CBS and NBC’s run of broadcasting Thursday Night Football games is over, as Fox Sports has landed rights to the NFL’s Thursday night package for the next five years.
Under the deal, which was announced this morning, 11 games between weeks 4 and 15 of each season (excluding Thanksgiving night) will be broadcast on Fox, NFL Network and Fox Deportes. NFL Network will air seven games exclusively next season, but Fox will produce all 18 games.
Fox also receives expanded digital rights to stream the Thursday games—as well as the Sunday afternoon games in its other NFL package—over several digital platforms, including mobile for the first time. More importantly, the Thursday Night Football package will give the network some stability as it ventures into a new era (when Disney’s deal to buy most of 21st Century Fox closes, and when Fox Broadcasting is among the assets spun off into a company tentatively called New Fox).
“This agreement is the culmination of over 10 years of strategic growth around Thursday Night Football, a period during which this property has grown from a handful of late season games on NFL Network to a full season of games and one of the most popular shows on broadcast television with additional distribution via cable and digital channels,” said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in a statement.
The NFL Network has aired Thursday Night Football games since 2006. CBS began airing games during the 2014 and 2015 seasons, and then shared the package with NBC in 2016 and 2017.
Both publicly and privately, NBC and CBS—which paid a combined $450 million each year for Thursday Night Football rights—had expressed interest in continuing to broadcast the games. They each submitted bids, but Fox topped them both and will pay $660 million per year, according to The Wall Street Journal.
“Football is in our blood at FOX, and we understand that nothing beats the NFL when it comes to television that captures people’s attention,” said 21st Century Fox President Peter Rice in a statement.
Fox’s embrace of Thursday Night Football games is a reversal of its stance just three months ago, when 21st Century Fox CEO James Murdoch said that the “overproliferation” of games—particularly as the league expanded Thursday Night Football—was in part to blame for this season’s “soft” NFL ratings.
“I do think the proliferation of Thursday availability—and the proliferation of football generally—does mean that you’re asking a lot from customers [on] Thursday,” Murdoch said at the Paley International Council Summit. “And then they watch a lot more college football game on Saturdays, and then on Sundays, and then on Monday Night Football, etc. It’s a lot. So I do think that preserving the scarcity value of those events and that audience is something that is worth thinking about.”
Of course, those comments came two months before Disney announced that it was buying much of 21st Century Fox for $52.4 billion. The remaining assets, including Fox Broadcasting, Fox Sports and Fox News, will be spun off into New Fox.
That led to speculation that after the Disney deal goes through, Fox will abandon entertainment programming (especially given that Disney is buying Fox’s TV studio, which supplies much of its programming) in favor of more sports and reality programming. Earlier this month, Fox Television Group chairman and CEO Dana Walden insisted that entertainment programming will still be a part of Fox Broadcasting, but this NFL deal was clearly made with an eye toward stabilizing New Fox after the Disney deal is finalized.
The NFL still hasn’t set a new Thursday Night Football deal with a digital partner (Twitter streamed games in 2016, with Amazon taking over in 2017).
While Thursday Night Football is still one of the most popular shows this season (the CBS broadcast is No. 4 in 18-49, while NBC is No. 6), both networks suffered double-digit declines in the demo. NBC’s ratings fell 23 percent to a 4.0 rating, while CBS saw a 10-percent drop to a 4.5. In total viewers, NBC’s games fell 20 percent (to 13.6 million), while CBS slipped 4 percent (to 14.2 million).
Fox’s Sunday afternoon NFL game—called America’s Game of the Week—averaged 22.7 million viewers, which tops the average numbers for any primetime series, including Sunday Night Football.
UPDATE: CBS and NBC have issued statements weighed in on losing the Thursday Night Football package.
“We explored a responsible bid for Thursday Night Football but in the end are very pleased to return to entertainment programming on television’s biggest night,” said a CBS spokesperson. “We look forward to continuing our terrific long-term partnership with the NFL on Sunday afternoons, with more than 100 games per season, including next year’s Super Bowl LIII.”
And an NBC Sports spokesperson said, “We made a competitive bid based on our two years of carrying TNF. We’ll now continue to focus on keeping NBC’s Sunday Night Football at its perch as primetime’s number one program, which has reached a record seven consecutive years.”