At 11:30 ET this morning, FOX will sign on with a one-hour Packers-Lions pregame show, kicking off approximately 12 consecutive hours of NFL programming on national networks that will culminate with the conclusion of Steelers-Ravens in prime time on NBC.
Watching television is an American tradition. So is football. The combination is obvious on a day like Thanksgiving, which happens to land during the beginning of the home stretch of the NFL season. Many of you will start early with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on NBC at 9 a.m., which is also traditional, and most will make that natural, comfortable transition to football at Ford Field at around noon.
The matinee Thanksgiving games on FOX and CBS were two of the four most viewed television events in America last fall, and the aforementioned Thanksgiving Day Parade was the only non-NFL program to make the top 32 during that stretch.
It's one of those days where it doesn't matter who's playing, because there aren't many alternatives. Football can be background noise, and it can also serve as an ideal complement to family time. Based on the fact that football is the most popular sport in a country in which sports are probably the most popular pastime, it all makes perfect sense. Movies and television shows require too much of people's attention while eating and socializing, but football is perfect.
We talk about the possibility of NFL television ratings dropping as alternative viewing options emerge, but this is again a case in which people watch together on TV, rather than on iPads or laptops. We're alone quite frequently on standard Sundays or Monday nights, but most of us can't be hermits on Thanksgiving Thursday, which means we go back to the old-school format. I'd imagine that, one day, Thanksgiving games and the Super Bowl will be the last NFL events still standing above the 20-million-viewer plateau, barely impacted by a shift in the way people generally consume pro sports.
That, however, doesn't explain why the NFL has monopolized Thanksgiving in the sports realm. Why have college football and the NBA generally stayed on the sideline? We haven't seen basketball on Thanksgiving since 2010 and college football has stayed away from afternoon games as well as potential blockbuster matchups.
Of course, the NCAA rarely messes with the NFL and vice versa. The two have a working relationship and thus respect each other's domains. You'll never see NFL football on Saturday afternoon or college football on Sunday afternoon, so maybe that explains the lack of college ball.
(The NHL has also generally steered clear of Thanksgiving Day games, but that probably has something to do with the fact Canadian audiences would practically be nonexistent on what is a regular business day north of the 49th parallel.)
Maybe the NBA fears getting squashed by the NFL on Thanksgiving Day, but you'd think it could at least cut into those ratings a tiny bit. Plus, whatever numbers they pull on Thanksgiving would certainly be an improvement over any other time slot.
"In order for the NBA and college football to get eyeballs they'd really have to make a serious effort to put some great matchups on," said ESPN sports business reporter Darren Rovell. "The NBA figures they'd rather try harder on Christmas Day when there's another month in the season gone by and the games are a bit more relevant.
"And with college football, it's too hard to predict how to stack the deck basically a couple years in advance to make it happen. The NFL on Thanksgiving day is such a tradition that it doesn't really matter how good or bad the teams that traditionally play on that day are. People are programmed to open their belts, lay backwards on the couch and watch NFL games."
That's exactly what most of us will be doing. This year, next year, and every year after that.
Your 2013 NFL Thanksgiving Day schedule
12:30 p.m. ET, FOX: Green Bay Packers (5-5-1) at Detroit Lions (6-5) — Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver
4:30 p.m. ET, CBS: Oakland Raiders (4-7) at Dallas Cowboys (6-5) — Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson
8:30 p.m. ET, NBC: Pittsburgh Steelers (5-6) at Baltimore Ravens (5-6) — Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya