THR Sports Issue: RGIII Fronts Thursday Night Football Preview

With football season on the horizon, the NFL must prove it can deliver on Thursday nights — despite risks of overexposure and player injuries. As Leslie Moonves told CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus after they won the package: "Now the work really begins."

This story first appeared in the July 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

On Feb. 4, just two days after a record 112.2 million people — more than a third of all Americans — watched the Seattle Seahawks steamroll the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, CBS Corp. president and CEO Leslie Moonves and CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus gathered in Moonves' Manhattan office for the phone call they had been anxiously awaiting. On the other end of the line was NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who informed them that the league had decided to award its hotly sought-after Thursday Night Football package to CBS. When they hung up, Moonves and McManus shook hands and Moonves declared, "Now the work really begins."

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The competition had been especially fierce. Both Fox Sports and NBCUniversal Sports Group had mounted aggressive bids for the eight-game package of NFL games to be played during primetime on TV's most lucrative night for advertising. And sources say CBS' winning $275 million bid was not the highest among the three finalists. (Turner Sports, which shares NCAA men's basketball with CBS, and Disney, which bid on the games for ABC, were eliminated early.) For the NFL, CBS' status as the most-watched network was key to the decision, as was Moonves' commitment to market the Thursday franchise throughout the season and McManus' promise to use a top production team and announcers Jim Nantz and Phil Simms for the entire Thursday schedule. "The minute I called Leslie over the Christmas holidays and said we're going to be asked to bid on the NFL during the next month, it became his highest priority," says McManus. "There wasn't a day that we didn't talk about Thursday Night Football at least two or three times."

For good reason. Thanks to that deal, CBS now is heading into the fall ratings battle with the biggest new weapon since NBC lured Sunday Night Football from ESPN in 2006. CBS kicks off its TNF franchise in a marquee matchup Sept. 11 with the fan favorite Pittsburgh Steelers against the Baltimore Ravens. If ratings even approach SNF — the most-watched program on TV for the past three years, with regular-season games averaging 21.7 million viewers — CBS could vault far ahead of competitors and gain a valuable promotional opportunity for the network's new fall shows, including NCIS: New Orleans and Madam Secretary.

The shot in the arm could not come at a more opportune moment. Although still the most-watched network (10.7 million viewers) last season, CBS nonetheless failed to launch a new breakout scripted hit and fell to third place among viewers in the coveted 18-to-49 demographic behind No. 1 NBC (which had SNF as well as the Winter Olympics) and Fox, which aired the Super Bowl. It also means CBS can move The Big Bang Theory back to Mondays -- a night the network had trouble with last season thanks in part to DOA dramas Hostages and Intelligence -- and air fewer repeats of TV's No. 1 comedy. (CBS will return Big Bang to Thursdays after football concludes Oct. 23.)

"The demand for NFL football is apparently insatiable both for fans and advertisers," notes McManus. And there is plenty of evidence to support that claim. Media buyers paid more than $600,000 for a 30-second spot during SNF last season, the steepest rate on all of TV. ESPN's Monday Night Football is the most popular program on cable by a wide margin and commands more than $400,000 per 30-second spot. CBS' Sunday afternoon regular-season games averaged 18.7 million viewers, up 6 percent year-over-year, and served as a valuable lead-in for its primetime schedule.

To make back its $275 million for Thursday games, sources say CBS is promising ad buyers a 12 household rating, on par with SNF. One buyer notes that this has been something of a "tough sell" for CBS, and July 13, NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt questioned whether Thursday Night Football will become the steamroller that SNF has. "I'm hoping those games are going to take a long time to take root," Greenblatt told reporters during the TV critics press tour. "We know football is potent. But I don't think you're going to see the kind of ratings that we see on Sunday night."

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Still, most analysts believe CBS will command more for ads than ESPN gets for MNF. That's because, in an era where marquee live events have become broadcast networks' answer to DVRs and the splintering of audiences, football's ability to hold and grow its audience stands in stark contrast to nearly everything else on TV, notably the cratering singing genre. Ratings for Fox's American Idol and NBC's The Voice dropped double-digits last season. "Viewers don't necessarily get sick of sports the way they have with the singing-competition shows," notes Deana Myers, principal analyst at SNL Kagan. "Sports is still trending; the music shows are not."

The TV boom helped the NFL rake in nearly $10 billion in revenue last year, with half of that coming from media rights, according to Navigate Research. CBS alone will pay $1.06 billion for its Sunday and Thursday NFL packages this season. NFL commissioner Goodell is hoping to grow the league's annual revenue to $25 billion by 2027, meaning the Thursday deal is only one component of a steady and, according to Executive Vice President of NFL Media, Brian Rolapp, "incremental" expansion. This season, the league will mount three regular-season games in London at famed Wembley Stadium, up from two last year. And in August, the NFL is launching NFL Now, an ambitious digital play to own its fans' second-screen experience with comprehensive video and statistics viewable on smartphones. But with the Thursday deal, many are asking whether the NFL finally will reach its tipping point and tumble into overexposure.

