Wednesday, February 5, 2014

CBS Thursday Night Football: Coming Soon

The NFLcalendar may be changing. (Gene J. Puskar / AP)

In a surprise move, CBS announced early Wednesday afternoon that it won the rights to the NFL's Thursday night package. This package was originally seen by media observers, before it launched, as the key for NBCSN or FS1 to build themselves into legitimate rivals vs. ESPN. 

But the NFL had other plans and decided to use it for it's own network which lacked carriage among many major cable operators. It proved to be a hit ratings-wise for NFLN averaging 8 million and MVPDs such as Time Warner and Cablevision finally picked up the network but the games never caused much buzz among NFL fans.

Because of this, the NFL decided to sell the games to a broadcast network, which has a way bigger audience and can promote Thursday night games way better than the NFL could do on it's own. NBC's SNF package is successful because NBC reaches a lot of people and because NBC has a lot of places it can go to promote it's Sunday night game. The NFL wanted the same thing for it's Thursday night games.

The problem? The deals which NFLN signed with cable operators came with the promise that the network would deliver fans with exclusive primetime games. So how do you solve both problems of trying to increase hype for Thursday night games without leaving NFLN with an empty chest? Here's the solution:
  • CBS will buy the rights to broadcast 8 early season (week 2-week 9) Thursday night NFL games on their network.
  • As part of the deal, the NFL Network will simulcast all 8 CBS games + air 6 EXCLUSIVE late season (week 10-week 15) Thursday night NFL games (except Thanksgiving) and 2 EXCLUSIVE Week 16 Saturday night games (a doubleheader).
  • CBS will produce ALL 16 games which air on CBS and the NFL Network throughout the season putting the NFL out of the game-producing business.
  • Jim Nantz and Phil Simms will be the hardest working NFL crew on television next season. They will call ALL 14 Thursday night games which air on either CBS or NFL Network. 
  • According to Awful Announcing, Nantz and Simms will work a partial slate of Sunday games this year on CBS while taking other Sundays off. There may be some weeks where Nantz/Simms work a Thursday night NFLN game and a 4:25 nationally televised Sunday afternoon game on CBS and there may be some weeks where Nantz/Simms only work the Thursday night NFLN game while taking off on Sundays.
  • There's no word yet on who will call the Week 16 Saturday after Christmas doubleheader on NFLN but I wouldn't be surprised if Nantz/Simms called at least one of those games and then traveled to their Week 16 CBS game for Sunday, pulling double-duty.
  • Pre-game, halftime and post-game coverage will be co-produced by CBS and NFLN's personalities similar to how CBS and Turner mix their personalities together for March Madness.
  • CBS will promote this package of games throughout the season on CBS, CBSSN, Showtime and CBS Sports Radio.
Questions I'm Pondering - 

1. Why did the NFL pick CBS? Reports are saying that CBS' bid was the most reasonable. CBS has rights for the 2014-2015 season with an option to renew the deal in the 2015-2016 season depending on the NFL's preferences. Here are some other key factors which I think helped their cause:
  • Last year, an Oakland Raiders/San Diego Chargers game originally scheduled to be televised on CBS had to move from Sunday afternoon to Sunday night due to a playoff baseball game which occurred the night before (stadium workers didn't have enough time to set up for the football game). 
    • Because of this, CBS was forced to move the game to the NFL Network. CBS produced the game while NFLN produced the pre-game/halftime/post-game bits and the overall production was seamless. The two companies co-operated with each other nicely and that previous working relationship, as small as it was, definitely helped in setting first impressions.
  • CBS has experience co-producing sports programming. Turner Sports and CBS have been producing the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship together since 2011 and the production has been seamless. CBS and Cumulus also co-own and co-produce CBS Sports Radio.
  • CBS's willingness to give up their A-team for another network's package must've really helped their bid. Even though they're not as likable as they used to be, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms provide fans with familiarity and experience which TNF's past play-by-play teams didn't have.
2. Who Will Replace Nantz/Simms On CBS When They're Off? It all boils down to Ian Eagle/Dan Fouts or Greg Gumbel and whoever he's paired up with for next season. The real question though, is who will replace Ian/Dan OR Greg/TBA when one of those two teams is moved up to the #1 game of the week. I wouldn't be surprised to see CBS borrow a play-by-play announcer from Turner (Brian Anderson, Ernie Johnson) like they already do with Marv Albert. A sleeper? Brent Musburger?

