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What NFL Thursday Night Football on CBS Means For its Broadcast Rivals

By Brett Gold - Feb 6, 2014 at 3:30PM

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After CBS won the NFL package of Thursday night games, the other major networks will have to regroup as they try to counter a powerful new weapon in CBS's already powerful arsenal.

The NFL revealed yesterday that CBS (PARA 3.92%) had won the rights to the brand's Thursday Night Football package, which has gotten most of the TV industry discussing what it means for the country's number one network. While we are no exception (hint, hint, click here), it's also worth looking at what this means to the networks that did NOT get the package, as those scenarios would have been equally fascinating to watch unfold.

(Credit: NFL)

ABC (a subsidiary of Disney (DIS 2.33%))

The NFL made it clear it really wanted a broadcast partner, which ruled out Turner Sports, Netflix, Google, and ESPN. However ESPN was only really in the bidding process as a way to help sister network ABC. With the new deal now signed with CBS, ABC will remain the only one of the big four broadcasters to not have a stake in the football world.

Impact on future

The network still has to find a solution for its Thursday night "death slot" (8 p.m. EST), which won't get any easier with CBS having an even stronger counter-program (which is still mind-blowing, to be honest). However, this means Grey's Anatomy and Scandal can stay set in the 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. slot, so it's not likely much else will change for ABC. After all, the network is still a very popular destination for female viewers and neither drama should see a huge ratings drop because of the primetime game having wider exposure.

ABC missing out on this package will be disappointing, but it won't be a back-breaker.

NBC (a subsidiary of Comcast (CMCSA 0.84%))

While in many ways CBS had the least to gain of all the broadcast networks from the deal, NBC had the most room to benefit. NBC's Thursday night slate is a mess and that's why bolstering it during the fall with football would have been huge.

Impact on future

Given that NBC also has two of the NFL's biggest Thursday night games as is (the season opener and Thanksgiving), the network losing out on the full package is a little surprising. NBC seemed like the best fit for the slate of games and it would have caused the biggest overall shift in power, giving CBS a big threat to contend with in the critical first weeks of the new season.

Now it's more than likely it will be back to the drawing board for NBC, which entered the season very confident in its revamped slate that was anchored by new projects from Michael J. Fox and Sean Hayes. With both series not likely to come back, Parks & Recreation could be the lone holdover (again).

The good news is that NBC has inked a deal with comedy legend Bill Cosby to return to TV and it's likely the affable actor's latest sitcom will go on Thursday night, which could give the network a boost.

Fox (FOXA)

Fox losing out is not that big of a shock for the simple reason the network also holds the rights to the MLB playoffs and World Series. Remember that for about two weeks every October, the network's schedule gets crazy -- a playoff baseball game and a football game on the same Thursday would have been a major problem. It's not likely Major League Baseball would have gone out of its way to accommodate Fox so the network could air a rival sport's matchup.

Impact on future

It some ways Fox not getting the package is a good thing for the network. It already airs significantly less original weekly programming than its rivals (since it gives its 10 p.m. slot to its local affiliates for news). By surrendering another night, even for a short time, Fox would have found itself behind the eight ball when the slate of games ended. Whether it was the eight games given to CBS or the full 16 games that were rumored to be in play, it was still going to end eventually, and executives would still have to find a way to schedule the remaining weeks until the spring and American Idol's yearly return.

Looking at the grand scale of things, CBS getting the package keeps things mostly status quo. CBS is the current winner on Thursday nights and now likely will continue to be. Had ABC, NBC, or Fox gotten the rights it would have changed the TV landscape in a major way … not that CBS winning isn't a game-changer, but the potential was here to really level the playing field and make Thursday night an even bigger battleground. Now it will be up to the networks to do it the old fashioned way; with interesting new series.

Brett Gold owns shares of CBS. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. 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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