The NFL made headlines last week with its intention to obtain a 1-year contract for Thursday Night Football on one of the major networks (CBS, Fox, NBC, and ABC through ESPN) that would involve some sort of simulcasting deal for NFL Network, and might not even contain the entire season's worth of Thursday night game.
Some people have wondered – why would certain networks do this? Why would CBS — which populates its Thursdays with the number one comedy on television, The Big Bang Theory — be interested? Why would ABC blow up its female-skewing Thursday night block of Grey's Anatomy and Scandal? Why don't Fox or NBC overbid to get these games onto their fledgling cable sports networks?
There's certainly a lot of worthwhile questions, and it might be a good idea to go over the answers, aside from "It's the NFL, duh" that might get this bidding frenzy into the hundreds of millions when it's all done.
For NBC and Fox, there really aren't any other options
While CBS and ABC can both count hit shows on Thursday night, Fox and NBC really don't have anything, especially in the fall. For Fox, Simon Cowell's The X Factor has been more or less a flop, and Glee is moving back to Tuesday so that American Idol can continue to bring in diminishing returns.
While Fox at least has returns, NBC just has the diminished. Parenthood, Community and Parks and Recreation — all three now aging shows — are getting dismal ratings, but still better than NBC's showcase sitcoms for Michael J. Fox and Sean Hayes on Thursday nights. Must-see TV is dead.
Fox would at least be able to populate the entire season with football and Idol (at least until it drops below 10 million viewers, which still hasn't happened). For NBC, it might be their first actual, consistent hit on Thursday since The Office.
Repeats are more or less death when it comes to dramas
ABC's Thursday nights have some of the highest ratings among women in network primetime, and Scandal is the show everyone's currently buzzing about. Why blow that up with something that skews more male, like football?
Well, first of all, NBC will tell you Sunday nights do just fine when it comes to the female demos. Secondly, serial dramas like Scandal and Grey's Anatomy don't repeat well in the broadcast television format (Scandal, of course, does great on a binge-watching service like Netflix). Football could conceivably provide enough weeks of programming to let both shows run repeat-free throughout the season, which would keep viewer momentum.
Also, ABC was at the TCA's this week and said they were the No. 1 network if you didn't count sports. I, personally, would like to see them forced to put their money where their mouths are on that one.
You can always move the hit shows to a struggling night
The NFL Thursday night package could be anywhere from 8-13 weeks of programming. While you could save a hit show for later in the season and run it without repeats, you could always just pack things up and improve a struggling night instead.
One of the unsung stories in broadcast television is how CBS' Mondays have become somewhat of a mess ever since Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men re-located. Now, with How I Met Your Mother ending, the night is wrapped in even more uncertainty. Big Bang Theory has an audience that will pretty much follow it anywhere, so why not use football as an excuse to move it back?
In that same vein, ABC could just move Scandal and Grey's Anatomy to its struggling Sunday night lineup, which hasn't been the same since the departure of Desperate Housewives. Fox and NBC wouldn't have to worry about Thursday for the foreseeable future. The less problem spots you have in TV, the better.
In the end, it's the NFL, and it's a platform for your network
What if NBC or CBS or Fox or ABC had a mid-week platform to promote all their other shows, just like you see on the former three every Sunday? You could remind people what's on Sunday nights as a counter to NBC's NFL games, ironically enough.
The fact is, whether or not you simulcast these games on NFL Network, the audiences are going to be a huge if you put the NFL on broadcast television. They're going to score in the demos that the networks care about. There's no reason for any network to, regardless of game quality, not pony up for Thursday Night Football.