NEW YORK — “The Big Bang Theory” is one of the few television shows that can approach the NFL in viewership. CBS executives still didn’t hesitate to temporarily move TV’s top-rated comedy to a different night to make room for football.
Already dominating Thursdays in prime time, CBS outbid its competitors when the league offered up games that had aired on NFL Network.
“The highest priority for this corporation at that time was acquiring ‘Thursday Night Football,'” CBS Sports Chair Sean McManus said Monday.
Thursdays conjure up memories of “Must See TV.” But viewers’ habits are now very different from the NBC heyday of “The Cosby Show” or “Friends.”
So many more options abound: cable, Netflix, DVRs, on-demand. Viewers can fast-forward through ads or avoid them entirely.
According to Nielsen, premiere episodes of “The Big Bang Theory” during the last TV season averaged a total of 23 million viewers over seven days — by that measure, even more than “Sunday Night Football.”
But only 13.5 million watched live, compared with 20.9 million for the NFL games on NBC.
On Thursdays, that’s especially problematic to advertisers, said Jack Myers, the chairman of media industry intelligence firm MyersBizNet. Thursdays brimmed with top shows because consumers are starting to think about their weekends: which movies they’ll attend, which big-ticket items they’ll buy, which restaurants they’ll patronize.
So “The Big Bang Theory” will anchor Monday nights while CBS broadcasts NFL games on Thursdays for seven weeks. CBS’s regular Thursday lineup won’t premiere until Oct. 30.
“They’re not going to risk losing audience, that show is so hot,” said Marc Berman of TV Media Insights. In the meantime, “The Big Bang Theory” can help boost CBS’s Monday lineup.
CBS averaged 8.3 million live viewers in prime time on Thursdays last fall, according to Nielsen. That’s 2.8 million more than second-place ABC.
It seemed to need the Thursday night NFL package the least, but the last thing CBS wanted was to fall behind another network that added football’s massive audiences.
The NFL first proved it could lure viewers in prime time when “Monday Night Football” debuted on ABC in 1970. But in April 2005, ABC decided it could no longer afford the package. The games switched to sister network ESPN.
At the same time, the Sunday night package shifted from cable to NBC.
Much has changed since ABC made that decision. During the 2004 season, NFL games on ABC, CBS and Fox averaged 15.4 million viewers; prime-time shows on the big four networks averaged 9.8 million. By 2013, the NFL on CBS, Fox and NBC was up to 20.3 million, while prime time was down to 7 million. In less than a decade, football’s advantage soared from 57 percent to 190 percent.
“We’ve only gotten more valuable on broadcast,” said Brian Rolapp, the chief operating officer of NFL Media.
In 2011, “Sunday Night Football” became the first sports program to rank as the most-watched show in all of prime time. And last season, it became the first to rank No. 1 among women ages 18-49.
NBC Sports Group Chair Mark Lazarus compares the NFL to another event that draws families together in front of the TV, the Olympics — able to overcome what he describes as a “headphone nation.”
The league first added Thursday night games in 2006 on NFL Network, looking to increase distribution and viewership for its fledgling cable channel. With that accomplished, the next goal was to convince more fans to consider Thursday the start of the football weekend.
Last season, an average of 8.1 million viewers watched the 13 Thursday games. There are 16 games in the package this year, with every team taking part.
The NFL wanted to put them on one of the traditional broadcast networks to reach the widest audience possible. As other sports have migrated to cable, the league still simulcasts games on ESPN and NFL Network on local channels for the two teams.
At the same time, Rolapp expects the CBS deal will only help NFL Network.
CBS will air the first seven weeks, with simulcasts on NFL Network. NFL Network will broadcast the next seven, with CBS still overseeing the production and its lead announcing team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms handling the calls.
On Saturday, Dec. 20, the two networks will split a doubleheader.
The CBS deal is for only one year, with the next set of negotiations with networks likely including expanded NFL playoffs. Expect bids to come again from Fox, NBC — and ABC.
For ESPN, the success of “Monday Night Football” is measured not just in ratings; it averaged 13.7 million viewers last season. With its NFL deal, it can fill its airwaves with football coverage 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, said senior vice president Burke Magnus.
And ESPN will air playoff games for the first time this season.
But if the NFL is offering a package of games for broadcast TV, ABC wants to get back in the game, too.
During the Television Critics Association summer press tour last month, CBS Corp. Chairman Leslie Moonves drily noted that many of the new shows being promoted will be long gone by next year.
No such worries with the NFL.
“This is a sure thing,” he said.