Far and away, the biggest story in NFL television coverage this fall is the arrival of "Thursday Night Football" to the CBS prime-time schedule Sept. 11 with a matchup between the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Just as NBC's "Sunday Night Football" has become TV's highest-rated weekly prime-time show, look for the CBS Thursday night game to rank alongside it as one of the two most popular shows in all of prime time.
CBS is partnering with the NFL Network to do 16 games on Thursday nights, but the first eight on CBS are the game-changers. Getting the rights to the Thursday night games didn't change everything for the network's sports division. But it opened all aspects of the network's NFL coverage to review, and that meant some different moves, such as the addition of sideline reporters, according to Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports.
"When we got 'Thursday Night Football,' we decided to relook at everything, both on Sunday afternoon and obviously on Thursday, since Thursday was brand-new," McManus said in a telephone interview.
"And we kind of approached it as a playoff game, and we've had sideline reporters on all the playoff games, just not in the regular season," he added. "And we thought, 'It's a playoff-game level of equipment [cameras, trucks, microphones]. Let's blow it out. Let's put sideline reporters on there. And if we're doing it on Thursday, why don't we do it on Sunday also?'"
So, viewers will be seeing Tracy Wolfson, known for her reporting of Southeastern Conference college football for CBS, on the sidelines on Thursday nights, as well as those Sundays when Jim Nantz and Phil Simms are in the booth.
That's another change: Nantz and Simms, the network's first-string announcers, won't be on every Sunday given their new Thursday prime-time duties. They probably will do about half the Sundays on CBS — "just the big doubleheader games," McManus said.
And with the retirement of Dan Dierdorf, Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts become the No. 2 crew, joined by Jenny Dell as the sideline reporter on Sunday games.
"I think they're ready for it. I think they'll step up and be really well received," McManus said.
Teaming with the NFL Network is going to give CBS the chance to mount a major production starting two hours before the game with two distinct sets at the stadium.
Starting at 6 p.m. for an 8 p.m. game, one set will feature Rich Eisen, Steve Mariucci and Michael Irvin from the NFL Network. Then starting at 7:30, the CBS set at the stadium will come on with James Brown, Bill Cowher and Deion Sanders.
As for the equipment that will be used to broadcast games like the one Thursday night at M&T Bank Stadium, McManus said it will be more extensive than anything except CBS' Super Bowl coverage.
One of the biggest changes for all the networks carrying NFL games this fall involves "flex" and "cross-flex" scheduling of TV games this fall.
First of all, be clear about one thing, the networks say: The NFL, not network sports executives, decides which games will be moved from their regularly scheduled times or network to a lineup spot with a larger potential audience. The NFL consults with its network broadcasting partners, but the league is the one making the call.
In the past, starting at Week 11, flex scheduling allowed the NFL to take a Sunday afternoon game and move it into the Sunday night slot on NBC, the biggest stage in prime-time TV.
This year, the league will be allowed to start flexing into that Sunday night time slot as early as Week 5 instead of Week 11.
However, the league can flex only two games from Sunday afternoon into Sunday night from Week 5 to Week 10. Starting with Week 11, it can be done every week. (Flexing applies only to Sunday games. Monday and Thursday night games are untouchable.)
Also new this year is cross-flexing, which the league can do any week of the season.
This process involves CBS and Fox and will result in AFC games that previously could have been seen only on CBS now appearing on Fox, and vice versa.
"Basically, the NFL has the option of taking up to seven NFC games, which heretofore would have only been on Fox, and seven AFC games and basically putting them on the mirror network," McManus explained.
"So, a Washington-Philadelphia game up until this year would always be on Fox or in prime time [on NBC] — it couldn't be on CBS. But there are now three games on the CBS schedule that are basically Fox games that before this year would only be on Fox. There will probably be three or four at the beginning of the season, and then … up to three or four later in the season."
The idea is putting the best matchups before the largest potential audiences. For example, a 1 p.m. game that is one of several Fox regional telecasts could be moved to the 4:15 p.m. national time slot on CBS.
"What happens is that Fox will have a game — and Washington-Philly is probably a good example — that is only going to 12 or 15 percent of the country," McManus said. "But by moving it to CBS, that percentage might jump up to 60 or 70 percent. So, it's an opportunity for the NFL to use their inventory in a more intelligent way."
TV football never has been more popular. Look at the top-rated shows for any given week from Nielsen last fall, and you will see not just the prime-time NFL games among the Top 10, but the Sunday afternoon national games on Fox and CBS as well.
Given the flex enhancements and extra eight weeks of prime-time football on CBS, the NFL is only going to grow its dominance not only of sports but also entertainment and popular culture this fall.
How schedule flexing works
"Flexing" of NFL game times from Sunday afternoons to Sunday nights on NBC starts in Week 5 rather than Week 11 this year.
But only two games can be flexed in that window.
Starting with Week 11, flexing can take place every week for the rest of the season.
This fall, the NFL also adds cross-flexing between CBS and Fox this fall.
Cross-flexing, which involves taking NFC games from Fox and airing them on CBS, or AFC games on CBS and showing them on Fox, can be done any week by the NFL.
So, games between NFC rivals that in the past could be seen only on Fox will now be on CBS, and vice versa.
Cross-flexing is done to make sure that the best games have the potential to reach the largest audience. It will often involve regional 1 p.m. Sunday games on one network being moved to the 4:15 p.m. time slot on the other network.