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CBS Wins Thursday Night Football -- What's it Mean for the Network?

By Brett Gold - Feb 6, 2014 at 5:44AM

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CBS won the NFL sweepstakes yesterday for an expanded slate of games on Thursday nights. How will the new programming force the network to adjust its plans?

CBS (PARA -3.31%) has won the Thursday night sweepstakes. The NFL yesterday announced the network submitted the winning bid for Thursday Night Football and would begin airing the games this fall, with them simulcast on NFL Network.

CBS adds to its already solid slate of programming, but also finds itself with a unique scheduling situation.

"The Big Bang Theory" (Credit: CBS)

Embarrassment of riches

For the past few years CBS has been trying to own Thursday nights. First, the network moved longtime Thursday inhabitant Survivor to Wednesdays and shifted top comedy The Big Bang Theory to Thursdays to set up an hour comedy block. Then executives expanded that block to two hours and have dominated the timeframe ever since. So now what?

Why would a network that owns Thursday nights the way NBC used to in its "Must-See TV" days blow up the entire thing for football? OK, to be honest it's not that hard of a question ... the answer's money and ratings. Still, from major networks to cable rivals to budding programmers like Netflix, all of which are believed to have bid, CBS is the one that needed this package the least!

The deal also allows for CBS and NFL Network talent to crossover, which helps raise both companies' already high brand recognition. That's not a bad deal for a reported cost of between $200 million to $300 million.

Bubble burst

At first glance it appears CBS will have to find a new home for up to five series that are all solid players. While that's necessarily true, let's explore those possible ramifications.

With this new deal in place for 2014 (and a league option for 2015), at least one or two of the five series could be coming off the network's slate for good. We know Big Bang isn't going anywhere and likely neither is Elementary, which leaves three comedies vulnerable: Two and a Half Men and freshman series The Millers and The Crazy Ones.

Men is a ratings hit but isn't as big as it used to be and employs two leads (Ashton Kutcher and Jon Cryer) who are pulling in a ridiculous amount of money. Crazy Ones has fan favorite Robin Williams, but it isn't seeing numbers in line with expectations. The Millers has been critically trounced but remains the season's best performing new comedy.

Of the three Millers is the safest and could make the journey to Monday nights along with Bang, which leaves Men and Crazy as the odd shows out. Incidentally, both would have been on the bubble regardless of this deal for those same reasons, except now those downsides are amplified.

On the other side, CBS' Monday nights haven't been the same since Bang left, and with How I Met Your Mother ending, the network could use the "hitcom" back on its old stomping grounds. But CBS is expected to put Mother's spin-off, How I Met Your Dad, into that lineup and has high hopes around the yet-to-debut comedy Friends With Better Lives, which enters the Monday night fray in late March. Together, this could spell a reduced order, a later season premiere, or even cancellation for any number of CBS comedies, which until now were seemingly a network priority.

The network puzzle

Now here's the part that's been somewhat overlooked in all this excitement -- the deal is only for eight games. After those, the remaining eight on the schedule will air solely on NFL network, with six on Thursdays and two on Saturdays. That leads to an intriguing (and more likely) scenario: what if CBS doesn't make any changes to Thursdays and just delays its slate by a few weeks?

If CBS starts airing games in the second week of September (the Thursday night opener remains an NBC exclusive), then eight weeks later would take the network until around Halloween. For the past two years CBS has kicked off its lineups during the final week of September -- if that trend continues, that means only around six weeks are affected.

In essence CBS could kick off its new fall schedule around the same time it usually does with almost all of its programs, and then have its usual Thursday night lineup ready to go in time for the all-important November sweeps. This would also help cut down on later weeks that would have been filled with reruns.

The delayed launch may also speak to why CBS is only airing half of the Thursday night slate when it likely could have made a deal for the whole thing.

Now the network could end up having the best of both worlds -- it's suddenly got a loaded schedule and it's managed to keep a hot property away from its rivals. 

Brett Gold owns shares of CBS. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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