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"It's a legitimate question," admits Rolapp. "But we measure our business very simply: Is consumption going up, and is the economic value going up?" The answer to both of those questions, says Rolapp, is yes. Still, there are loud detractors. "Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. And [the NFL is] getting hoggy," said Mark Cuban, the owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks who has a well-deserved reputation for flamethrowing. "When you've got a good thing and you get greedy, it always, always, always, always, always turns on you. That's rule No. 1 of business."

Asked about Cuban's comments, which came after the league announced the Thursday deal in February, Rolapp is unflappable. "Cuban was asking the right question, and it's a question we ask ourselves all the time," he says. "But what we haven't seen yet is dilution [of the brand]. If we've hit the saturation period, we certainly haven't seen it. But it's something we keep an eye on."

The NFL counters that it has been somewhat measured in how it has added games, even as the popularity of the sport has skyrocketed in the past decade. An eight-game package of Thursday night games debuted on the NFL Network in 2006 and expanded to 13 regular-season games in 2012. Last season's contests on NFL Network -- which is available in 72 million homes and commands rich monthly fees of $1.34 per subscriber, according to SNL Kagan -- averaged 8.1 million viewers. Many industry observers expect the overwhelming majority of Thursday night viewing to shift to CBS. And this is fine with the NFL because that exposure has the potential to boost tune-in for the later-season set of Thursday games that will remain exclusive to NFL Network. CBS also will promo those games and has enlisted its biggest stars — Julianna Margulies, LL Cool J, Lucy Liu, Chris O'Donnell, Pauley Perrette — for a 30-second spot that began airing in mid-June. The company will promote the games across CBS platforms including radio, digital and outdoor. For now, the network is not buying time outside of CBS properties, though that could change.

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Of course, underlying the NFL's expansion to a third night is the ongoing issue of player health and safety. The league settled a massive concussion lawsuit with retired players in August 2013, agreeing to pay $765 million to 18,000 former players. But in January, a federal judge denied a motion for preliminary approval, citing, among other concerns, that the settlement may not be enough to cover all the players. And in June, the NFL was hit with another class-action lawsuit on behalf of former players. This time, the plaintiffs allege the league pushed narcotics and dangerous painkillers on injured players to get them back onto the field more quickly. Among the named plaintiffs are ESPN analyst and former Pro Bowl defensive end Marcellus Wiley and ex-Chicago Bears tackle Keith Van Horne, who says the team's medical staff gave him Percodan so that he could play on a broken leg. For the players, Thursday games mean they have fewer days to rest after a Sunday matchup.

"There are a lot of players out there who feel like there's not enough days in the week for us to be playing on Thursdays," says Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, who, still slowed from knee surgery after the 2012 season, sat the final three games of the 2013 campaign. "It's something that the NFL is going to have to address to keep players safe while also trying to maximize revenue."

The NFL points to data showing that the injury rate for Thursday night games is no greater than for games played on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays. "That might be true," counters George Atallah, assistant executive director of external affairs at the NFL Players Association. "Frankly, we don't have a comprehensive data set yet. But here's anecdotally what we've heard from our members: Players who have good coaches don't mind the Thursday night games because the coaches give them enough time to rest from the Sunday games. And players who have bad coaches don't like Thursday night games because they are not able to recover physically."

Griffin, whose knee injury became controversial when the Redskins' doctor revealed that he had not cleared the quarterback to play after an initial injury a month earlier, won't wade into the blame debate. But he adds that "when it comes to the league expanding and trying to take control of more nights, I think there is some concern when it comes to [players'] health." That said, Griffin notes: "At the same time, when we get those games on Sunday and Thursday, then we're off for an extended period of time. Sometimes we look at it as an extra bye week."

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The short turnaround also is one of the reasons that NFL fans have complained about the quality of the Thursday games. "Players get insulted -- and rightly so -- when they get questioned about their effort," notes Atallah. "To us, that's an insulting way to look at it."

With the CBS deal, the league has made a concerted effort to improve the desirability of Thursday contests, with division matchups like the meeting between the rival New York Jets and New England Patriots in Week 7. And unlike in past seasons, every team will have a Thursday game. Under the union's current collective bargaining agreement, the players share in 55 percent of television revenue, so they also are motivated to see the game grow.

If Thursday Night Football is a success on CBS, the NFL, which holds the exclusive right of renewal in the one-year deal, could shop the package in an open bid next season for an increase. McManus admits that he would have liked to have locked in the deal for more than a year.

"If they had said we're going to do a 30-year deal, we would have signed up for 30 years," he says. "But I understand why they're doing a one-year deal. We want to do the best job we possibly can so the NFL comes to us and says, 'Listen, this is where we want the NFL Thursday night package to be for the duration.' So I guess we're auditioning."