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What CBS's Thursday Night Football May Mean for the TV Upfronts

Entertainment Ratings Points Will Be Scarcer, Pressuring Pricing, Buyers Say

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CBS’s deal to air eight “Thursday Night Football’ games next fall will reduce the amount of entertainment inventory available for advertisers in the upfronts while putting pressure on rival broadcasters’ fall schedules, several media buyers are predicting.

Adding football to Thursdays, a night that advertisers consider the on-ramp to consumers’ weekend spending, is creating fear of rising prices for anyone who wants to advertise elsewhere.

If demand for ratings points in Thursday-night sitcoms and dramas remains flat while the supply of those shows goes down, pricing will have to rise, said Marc Morse, senior VP-national broadcast, Assembly.

For categories like movie studios and for certain retailers, “Thursday Night Football” will provide an even bigger platform for their campaigns ahead of the weekend. They can expect CBS to use Thursday football as leverage to draw them into other inventory during the upcoming upfront negotiations, Mr. Morse said.

But many marketers can’t afford to advertise in the country’s No. 1 TV sport — or wouldn’t find their target consumers there anyway. One hope for them is that CBS will at least expand entertainment ratings points on other nights, partly by using football to promote the rest of its lineup.

Thursday night football puts CBS in the drivers’ seat, said Jeff Gagne, VP-group account director, Havas Media. The network was already dominating on Thursday nights with hits like “The Big Bang Theory” and freshman sitcom “The Millers.” The games mean CBS has three less hours to program in the fall and presents the opportunity to pack other nights with its strongest entertainment series and run fewer repeats.

Mr. Gagne said he expects CBS to attract additional budgets in the upfront talks this year.

Sports overall is expected to be an even bigger part of upfront conversations this year, said Kirsten Atkinson, media director, Team One, who handles the Lexus account. While sports programming is highly coveted for advertisers, especially those seeking the hard-to-reach young male demographic, Ms. Atkinson believes the genre could hit a saturation point.

For advertisers with a finite budget, sports programming can be limiting and expensive, she said.

ABC, Fox and NBC will certainly be evaluating how to take on “Thursday Night Football.” NFL games are typically among the highest-rated programs on both Sunday and Monday nights, and “Thursday Night Football” isn’t expected to be much different.

If rival broadcasters get it right, it could present an opportunity to attract more female audiences and non-football viewers. But the competition will be intense.

“The piece of the audience that isn’t football fans will turn to other networks, but overall the net effect will be more people watching CBS,” Mr. Morse said. “Other networks are going to lose more viewers overall than they will pick up.”

NBC has been struggling with its comedy block on Thursday nights, most recently cancelling two freshman sitcoms, “Sean Saves the World” and “The Michael J. Fox Show.” But the network has seen a substantial improvement from last year and is currently No. 1 network in adults 18-to-49.

ABC has found some success on Thursday nights, especially among woman, with “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” the two most-watched programs among women 18-to-49. Plenty of women watch football, but ABC’s lineup may still present the best Thursday night counter-programming to the NFL.

Fox’s Thursdays this season have been dominated by the results shows of its two singing competitions, “The X-Factor” and “American Idol.” But “The X-Factor” will not return next season and “American Idol” has hit new ratings lows this reason.

NBC, ABC and Fox declined to comment.

For all the speculation, the package might not have a huge effect, said David Campanelli, senior VP-director of national broadcast, Horizon Media. Mr. Campanelli noted that CBS’ new Thursday NFL games only represent eight days during an entire year. And just six of those games will run during the traditional fall season; two will air before entertainment shows’ fall premieres.

The games were also already being broadcast by NFL Network, and even though CBS is a much bigger platform, most highly motivated viewers already had access to them.

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