CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus: NFL in Primetime 'Highest Priority' at CBS Corp.

11:56 AM PST 02/05/2014 by Marisa Guthrie
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The Green Bay Packers

The network lands the eight-game Thursday night package for $250 million-$300 million amid a heated bidding war that included ABC, Fox and NBC.

CBS Sports has won the rights to an early-season, eight-game NFL package for a rock-bottom price tag -- between $250 million and $300 million, according to sources. The new deal, which includes an NFL option for a second year, gives CBS Thursday night games (weeks 2-9) that will begin in mid-September and continue through the end of October. The games will be simulcast on the NFL Network, an important prerequisite for the league in awarding the package.

And the promotional value available on top-rated CBS, stressed CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus, was as important consideration for the league.  

"It wasn't just about the money; it was about the promotional and branding opportunities on CBS that we think are without equal," McManus tells The Hollywood Reporter. "They wanted to know as much about our promotion, branding, production and programming as they did the money. That was as important as the financial aspects of this deal."

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That's because the league's priority is to build the NFL Network, which is currently in more than 72 million homes. The network is the most widely distributed league service in the industry; MLB Network is a close second at 71.3 million, according to Nielsen.

CBS Sports will handle production of the games with Jim Nantz and Phil Simms leading the broadcast team. But like it does with Turner Sports on NCAA men's basketball coverage, the games also will feature NFL Network on-air personalities in pre- and postgame and halftime programming. The in-game commercials also will be simulcast on NFL Network, giving CBS a cumulative rating for the games. (NBC's Sunday Night Football -- the top-rated program in primetime for two consecutive seasons -- is also the most expensive program for advertisers, commanding more than $600,000 for a 30-second spot last season.)

CBS, which pays $1 billion annually for its NFL on CBS franchise, averaged 18.7 million viewers last season, the highest regular-season average for the AFC television package in 26 years. The network's playoff games averaged 38.7 million viewers for the 2013-14 season, the third-highest average for the AFC playoffs since the 1987-88 season.

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The deal -- which includes highlight rights as is customary for NFL rights agreements -- also has the potential to lift the still-nascent CBS Sports Network, which already has plenty of NFL shoulder programming.

"Any time you can get more NFL product, especially when it's in primetime, on your network, the halo effect can be enormous both in terms of our primetime ratings and our promotional opportunities for other programs on CBS," added McManus.

The package was hotly contested among the Big Four broadcast networks. Disney-owned ESPN was bidding on the package for sister net ABC since the NFL wanted a broadcast partner for the games. And NBC and Fox were said to be especially keen to land the package.

"It has been the highest priority at the company for the last three weeks. Leslie really wanted it," said McManus, referring to CBS Corp. president and CEO Leslie Moonves. "The sports division really wanted it and we mobilized the entire company. And I think the fact that we were able to mobilize so quickly certainly helped us in our effort to acquire the package."

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