CBS and NBC Adjust to NFL-Free Thursdays as Fox Takes Over for the Long-Term

One exec calls Thursday Night Football ‘a blessing and a curse’

After losing Thursday Night Football, NBC and CBS will air their usual Thursday shows like Will & Grace and The Big Bang Theory. Photo Illustration: Amber McAden; Sources: Images NBC, CBS
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For the first fall in five years, CBS is kicking off a new TV season without any Thursday Night Football games in its arsenal.

The network aired a portion of the NFL Thursday package during the 2014 and 2015 seasons, then shared the package with NBC in 2016 and 2017. But in January, Fox outbid NBC and CBS to land Thursday Night Football rights for the next five years. So now Fox will be airing tonight’s Minnesota Vikings-Los Angeles Rams game.

That puts both NBC and CBS in the unusual position of having stable Thursday schedules this fall instead of navigating their usual NFL-related disruptions. The two networks will air dueling two-hour comedy blocks (Superstore, The Good Place, Will & Grace and I Feel Bad on NBC; The Big Bang Theory, Young Sheldon, Mom and the Murphy Brown revival on CBS) followed by 10 p.m. dramas (Law & Order: SVU on NBC; S.W.A.T. on CBS).

Tonight, NBC will broadcast an hour-long Good Place premiere and a two-hour SVU premiere. Its other Thursday shows will debut next week.

When it had Thursday Night Football, CBS would temporarily relocate The Big Bang Theory to Mondays to help launch that night’s shows, then rolled out its lineup in late October or early November before its games would air.

NBC’s Thursday schedule juggling, meanwhile, caused the network to scuttle its plans to move This Is Us to Thursdays last fall after that show’s Season 2 narrative arc proved incompatible with the football-mandated hiatus.

“We always love having football,” said Robert Greenblatt in an interview before he announced Monday that he was stepping down as NBC Entertainment chairman after seven years. “But the way that the contract was done between two and alternating on the NFL Network—and some games were on some weeks and some were off—it became disruptive. We had to do one thing for eight weeks and then something else for the rest of the fall. While CBS had football on Thursday, we didn’t, and that meant scheduling against something that was not going to continue, and then we had to rejigger things after we got the [Thursday] games. Then the spring was different.”

CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl agreed, saying, “Every year was a blessing and a curse. We always made it work, but the Thursday lineup was always a little disjointed and sometimes felt like an afterthought by the time we got to it.”

“Every year was a blessing and a curse."
—Kelly Kahl, president, CBS Entertainment

Both networks expect to take a ratings hit without Thursday Night Football. Last season among all broadcast shows, CBS’ portion of the package was number four overall in the adults 18–49 demo (with a 4.5 rating) and number nine in total viewers (14.2 million) while NBC’s games were number seven in the demo (4.0 rating) and number 10 in total viewers (13.6 million).

But NBC and CBS are making the best of their stable schedules. “We’re really excited about putting [Law & Order:] SVU on Thursday at 10, which is a great thing for that night also,” said Greenblatt, who told Adweek that he didn’t reconsider moving This Is Us to Thursdays.

“We also got some nice traction on Thursday with Will & Grace, and The Good Place is really coming into its own,” Greenblatt said. “So we thought, rather than jumble the cards again, let’s keep a good thing going on Tuesday and let’s build more of a good thing on Thursday.”

CBS also said it will hold its own against Fox on Thursdays. “Our Thursday lineup competed against NBC’s part of the Thursday package last year. We did fine,” said Kahl. “So knowing that we’re coming back with Big Bang and Young Sheldon and S.W.A.T. and Mom and Murphy Brown, we’re excited to be there from week one.”

Ad sales struggles

The Thursday Night Football package was also a struggle for each network’s respective ad sales teams, given that they were competing against each other for the same ad budgets on the same program, execs told Adweek earlier this month.

“It makes it hard to set the terms you want to set on your own. You always have to think about what the other guys are doing,” said NBC Sports’ Dan Lovinger. John Bogusz, evp, sports sales and marketing for CBS, noted, “It’s great having the game on Thursday night, but the economics of it just did not work.”

Fox Sports’ ad sales team, however, said it is faring much better as it plants its Thursday Night Football flag tonight, broadcasting the first of 11 Thursday games. The company has replicated its approach to its Sunday afternoon NFL package, where its marquee sponsors—which includes Ford (pregame show), Visa (halftime show) and Lowe’s (The OT)—have been entrenched for more than a decade. It worked with brands to establish long-term footprints in the prime NFL Thursday Night Football real estate, striking deals with Verizon (pregame show), Toyota (halftime show), Buffalo Wild Wings (postgame show) and presenting sponsor Bud Light.

“We want these new broadcast partners not just to be happy week one and year one, but to hopefully be there for as long of a ride as our guys on Sunday are,” Mark Evans, svp of advertising sales for Fox Sports, told Adweek earlier this month.

Thursday Night Football should give Fox a big demo advantage this fall as Fox Television Group CEOs and chairmen Dana Walden and Gary Newman made several bold predictions during May’s upfront about how the package will help the network’s ratings. Among them, the network’s 18–49 demo rating will increase by “double digits,” Fox will have “its highest audience circulation in years” and its live viewing will also grow. The network will have “82 percent real-time consumption of our content this fall, more than any of our competitors.”

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.