CBS didn’t need the NFL on Thursday nights. They now have the NFL on Thursday nights. Something is amiss here.
The notion is that nothing beats the NFL in the ratings. This is almost entirely true, with two glaring exceptions.
There are two scripted shows that compete in the ratings with the NFL on a weekly basis. One is The Walking Dead, a cable powerhouse fueled by zombies that is pretty much the most-watched show ever on cable by any measurement. The Walking Dead doesn’t always beat Sunday Night Football, but it did for two straight weeks in fall 2013 thanks to poor NFL games and, ya know, zombies.
Roger Goodell, in his quest for world domination, cannot do anything about that show. And, frankly, he doesn’t care – nor does NBC. Sunday Night Football has proven to be a juggernaut as primetime’s #1 show last season, and almost certainly to repeat this year.
The other show – well, that causes an actual problem for the NFL. I love the Big Bang Theory, plenty others don’t, but everyone apparently watches it. It cranks out nearly 20 million viewers every Thursday night like clockwork, a throwback to the NBC “Must See TV” days when a Thursday comedy dominated the ratings.
I know what you’re thinking – this doesn’t matter. The Big Bang Theory is over before the time Thursday Night Football kicks off. And this is true. It’s still a problem for the NFL.
The Big Bang Theory’s real theory is the proof that a rising tide raises all boats. The CBS lineup on Thursday is horrifyingly average – have you tried to watch the Millers or the Crazy Ones? It’s an exercise in futility, unless you’ve been lobotomized or really, really enjoy Robin Williams.
Regardless, the Big Bang Theory’s insane numbers inflate the rest. And when the numbers are crunched Friday morning, CBS and the NFL average about the same number of covered viewers in the 18-49 range.
For example, on Thursday, November 15, CBS averaged a 2.5 18-49 rating and 10.5 million total viewers. Thursday Night Football on the NFL Network did a 2.4 18-49 rating with 6.4 million total viewers – yeah, CBS skews old.
The following week, CBS did a 2.6 18-49 rating and 11 million total viewers – the NFL Network won with a 2.9 18-49 rating but lost in total viewers with 7.6 million.
Those two weeks show the relative pattern of the ratings, though greatly influenced by the quality of the NFL game – weeks with bad matchup led to CBS dominating the night. The point is pretty obvious – the NFL had a competition each and every Thursday night that was bringing its ratings way down.
Monday Night Football on ESPN cranks out routine 5.0 18-49 ratings and 15 million viewers. The NFL Network can’t point out a lack of carriers anymore – its network is now in close to 80 million homes. The problem is that ESPN has very little broadcast competition on Mondays, while the NFL Network goes against the most popular comedy in recent memory.
So when CBS won the rights to the newly created NFL Thursday Night package, heads were turned. That was a surprise, right? Why did CBS, the only network beating the NFL every week, spend money for it?
There’s the conspiracy!
The NFL package was created solely for CBS. It was never going to end up on NBC, Fox or ABC because that wouldn’t solve the problem. The Big Bang Theory would still be on Thursday nights and it would lead to even more embarrassment if the NFL couldn’t win the night on broadcast.
Then came the reported price and the conspiracy theory was proven as fact.
CBS paid a figure rumored in the “high-$200 million range” for 8 games.
By comparison, ESPN is paying nearly $2 billion per year for 16 games – or roughly $125 million per game.
I don’t think I have a font big enough or italics bold enough to get across the discrepancy. For the per game price ESPN is paying, CBS should get 2 games – they are getting 8.
Something is amiss here! There is no way in hell that NBC or Fox or ABC – all with Thursday night lineups that bomb in the ratings, particularly on NBC where the now-cancelled Michael J. Fox Show drew test-pattern numbers – didn’t bid higher than that.
Of course, they won’t rock the apple cart. They said the right things. They’re playing along. But they know – now – that the game was rigged.
CBS was the only possible spot for these games this year because it’s the only possible reason the package was created. The NFL needed to get the Big Bang Theory out of the way to produce numbers on Thursday comparable to Monday Night Football and Sunday Night Football.
Why? It’s a one-year deal – this is the test drive. The numbers this fall will be used to extract more money next year. And the NFL Network will eventually move onto Tuesday Night Football, like I predicted two years ago.
Why is CBS playing along, you ask?
For starters, the Big Bang Theory is a ratings monster – ask TBS about it – and they know it will produce ratings if they put it on Monday, Wednesday or delay the debut until November.
And to boot, they got an incredible deal! They are paying, at most, about $35 million per NFL game that will dominate the ratings every week. Thin about that – they will make that money back in ads after the first quarter. It is a license for CBS to print money!
Don’t be fooled by the charade though. The NFL needed to eliminate competition. They succeeded.
The news is that CBS paid for the NFL. The truth is that the NFL paid CBS.
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