NFL RFP Suggests League Is Open To Changing "TNF" Package
The NFL has told media companies that they have to submit bids for the “Thursday Night Football” package by early January. Yesterday, the league sent media companies interested in bidding on the package RFP documents that show that the NFL is open to making changes to the package, which has been the focus of complaints by fans, players and TV execs. For this cycle, TV nets are encouraged to bid on the entire package, which would include streaming rights. The league’s RFP offers the possibility that a digital company could buy the entire package, which has never happened with the NFL before. That could lead to a scenario where a company like Amazon would produce the games and sell them to affiliates in the local markets.
In most other ways, the RFP looks similar to ones handed out in previous years. The league could sell the main package to one or two TV nets. NFL Net has to carry a minimum of seven games exclusively in order to comply with affiliate deals with pay-TV operators. A digital platform will stream the broadcast games, part of what the league calls a “tri-cast.” Broadcasters also can submit bids on packages of varying sizes, from 4-11 games.
But the document also makes it clear that the league is open to making significant changes to the “TNF” package. The NFL has the flexibility to change the number of games in the package, which currently is at 18. The league has told media execs that it would even consider moving more games off of Thursday nights. This season’s “TNF” schedule had three games on Saturday, one on Sunday morning from London and one on Monday afternoon (Christmas Day).
The RFP also asks bidders to consider using new tech and commercial ideas for the package, conforming with the NFL’s view that “TNF” is a laboratory for experiment. This season, for example, NBC used SkyCam as its main camera feed for two “TNF” games. One element that’s not likely to change: the NFL will continue to rotate the teams playing on Thursdays to ensure that all teams have a “TNF” slot.
This round of bidding will be interesting to gauge the interest that broadcast nets have in “TNF.” CBS and NBC pay a combined $450M per year for the current package. Increasingly, TV execs complain about the package -- voicing concerns on everything from the quality of football to oversaturation of the league’s games. Broadcast execs have blamed the presence of “TNF” as one of the reasons for declining ratings, believing it takes good games out of the Sunday afternoon packages, hurting CBS and Fox. Those execs also they believe it leads to viewer fatigue, hurting NBC’s “SNF” and ESPN’s “MNF.”
The “TNF” audience so far have been disappointing in ‘17. This season, CBS averaged 14.1 million viewers for its five games, down 4% from last season and down 20% from ’15, when it carried eight Thursday games. NBC has averaged 13.5 million viewers for its five “TNF” games (which excludes Thanksgiving night), down a significant 21% from its debut “TNF” season last year. NBC’s Broncos-Colts game last Thursday drew 10.6 million viewers, marking the least-viewed “TNF” game yet on broadcast TV, dating back to start in ‘14. The package has been a money-loser for the broadcast nets, failing to bring in the ad revenue they were expecting.
Even with those complaints, both CBS and NBC are expected to submit bids. After all, “TNF” still is one of the most-watched series on all of TV. Even with the ratings drops, NFL games still produce the biggest audiences on TV. The wild card in the bidding will be Fox, which is expected to show more interest than in years back and is likely to bid. Fox is expected to put more of a premium on live sports rights following last week’s announcement of the sale of many entertainment assets to Disney. There are many questions about whether ESPN and Turner will submit a bid. ESPN President John Skipper resigned on Monday, and it is being led by interim President George Bodenheimer for the next three months, while Turner Sports’ parent Time Warner is in the process of being acquired by AT&T, a deal that is in the courts currently.