What the Fox Thursday Night Football Deal Means for Viewers

Breaking down the details of Fox Sports' $550 million, five-year deal for the NFL Thursday Night Football broadcast, including announcers, the possibility for a more attractive schedule, viewership and more.
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The forever-moving Thursday Night Football package, with multiple short-term marriages over the years, has found a new domestic partner: Fox Sports.

On Wednesday the NFL and Fox jointly announced a five-year rights agreement to broadcast Thursday Night Football on Fox’s over-the-air network.

The news was first reported on Tuesday night John Ourand of the Sports Business Daily and Bloomberg News. Ourand reported that Fox will pay an average of $550 million per year through the 2022 season, which makes the conclusion of the Thursday Night Football deal concurrent with the other NFL TV rights deals.

The new Thursday Night deal for Fox includes 11 games between Weeks 4 and 15 (excluding Thanksgiving night). The games will simulcast on NFL Network and distributed in Spanish on Fox Deportes. There will be no games on FS1. Additionally, the NFL Network will exclusively televise seven games next season, with all games produced by Fox Sports. The NFL still has the digital rights to this package to sell. Amazon was believed to have paid the league $50 million for the rights to stream the TNF broadcast last year.

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Unlike the previous deals, the NFL is not requiring Fox to use its top NFL broadcast and production team. That means Joe Buck and Troy Aikman will not be calling the games. The play-by-play assignment could logically go to Kevin Burkhardt, who is currently Fox’s No. 2 NFL announcer, or Gus Johnson, who currently is the top college announcer for Fox. Look for the same talent sharing agreement between the NFL Network and Fox Sports when it comes to the pregame show coverage.

Why is Fox interested? Ad Age’s Anthony Crupi said the deal makes more sense for Fox given TNF is the No. 2-rated show in primetime and Fox's proposed Disney deal signals a shift from scripted program for Fox. This fits into what Fox wants to do heading forward with its over-the-air network—a push to live sports and news-oriented fare. There is a belief among sports media watchers that the NFL will provide a more attractive Thursday Night schedule for Fox given the financial outlay. We shall see on that. It will also be interesting to see if Fox News, which has repeatedly been attacking the NFL via commentators and pundits, changes that course with its sister company now doubling down on NFL product.

By no means is this a slam-dunk for Fox. The viewership for Thursday Night Football has dropped in recent years but the program remains a guaranteed lock to be one in the Top 5 most-watched programs on linear television. CBS’s five game package in 2017 averaged 14.1 million viewers, down 4% from 14.7 million last year. Two years ago, CBS had eight TNF games and averaged 17.6 million viewers. NBC averaged 13.5 million viewers for its five TNF games this year, down 21% from its first season with the package. Both networks reportedly lost money on the package last year.

CBS is unlikely to be heartbroken over the NFL’s decision. According to Variety, the cost of a 30-second ad for NBC’s TNF presentation rose 3.7% over 2016, to $524,047. Variety reported the average price of a 30-second spot dropped 6.4% for CBS’s TNF broadcast, to $496,276. CBS had the early schedule.

“We explored a reasonable bid for Thursday Night Football but in the end are very pleased to return to entertainment programming on television’s biggest night…. 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 years Super Bowl LIII,” said a CBS Sports spokesperson.

“We made a competitive bid based on our two years of carrying TNF,” said a NBC Sports spokesperson. “We’ll now continue on keeping NBC’s Sunday Night Football at its perch as primetime’s number one program.”

In 2016 the league announced it had reached agreement with CBS and NBC to share its Thursday night primetime package of games, with all Thursday Night Football broadcast games simulcast on NFL Network. CBS and NBC each paid $225 million for the deal, or $45 million per game. That was up from the CBS deal in 2015 for eight games that was reportedly worth $300 million.

On Wednesday the NFL announced it had gotten an increase off its previous deals. As a rule of thumb, when it comes to NFL rights, bet on the numbers going up.

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1. Upon the conclusion of filming a two hour and 45 minute conversation between Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick last June 15 inside the New York Giants home locker room at MetLife Stadium, NFL Films coordinating producer Ken Rodgers knew he had witnessed something extraordinary between two legendary NFL coaches. The problem was whether it would come across on film.

“There was a feeling in the room, an unspoken knowledge that we were witnessing something that would never happen again, a moment in history being recorded, an official record of something so many people are interested about,” said Rodgers, an Emmy Award-winning producer of HBO’s Hard Knocks and the director of two ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries, “The Four Falls of Buffalo” (2015) and “Elway to Marino” (2013). “There was a palpable sense that they were working out their relationship themselves as the conversation went on. We worried as soon as the interview was over: How do we show what we were all feeling?”

Here’s an inside look at how Rodgers put the doc together.

2. As the guests on Episode 158 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast, Fred Gaudelli, the executive producer of NBC’s Sunday Night Football and the network’s Thursday Night Football series and Drew Esocoff, the director of NBC’s Sunday Night Football and the network’s Thursday Night Football series, discussed how they plan to prepare for the Super Bowl along with a multitude of other topics. Those included what worries them the most about the broadcast; how Super Bowl preparation is different than other postseason games; how the Patriots and Eagles impact what they will do; what kind of contingencies they have for a power outage or a terrorist attack; whether they are aware of prop bets that involve the broadcast; how they feel about the prospect of this being the last Super Bowl broadcast for Al Michaels; how young people can get to these type of positions in sports broadcasting; how they prepare for a blowout victory; how Gaudelli determines the right amount of replays; how they view the Super Bowl ratings in relation to what they do; the behind the scene mistakes that only they would about that have made it to air in past Super Bowls; the time they arrive for the game; the number of cameras at a Super Bowl and how many of these extra cameras are used during the game; why the Kentucky Derby is the hardest broadcast to do for sports television; and much more.

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