CBS, NBC Split Rights to Thursday Night Football

Aaron Rodgers - H 2016
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The $450 million deal gives each network five games to be simulcast on NFL Network.

After a highly competitive bidding process, NBC will share Thursday Night Football with incumbent CBS. Each network will get five games to be simulcast on NFL Network. CBS will have the first half of the season, while NBC will have the second half. The NFL Network also will retain an eight-game schedule of exclusive games. The NFL is still in discussions with prospective digital partners for OTT streaming rights for the games. The joint announcement came Monday from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, CBS Corp. president and CEO Leslie Moonves and Steve Burke, CEO, NBC Universal.

The two-year package went for $450 million annually, sources tell The Hollywood Reporter, which breaks down to a little over $200 million each or $45 million per game. CBS paid $275 million for the rights to show eight Thursday night games in 2014; the cost rose to about $300 million in the second season. The rich new deal is a testament to the continuing power of live sports — and particularly the NFL, which has weathered a domestic violence scandal and the ongoing concussion issue. Indeed, CBS commanded close to $500,000 for a 30-second spot for Thursday Night Football. And ads on NBC's Sunday Night Football went for more than $600,000 each.

CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus told THR that the NFL's desire to split the package was communicated early in the process; the league opened up bidding in December. "When that became apparent, we really had three priorities. To retain the rights to Thursday Night Football in a meaningful way, to have the games at the beginning of the season to provide us with a promotional platform to launch our season and to have a deal what was very financially responsible to CBS."  

The games have done well for CBS, averaging 13 million viewers during the 2015 season, up 6 percent compared to the inaugural season of TNF. CBS remains the No. 1 network among total viewers and those in the 24-54 demographic. NBC, home of Sunday Night Football and a rich sports portfolio that also includes the Olympics, is the top-rated network among the 18-49 demographic. But NBC's entertainment division has had a hard time finding traction on Thursday night, so the games, even for part of the season, will be a boon to the network that has already dominated Sunday nights in the fall. 

Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Sports, said the goal is to make Thursday Night Football as big as the network's Sunday Night Football, which just completed its highest-rated season ever averaging 22.5 million viewers. And Lazarus noted that along with the network's Thanksgiving evening game (part of the existing SNF package), the TNF package will give NBC six consecutive Thursday night games at the back end of the season. "It puts these games in peak holiday ad sales period and it gives us the added excitement of games [that could have] playoff implications," he said. "And that's a really exciting place for us to be."

In a statement on Monday, Goodell noted that "CBS has played an integral role over the last two seasons in helping build Thursdays as a night for NFL football." 

Fox also made an aggressive bid for the games. Certainly the network could have used the NFL to help bolster its primetime lineup, which has been sagging since the precipitous decline of one-time juggernaut American Idol. With such intense competition, Moonves had in recent months publicly tamped down renewal expectations, asserting that he would not agree to an exorbitant price tag for the games.

"We hope we continue with Thursday Night Football," Moonves said at the UBS Global Media and Communications Conference on Dec. 7. "We won't pay something stupid for it, but hopefully it doesn't come to that."

But retaining the games also was a high priority for Moonves. "The CBS Corporation and the CBS Television Network are extremely pleased to continue our successful partnership with the NFL on Thursday nights," Moonves said in a statement. "Thursday Night Football has provided extremely valuable programming and a powerful promotional platform to help launch CBS’s primetime schedule."

Moonves and Burke both noted their respective networks' No. 1 status and the promotional value of the NFL.

Added Burke: "The NFL has the most powerful programming on television, and we are delighted to expand our primetime schedule to 24 regular season games." 

Along with CBS, NBC and Fox, Turner Sports also submitted a bid for Thursday Night Football. Turner does not currently carry any NFL games and would incur new infrastructure and talent costs that would not make financial sense for such a short deal. ESPN, which last year went through a realignment of resources and also was wary about the length of the deal, did not aggressively bid on the package, say sources.

The NFL Network also needed to retain exclusivity to some Thursday night games in order to maintain its lucrative affiliate fees for the network. NFL Network charges cable and satellite providers around $1.30 per sub per month, according to SNL Kagan.