By Barry Janoff
November 6, 2014: CBS recently ended its first run with the NFL for Thursday Night Football on Thursday nights, and the network couldn't be more pleased with the results.
"Even when there were blowouts, the numbers were still strong," said Sean McManus, chairman for CBS Sports. "In some cases, the ratings were triple what CBS did on Thursday night last year."
Under the first-year deal with the NFL, CBS for the broadcast seven games on Thursday night, from Sept.11-Oct. 23, which were simulcast on NFL Network.
The opening game, the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Baltimore Ravens, attracted 20.6 million viewers, according to CBS. The final game, the San Diego Chargers at the Denver Broncos, attracted 20 million viewers and was the highest-rated and most-watch primetime program for the week of Oct. 20-26.
NFL Network took over the package on its own Oct. 30 and handles it solo through Dec. 18. CBS and NFL Network will air two Saturday games on Dec. 20 as part of the agreement, which was for one year with an additional season at the NFL's option.
The first NFL Network Thursday Night Football game of the season, Oct. 30 with the New Orleans Saints at the Carolina Panthers, was the third highest-rated program on cable for the week, behind ESPN's Monday Night Football and AMC's Walking Dead, according to the NFL.
"Even the worst NFL blowout gets better ratings than pretty much anything else out there," said McManus, who was speaking at the Sports Media & Technology conference in New York on Wednesday presented by NeuLion and Sports Business Journal. "Our goals were lofty and we met them."
CBS began to marketing the Thursday Night Football package back in February, and the effort generated the most promotion in the network's history, according to McManus. An intro spot included CBS Network stars from such shows as NCIS, The Big Bang Theory, Person Of Interest, Elementary and NCIS LA.
"We set a number of goals, and No. 1 was to establish Thursday Night Football as an NFL destination and that has worked very well for us," said McManus. "It really all comes down to the quality of your content."
That echoed his comments in February when the deal was unveiled.
“The NFL is the most powerful programming in television," McManus said at the time. "To add a prime time NFL package to our successful Sunday AFC package further strengthens our position in the sports marketplace."
The first Thursday Night Football package launched on NFL Network in 2006. NBC also has two Thursday Night Football games this season as an extension of its Sunday Night Football progamming, including the kickoff game on Sept. 4 with the defending Super Bowl XLVIII champion Seattle Seahawks at the Green Bay Packders, and the upcoming Thanksgiving Day game on Nov. 27 featuring the Seahawks at the San Francisco 49ers.
All 16 regular-season games are bring produced by CBS with its lead broadcasters and production team, including Jim Nantz and Phil Simms on all Thursday night games. For the first time, NFL Network hosts and analysts were featured in the pre-game, halftime and post-game shows along with CBS Sports announcers.
"We are very pleased to build on our outstanding partnership with the NFL by expanding our coverage to Thursday nights," Les Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Corp., said in a statement back in February. "CBS is a premium content company and the NFL represents the best premium content there is. I look forward to all this new deal will do for us not only on Thursday nights, but across our entire schedule.”
"Then value of live sports to CBS and marketers is unequaled," said McManus. "On CBS, 25% of viewing is on a delayed basis. But not with sports. They have to be seen live."
"We set a number of goals, and No. 1 was to establish Thursday Night Football as an NFL destination and that has worked very well for us."
CBS' Thursday night lineup now includes four comedies and Elementary, with Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu as re-envisioned modern-day Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
The Thursday Night Football season opener on CBS came with its share of off the field drama. The game between the Steelers and Ravens aired as the NFL was being enveloped in a storm regarding domestic violence, and the planned pre-game theme song featuring Rihanna's version of Jay-Z's, "Run This Town," was dropped.
Rihanna had been involved in a tumultuous relationship with then boyfriend Chris Brown, including a 2009 confrontation in which Brown pled guilty to felony assault. CBS replaced the song and a voiceover from actor Don Cheadle with a news story updating the doemstic violence situation among Ray Rice, his wife and the NFL.
On the panel with McManus were Randy Freer, president and COO for Fox Networks Group; Mark Lazarus, chairman for NBC Sports Group; and David Levy, president for Turner Broadcasting. There was no hesitation among the group regarding whether or not they would seek to claim the Thursday Night Football package for their respective networks.
"If you are in the TV business, the goal is to win nights on TV," said Levy. "The NFL, NBA, MLB does that. Sports is live drama."
New Deal Gives CBS Powerful Thursday Night NFL Package