When the NFL decided to have a weekly Thursday night game, it was met with derision from many fans and media. Another night of NFL action could be overkill and having another nationally broadcast game would water down the games and would be more likely to broadcast terrible games and matchups to a wider audience.
Eventually, after years spent bouncing around on NBC and CBS (with NFL Network simulcasts), Fox saw an opportunity with Thursday Night Football and decided to make a sizable investment to obtain the rights. That investment resulted in the oft-criticized Thursday night package getting better matchups, a pattern that the “New Fox” is hoping continues in 2019.
Fox Sports president Mark Silverman spoke with SBJ’s John Ourand about their new strategy and how Thursday Night Football fits in with their plans.
Starting near the 17 minute mark, Silverman explains how Fox saw an opportunity with completely owning TNF’s rights, as opposed to sharing it like NBC and CBS did. TNF also fits with the company’s “New Fox” plans that focuses on live events.
“We want to be a leader in the large events and we really felt there was an opportunity with Thursday Night Football as opposed to being shared,” Silverman said. “There’s always a greater value if you are the owner of a product and it’s yours to make it special and make it really unique.”
“We really felt it was something that’s a unique property. And there’s a lot of properties out there, there’s very few that are just unique, that are different, that are special, that resonate with a broad audience that others cannot. And there is very few things out there that you can think of, like a potential Thursday Night Football. And as part of our pitch to the NFL was we’re willing to do all these things really to pay a very healthy price, we’re looking for an improvement on the games. And we needed the game quality to warrant and be at the same level of the efforts we were putting into it.”
Silverman noted that by featuring better matchups on Thursday night, Fox’s flagship Sunday afternoon schedule could lose big matchups over the course of the season. That could result in a slightly lower rating on Sunday, but by Fox’s logic, if America’s Game of the Week is the top rated game of the week (even over Sunday Night Football) even after losing a bit of viewership to ensure Thursday night is top notch, it’s worth it for them.
“Our goal is to make sure that continues, while driving and investing in Thursday night,” Silverman said. “So as long as that Game of the Week is still able to hold that mantle, we were comfortable with losing a tenth or couple tenths of a ratings point on Sunday to make sure Thursday night is as popular and as important as we all are putting in the effort to do.”
This makes sense, because the Thursday evening timeslot has zero live NFL competition, unlike the Sunday windows. Focusing on TNF fits in with Fox’s plans to “own the weekend” this fall, with NFL bookending the schedule on Thursdays and Sundays, WWE SmackDown on Friday, and college football on Saturday and NFL on Sunday.
Ourand also touched on OTT networks and whether or not Fox would enter that space, which ESPN has with ESPN+ and NBC has with NBC Sports Gold. Silverman was confident that OTT would be successful. but also admitted that the space is crowded at the moment (spoiler: it’s not going to become less crowded in the future) and that Fox is taking a “wait and see” approach for now.
“We want to pick our spots really carefully,” Silverman said. “I think, there’s a lot of players in the OTT space, there seems to be an exuberance in programming, rights fee increases that are in that world. And I think, at this point, we’re very content to kind of be on the sidelines, observe.”
“The OTT space is a bit crowded, it’s a bit expensive, and I think for now we’re comfortable where we are.”
“There is some growth, the question is ‘how much?'” “I think it will be successful, the question is ‘to what degree?'”
Those are some fair concerns by Silverman. Focusing on a half-assed OTT service now could hurt Fox in terms of long-term success, but if Fox is focusing on live events in order to maximize their linear TV ratings, having an OTT network isn’t going to be a priority for them right now anyway.
This interview with Silverman really drives home what the focus of the “New Fox” is. This will be a leaner company, focusing on sports and live events on network TV, as has been discussed for months in the wake of the Disney sale.