leak late next week with an official announcement during CBS's Super Bowl pregame show (unless CBS ends up losing their rights in an unexpected shocker).
Will Fox come into play and bid aggressively enough to remove one or both of the current leaders from their positions?
This would not be CBS and NBC's first awkward relationship with the NFL Network. In 2007, CBS and NBC simulcasted NFL Network's last Saturday night game of the season featured an undefeated Patriots team facing the New York Giants.