So how big is Thursday Night Football for CBS?
"It is the biggest corporate initiative we’ve had at this corporation in decades," said CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus. "We are looking forward to working with the NFL to establish Thursday night as a true destination for NFL football. What Sunday evening is and what Monday evening is, we will do that for Thursday night."
The NFL granted CBS a new prime-time package last February (for the bargain price of $250-$300 million), and so every Thursday night from Sept. 11 to Oct. 23 (as well as Dec. 20), NFL games will air on CBS and also be simulcast on NFL Network (Games in Weeks 9-12 and Weeks 14-16 will be televised on NFL Network and will be simulcast on over-the-air stations in the primary markets of the participating teams.) All TNF games (they are all divisional matchups) will kick off at 8:25 p.m. ET, with the exception of the Week 16 Saturday doubleheader, when the NFL Network will air its game at 4:30 p.m. ET and CBS will air its at 8:00 p.m.
The network says it will treat each Thursday night as if it were a playoff game, and McManus said CBS will use as much equipment for Thursday Night as it would for any playoff game other than the Super Bowl, including a high definition camera suspended over the sideline. There will also be new graphics, music and images solely for Thursday Night Football. (CBS has filmed a special opening each week featuring Don Cheadle doing narration over Rihanna’s “Run This Town.”) The network is also using its top broadcast crew (Jim Nantz and Phil Simms), and lead NFL director (Mike Arnold) and producer (Lance Barrow). Tracy Wolfson moves from the SEC sidelines to the lead sideline reporter on TNF, and former NFL referee Mike Carey will be used as a rules analyst.
“Hopefully, the presentation will be such that people see it is first class,” McManus said. “We are hoping for a long-term arrangement with the NFL. Anytime you have an NFL property, you want to lock that up for as many years as you can, which is why we did a nine-year deal the last time we had a discussion with the NFL. But the ground rules here were laid out specifically by the NFL: This is a one year deal. It is our job to prove to the NFL that they made the right choice, and it is our job to figure out a way to try to renew this for future years.”
With Thursday Night Football as the biggest focus, here’s a snapshot of what NFL fans can expect from CBS NFL coverage this season.
Biggest change: Before every Thursday Night Football game, CBS will air a pregame show at 7:30 p.m. ET, with host James Brown and analysts Bill Cowher and Deion Sanders. That show will also be simulcast on the NFL Network, and the group will also do the halftime coverage of each Thursday night game.
The pregame setup is interesting because both CBS and NFL Network officials stress that they consider NFL Total Access Kickoff, which will air on the NFL Network beginning at 6:00 p.m. ET, as the start of one pregame show over two networks. You’ll see talent on both networks floating between the two shows.
As far as CBS game broadcasts are concerned, change is the buzzword: The announcing team of Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts has moved up to the No. 2 spot, a deserved promotion for an excellent team. First-year analyst Trent Green has been paired with Greg Gumbel following the retirement of Dan Dierdorf. They’ll serve as the No. 3 team. Marv Albert stepped down from his NFL duties and was replaced by Kevin Harlan, who will team up with Rich Gannon on the No. 4 team. The No. 5 team is Spero Dedes and Solomon Wilcots (who used to partner with Harlan), and the final team features Andrew Catalon, with Steve Beuerlein and Steve Tasker rotating as the analyst. Jenny Dell (for Eagle/Fouts) and Evan Washburn (Gumbel/Green) have been added as sideline reporters. Brian Anderson and Tom McCarthy will serve as backup play-by-play announcers; Adam Archuleta and Chris Simms will do the same as analysts.
With Wolfson, Dell and Washburn, CBS Sports management has dramatically shifted its philosophy on NFL sideline reporters. This year the network will have full-time sideline reporters for NFL regular season games for the first time since 2006. Last year Wolfson worked select NFL games, including the Super Bowl.
“We have had sideline reporters for years at CBS for the playoffs and when we looked at how we will produce Thursday night, we thought we wanted to do this like the playoffs,” McManus said. “We then decided to do the same on Sunday.”
The NFL Today has also gotten a makeover, as Tony Gonzalez and Bart Scott replace Dan Marino and Shannon Sharpe.
Talent losses: Albert, Dierdorf, Marino, Sharpe.
Keep an eye on: How both CBS and the NFL Network pregames report and address Roger Goodell’s role in the Ray Rice video. The opening game is Ravens-Steelers, and look for both networks to do extended coverage in the opening segments of each pregame show. The addition of Gonzalez: He’s bright, opinionated and producers say he’s going to work hard. "CBS hired me to give my opinion, and now I can give my full opinion," Gonzalez said. "I don’t have to be a jerk about it. There is a constructive way to criticize someone. Before I shied away from that, but this is what I am getting paid to do. I really believe I will be fair. I don’t have an agenda. I am not out to crucify anyone. I’m not the hater type. And I’ll also be someone who said I was wrong about something." Nantz and Simms will do 15 Thursdays and 12 Sundays, the most games they've ever done. "I have never been in this position in 30 years at CBS but very honored to be asked to be in the position and welcoming the challenge," said Nantz. "It’s unknown how I will get all of it done, but I will figure it out."
Ratings of note: CBS’s regular-season schedule averaged 18.7 million viewers in 2013, a six percent increase over the 17.7 million viewers in 2012. The 18.7 million viewers were the second highest number of average viewers in 26 years for the regular-season AFC television package. As for the pregame: The NFL Today averaged 3.3 million viewers, about 28 percent lower than FOX NFL Sunday.
On the Redskins nickname: "We have a policy that we use the names of all 32 teams in our broadcast," McManus said. "Having said that, as I said a couple of weeks ago, we are not in the business of telling our announcers what to say and what not to say. If they feel strongly about an element about this, we will not tell them what to say. But we use the teams' logos and marks, that is our philosophy and that has not changed.”
Nantz: "I have read a lot and I respect everyone’s viewpoint out there. Some people are extremely passionate it. I thought what Adam Schefter said in your column was something I agree. It’s not my job to take a stand on this. If they keep using the name, then I will keep using the name. If they decide to change it, then I will go with the new name. But I can respect different viewpoints here."
Best games: Falcons at Bengals (Sept. 14); Chiefs at Broncos (Sept. 14); Broncos at Seahawks (Sept. 21); Broncos at Patriots (Nov. 2); Bengals at Saints (No. 16); Patriots at Packers (Nov. 30); Bengals at Steelers (Dec. 28).