The biggest story of the fall TV season begins tonight in Baltimore with the debut of "Thursday Night Football" on CBS.
The bold programming move — which includes the largest marketing effort in the history of the network as well as the relocation of TV's most popular sitcom, "The Big Bang Theory" — is also the biggest gamble of the year.
The new night of primetime NFL competition that opens with the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers is already the second most expensive program on television with CBS asking advertisers to pay $500,000 for 30 seconds of commercial time.
The only program that costs more is NBC's "Sunday Night Football," which sold for $628,000 per 30-second spot last year, according to a survey conducted by the trade publication Variety.
"They're asking people to create a new habit from scratch, and that's obviously a gamble," says Brian Steinberg, senior TV editor at Variety. "And the prices are very high for a night that's not an established night for football watching. But, on the other hand, all data point to live football as one of the few sure things you can put on TV and get that kind of big audience any more."
The audience for "Sunday Night Football" last year was more than 22 million viewers a week. CBS Sports is promising advertisers for "Thursday Night Football" 20 million viewers between its telecast and the simulcast on the NFL Network.
The hope of those on Madision Avenue paying half a million dollars for a half a minute is that the Thursday telecast will be one of the four most watched shows on primetime network television this fall, along with "The Big Bang Theory" and "NCIS," which also air on CBS.
When NBC honchos launched "Sunday Night Football" in 2010, they did so under the banner "Football Night in America." It was based on a strategy of making the telecast a "communal, family event" that would hopefully separate it from all the audience fragmentation taking place across the media landscape. It was positioned as the grand finale to a day of football viewing.
CBS has a similar Thursday-specific plan, according to George F. Schweitzer, president of marketing for the network.
"The strategic difference for Thursday is that it's the first game of that NFL week for fantasy football. The fantasy players have to all lock in [their picks] before Thursday night," Schweitzer said. "That's why we coined, 'Your football week starts here.'"
The synergy with fantasy football has become hugely important to network and cable sports operations.
According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, 33 million Americans a year play the online game that allows players to draft and manage virtual teams made up of real NFL athletes. The actual NFL statistics that determine scores and standings increase viewing of the games on TV and drive traffic to sports websites like CBSsports.com.
And contrary to the way the Internet and social media have upended decades-old viewing patterns of sitcoms and dramas to the detriment of networks, Schweitzer believes digital change has been a good thing when it comes to such live events as NFL games and awards shows.
"The water cooler has changed from a physical machine in an office to a laptop, to an iPhone. It's the virtual water cooler, so everyone can be talking at the same time with the second screen," he says.
"The great news about the second screen for us is that it supplements the first screen, which is television," Schweitzer adds. "That's why the NFL's so valuable and popular. It's a shared experience, and now you can share it in real time thanks to all these apps — versus in the past when we shared it the next day, the morning after as Monday-morning quarterbacks."
For all the talk of social media synergy and sports as pop culture, though, it's the game on the field that counts the most to Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports.
There will be some "adjusting" for primetime to make the broadcast "look and feel bigger," he said.
The telecast will open each week with Jay-Z's Grammy-winning "Run This Town" performed by Rihanna. It's the CBS answer to NBC's "Waiting All Day For Sunday Night" with Carrie Underwood. The opening will also include narration from actor Don Cheadle highlighting the rivalry between the two teams and their towns.
There will be two sets of analysts and anchors at each game, one outside the stadium and one within.
For an 8 p.m. game, the show will open at 6 p.m. on NFL Network cable channel with Rich Eisen, Michael Irvin, Marshall Faulk and Steve Mariucci live outside each stadium. (They will be set up at the Gate A Plaza at the end of "Ravens Walk" tonight.)
At 7:30 p.m., James Brown, Deion Sanders and Bill Cowher will anchor "NFL Thursday Night Kickoff" from inside each stadium on CBS.
(The NFL network and CBS are partners in the production with the first eight games appearing on CBS and the NFL Network, while the last eight will appear only on the NFL Network.)
But from reporter Tracy Wolfson on the sidelines, to play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz and analyst Phil Simms in the booth, the biggest commitment will be made to covering the game.
"Other than the Super Bowl, this is by far the biggest football production we do," McManus said. "From a production standpoint, it's a lot more equipment than we have even on an AFC championship game … In the end, the field is still 100 yards long, and there's still 22 guys on the field. So, what it comes down to is covering the game."
McManus says he believes one of the reasons NFL picked CBS over other suitors as its primetime partner is the commitment CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves made to the league.
"He basically said the entire corporation is going to be behind this," McManus said. "Whether it's radio stations or prime time or latenight or Showtime, you won't be able to watch or listen to anything on CBS for more than a couple of hours without hearing 'Thursday Night Football.' That's a commitment we've made, and we've done that. So, I think, by the time we kick off Thursday night the whole world will know we're doing Thursday Night Football."
It will take a few weeks to know whether 20 million viewers will regularly be responding to the CBS call for another night of football on network TV.
So far, the signs from Madison Avenue have been mixed to encouraging.
"There's actually been a pushback on football this year," Variety's Steinberg says. "The networks are facing a bigger range of competitors from Hulu and Amazon to AOL and Yahoo. They're facing more competition that is cheaper and more targeted. Network TV is trying to fight back with outsized events like this that draw the biggest, most diverse crowds you can get."
"We've had some very aggressive projections, and we are actually exceeding our projections right now," McManus said. "The sales have been very robust, and the good thing is it hasn't cannibalized our Sunday afternoon sales."
Advertising time for tonight's game has all been sold, a spokeswoman for CBS Sports said late Wednesday.
WJZ-TV, the CBS-owned affiliate in Baltimore, reported at the end of last week that it was sold out for tonight's game as well.
"Thursday Night football is a great sports franchise and advertisers have responded by booking ad schedules early," station president Jay Newman wrote in an email response to the Sun. "We're sold out and we've been getting impressive double digit rate increases."
Newman said WJZ is also producing its own pre-game show to run from 7 to 7:30 p.m. tonight on Channel 13 and that it was sold out as of Friday.
The final verdict as to whether America's ready for some more primetime football this year will come from the viewers and fans, of course.
"If the games are good, I will watch," says Jesse Karangu, a student at the University of Maryland, College Park. "The only reason I never watched before is because I've never had the NFL Network."
Karangu represents the kind of young viewer referenced by Schweitzer — one who is an avid football fan following the NFL on multiple screens. Better yet, he's editor in chief of an entertainment website, Pulsefeedz, that is geared toward college students. So, he's constantly talking online and in social media about what he's watching.
He says he follows Twitter "religiously," because he wants to be "in the know." And every Sunday, he makes room in his schedule "to watch football whether it's the afternoon or prime time."
In the past, Karangu's TV viewing on Thursday nights consisted mostly of the NBA on cable channel TNT or "Scandal" on ABC.
But not this week.
"Baltimore-Pittsburgh is a great game, without a doubt," Karangu says. "It's good to see divisional rivalries spotlighted in prime time, because those are the matches viewers care about most... I'll definitely be watching."
"Thursday Night Football" premieres at 8 tonight on WJZ –TV (Channel 13)
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