Tonight is when NFL’s Thursday Night Football is taken away from the masses. The Bengals vs. Browns matchup will be shown exclusively on NFL Network and not CBS as it has been simulcasted for the past eight weeks. CBS will still handle all the production and provide on-air talent, but the game won’t be nationally televised as it was the first half of the season. The NFL should look into increasing CBS’ deal or offer the last eight games of the season to another television partner because of the sheer success of Thursday Night Football on CBS.
Thursday Night Football is a huge winner for the networks, advertisers and viewing public. Last year it was in the top 10 most viewed shows on television — again with just eight games — and this year some have stated it is in the top three. The issue is that CBS only has simulcast rights to the first eight games, while the last eight are exclusively played on NFL Network. This makes sense if the NFL needed to grow its subscriber base, but the money the league could charge CBS for the last eight games in the package has to be more than the money it makes in sub-fees from cable companies. The NFL Network already provides great original programming and analysis, so exclusive Thursday Night Football can only help so much.
Meanwhile the success of the Thursday Night simulcast created another property for the NFL to pass on to its distribution partners. CBS would love to have all 15 games. Fox would probably like a shot as well. ESPN/ABC is probably the only company that would pass since it has major college football games on Thursday.
Fans would love access to games as well. NFL Network doesn’t have full market penetration and is on a higher cable package tier than CBS — or other broadcast networks — making it less accessible to local and national fans. Fewer people watching means less advertisers want to spend. It made sense for the NFL to limit Thursday Night Football distribution to build NFL Network, but now the NFL should move all-in and sell rights to the entire property.
Tonight, the ratings will be lower than earlier Thursday Night Games, but the NFL could change that next season. It seems as if everyone loves Thursday Night Football — outside of the coaches and players — so it’s time to move it to a network where the entire U.S. viewing public can watch.
Michael Colangelo is Managing Editor of The Fields of Green and Assistant Director at the USC Sports Business Institute.