CBS to air Thursday night football games

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CBS will air half of the NFL's Thursday night games this year. And the Eye Network will produce all of them.

Thursday Night Football is coming to broadcast television for the first time.

The National Football League announced on Wednesday that it had awarded the TV rights to eight Thursday games to CBS (CBS), buttressing what has been a mutually beneficial relationship between the NFL and its partners at the broadcast networks.

The deal will only apply to the 2014 season, though the NFL could opt to extend it through 2015. The NFL Network, which has carried Thursday games on cable for nearly a decade, will simulcast the eight that will be on CBS, and will carry eight other games exclusively.

Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, credited the NFL Network with building Thursday "into a night for NFL fans." He added in a statement that the NFL's goal "is to bring these games to more fans on broadcast television with unprecedented promotion and visibility for Thursday Night Football on CBS."

For the NFL, the arrangement means further profits for its popular football programming; for CBS, it may make a strong Thursday night lineup even stronger.

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To date the NFL has had limited success with its Thursday night match-ups on cable. The NFL Network's package of 13 games averaged eight million viewers in 2013, which is impressive for a typical cable channel, but pales in comparison to football ratings elsewhere. NBC's Sunday Night Football package, for instance, averaged 21 million viewers.

Ask a football analyst, and they'd say Sunday's higher-quality match-ups contribute to the ratings gap. Regardless, the league wants Thursdays to be more like Sundays — and that's what a broadcast network can help with. (The more valuable the Thursday package becomes, the more the league can charge for the rights in a year or two.)

When the NFL started to shop around the Thursday games package to television networks, speculation centered around NBC, since the Comcast (CMCSA)-owned broadcaster is in need of a Thursday pick-me-up. NBC reportedly bid for the package along with CBS, Disney's (DIS) ESPN, Fox (FOXA), and Turner Broadcasting. (Turner and this Web site are both owned by Time Warner (TWX).)

CBS is already the most-watched network in the United States. It broadcasts American Football Conference games during the daytime on Sundays, which greatly benefits its primetime programs on those nights.

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CBS chief executive officer Les Moonves indicated Wednesday that he thought the eight additional games would give the network an overall boost. "I look forward to all this new deal will do for us not only on Thursday nights, but across our entire schedule," Moonves said in a statement.

The games on CBS will come early in the season, so the network could elect to hold back the fall premieres of Thursday night hits like "The Big Bang Theory" until November. Or it could shift its current Thursday shows to new nights.

All sixteen games that come with the package — 14 on Thursdays, two late-season games on Saturdays — will now be produced by CBS, even though half will only be shown on the NFL Network. (The NFL Network syndicates its telecast to broadcast stations in the markets where the game is being played though. So fans without cable are still able to see their local team play for free.)

Jim Nantz and Phil Simms of CBS will be the lead broadcasters for all the Thursday games. The NFL said that its cable hosts and analysts will also appear during the pre-game, halftime and post-game coverage alongside CBS talent.

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