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With CBS’s games done for year, NFL still evaluating Thursday

E ven though “Thursday Night Football” officially has left CBS’s airwaves this season, it’s still too early to know whether the NFL will open the series to new TV bidders next season.

NFL executives are said to be happy with the package’s performance so far. But they view the next seven weeks — when the Thursday night games are only on NFL Network — as being just as important as the first seven weeks in determining what to do with the Thursday night rights.

League executives not only are monitoring just the games, they also are watching NFL Network’s nongame programming. Has CBS’s promotion of NFL Network series, like “A Football Life,” helped the league-owned network’s ratings? That was one of the reasons that the NFL chose CBS’s bid back in February. CBS signed a one-year, $275 million deal for the package, with the NFL holding a one-year option for 2015.

CBS has made clear it wants to keep Thursday NFL games.
Photo by: AP IMAGES

SBJ Podcast:
Media writer John Ourand and Executive Editor Abraham Madkour discuss the NFL's Thursday night package with CBS and the NFL Network as well as the league's overall ratings strength.

So far, nonlive game viewership growth on NFL Network has not been big. “TNF” telecasts have promoted “A Football Life” heavily, and the documentary series has averaged 309,000 viewers through seven premiere telecasts. Last year, the first seven premiere episodes averaged 304,000 viewers. The Sept. 26 debut of “A Football Life: Sean Taylor” averaged 397,000 viewers, the high mark for the series this season.

CBS has made no secret of its desire to continue with Thursday nights, which network executives liken to a hit show. Its broadcast won the night all seven times; and its first game between the Steelers and Ravens was TV’s top show of the week of Sept. 8.

“Our goal is to establish Thursday night as an NFL destination,” said CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus. “We’ve done that.”

But the NFL originally signed a short one-year deal with a one-year option to build up the package, make it more attractive to other networks and command a bigger rights fee. Sources say the other networks, particularly Fox and NBC, have as much interest in bidding on the franchise as they did in February when the NFL chose CBS’s bid over theirs. With the market for live sports rights dried up until the next decade, a prime-time package of NFL games is certain to attract a lot of interest from all the networks, including ESPN and Turner Sports.

That’s where this year’s ratings performance can help CBS. Viewership was good, not great, as “TNF” suffered through several uncompetitive games. The average margin of victory over the seven games was 21 points, and the package opened with four blowouts where the average margin of victory was a whopping 31 points. The fifth game saw the Colts take a 24-0 first-half lead before the Texans made it a close game in the second half.

CBS and NFL Network combined to average a 10.3 rating/16.671 million viewers through seven “Thursday Night Football” games. During the same time period, the NFL’s other prime-time packages averaged a 12.7 rating/21.660 million viewers on NBC and an 8.6 rating/13.988 million viewers on ESPN.

“If we had closer games, we would be averaging close to a 12 rating, which would be remarkable,” McManus said.

If CBS had achieved that 12 rating, which is the ratings guarantee it made to advertisers, it would have been more likely for the NFL to open Thursday night to other bidders. Now, one school of thought inside the league’s offices is that the NFL can safely keep the games on CBS for one more year with the knowledge that the ratings still have a lot of room for growth.

It seems clear that CBS’s involvement with “Thursday Night Football” raised the visibility of the Thursday night franchise, which has more than doubled last year’s viewership and brought in more viewers than ESPN’s long-running “Monday Night Football” franchise.

McManus said the network is committed to continuing to produce the NFL Network games with the same standards, with CBS talent like Jim Nantz and Phil Simms as well as CBS producers directing traffic behind the scenes. McManus was scheduled to attend the first NFL Network game in Charlotte last week.

“The preparation and level of commitment by CBS is going to be the same when the games are on NFL Network as they were when CBS had the games,” he said.

CBS wants to keep the package. The NFL believes the package can command a bigger audience. My guess: CBS keeps it.

John Ourand can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.