How CBS Blitzed NBC and Fox for Thursday Night Football

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Peyton Manning

CBS will pay less than $300 million to air eight games during the 2014 season, while NBC is still struggling to find a Thursday night hit.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

In the context of stratospheric NFL television rights costs, the nearly $300 million CBS will pay for the privilege of airing eight Thursday night games during the 2014 season is pocket change. Overall, the league will collect more than $2 billion in annual rights fees next season through deals with CBS, NBC, Fox and ESPN.

How did the No. 1 broadcast network -- one with a stable Thursday night thanks to the monster success of comedy The Big Bang Theory -- outmaneuver needier rivals to land TV's top audience draw? "It wasn't just about the money," CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus tells THR. "It was about the promotional and branding opportunities that are so much better at CBS than anywhere else."

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For the NFL, which averaged 8 million viewers airing Thursday games on its subscription NFL Network during the 2013 season, the goal is to build Thursday Night Football into a franchise as storied -- and lucrative -- as Monday Night Football. In presenting their bid to the league, CBS executives emphasized the network's No. 1 status and willingness to pull out the stops on the promotional front (even as the games will be simulcast on NFL Network). It is a long-term play for the league. Tellingly, the deal includes an NFL option for a second year. In a Feb. 5 statement, commissioner Roger Goodell noted that the league's goal "is to bring these games to more fans on broadcast television with unprecedented promotion and visibility."

ESPN, which has Monday Night Football, bid on the Thursday package for its sibling ABC, but CBS' chief rivals were Fox and NBC. Sources say top executives at both networks met with the NFL in last-ditch efforts to press their cases as late as the day before the CBS deal was announced.

For NBC, Thursday football would have ameliorated ratings problems on the night, at least temporarily. NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt admitted during January's winter press tour that the network would "love to have more NFL games," adding, "Thursday night games might be really interesting to us."

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They likely would have been interesting to NBC's audience as well; more than 21 million viewers a week watched the network's Sunday Night Football in 2013, making it TV's No. 1 show. Meanwhile, NBC's attempt to launch Thursday comedies fronted by sitcom stalwarts Michael J. Fox and Sean Hayes has been a failure. Hayes' Sean Saves the World has been canceled, and Fox's show, which received a full-season order before it shot a pilot, has been pulled from the Thursday schedule.

Adds McManus, "As dominant as we are on Thursday nights, the thought of having somebody else program NFL football against our schedule was not very appealing."