3. Will CBS/CW Affiliates Broadcast Non-CBS NFLN Games? The 8 exclusive games which NFLN will be airing without CBS will most likely be simulcast on OTA affiliates of each team playing in those games. It's a practice which has been done for years going back to the days when ESPN aired "SNF". Will NFLN's exclusive games now air only on CBS/CW-affiliated stations? Or will they still air on whichever OTA affiliate pays the most for the game? It'll be pretty awkward to hear CBS's announcers on another station not affiliated with CBS.

4. Will NFLN Help CBS Transform It's Studio Shows? CBS has been struggling with "The NFL Today," which has failed to beat "FOX NFL Sunday" in the ratings and because of this, there's been talk that CBS wants to revamp the show. Will CBS outsource all of it's studio shows to NFLN in LA? Or will CBS fly NFLN analysts to New York to try and spice up "The NFL Today"'s current team? Could Rich Eisen take over for James Brown or could they end up co-hosting together? Or could "The NFL Today" go bi-coastal with studio teams working together in both LA and New York at NFLN and CBS' respective studios?

5. Will The Quality of Games Improve? The NFL's goal of moving TNF to CBS is so that TNF reaches ratings which are just as high or even better than SNF, which averages 22 million viewers weekly. The combined ratings of CBS and NFLN may help TNF get close to that goal but if the quality of games suck and we have matchups such as Jaguars-Browns every Thursday, then TNF's outlook will not change anytime soon.

In my opinion, even if TNF has quality matchups next year and beyond, it still won't reach the numbers that SNF or MNF garner unless all the games are aired on CBS or another network which has mass carriage. NFLN's carriage has improved by a lot over the years but it's a network which is STILL not available in many homes with basic cable. For example, in my town, you have to have the digital basic package to get the NFL Network and there's not many people who have that package compared to the regular basic cable package.

6. Why Would CBS Want A Primetime Game? They're #1! Because it's the NFL! More NFL = more opportunities to promote CBS programming. This also includes shows which air on other networks owned by CBS such as Showtime and CBS Sports Network. For example, Jim Rome could do a weekly commentary in the vein of Bob Costas which might help draw his shows on TV and on radio more attention.

Also, according to the ESPN Book by Jim Miller, CBS has always shown major interest in primetime football and inquired briefly over the years about taking over either SNF or MNF.

7. What Happens To CBS' Fall Thursday Lineup? According to the New York Times, all of CBS's Thursday shows will premiere after the Thursday night package is over on November 7th. Before then, there's a very good chance that The Big Bang Theory will be moved to another night to prop up some of CBS's other shows before moving back to it's normal Thursday timeslot.

8. Will Phil Simms Leave "Inside the NFL"? Yes. Unfortunately, the Collinsworth vs. Simms battles which ruled "ITNFL" on Showtime are over for at least next season according to Neil Best of Newsday. No word on who would replace Simms but I wouldn't be surprised to see one of the current "NFL Today" analysts moved to the telecast permanently. Boomer Esaison, who has a plethora of duties, might be a better fit for "ITNFL" because he won't have to commit as much time to the show as he does with "The NFL Today". Simms may also depart from his role on CBSSN's "NFL Monday QB".

9. Is CBS Done Acquiring Sports? Maybe or Maybe not. CBS recently lost the US Open but this move definitely helps CBS garner back any ad revenue they may have lost from losing the acclaimed tennis tournament. On the same day CBS announced it's new NFL deal, CBS also announced that it will be airing an NBA-produced documentary about the Summer League on the day before Selection Sunday. This deal to air the doc could've happened simply because sports docs are a hotbed for many networks nowadays and because this specific documentary has a basketball theme. But wishful thinking could also signal that this could be the start of a deeper relationship between the NBA and CBS.

10. Is The NFL Locked Up After This? As mentioned before, this Thursday night CBS arrangement will only last for one year as of now. If successful, the NFL could renew the deal for one more year but after that, it's highly likely that all the games will move back to NFLN exclusively in the 2016-2017 season. Is there any other package which desperate NFL suitors like Turner and Google could bid for in the future? It doesn't look like it.

NFL Sunday Ticket is up for bid currently but all signs lead to DirecTV renewing with the NFL. The NFL hopes to expand to 18 games at some point and will also expand it's wild card playoff slate so there's a chance the NFL could sell the new playoff games which emerge separately from the ones which currently exist but that likelihood is also slim to none. Even if it did happen, it would most likely go to a current rightsholder before Turner or Google took it.

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