"TNF" stands for "Thursday Night Football" and "CBS" stands for the most successful broadcast network in the United States (It actually stands for the "Columbia Broadcasting System" ... but who remembers that?). Thursday night, the acronyms get together to form a unique, potentially groundbreaking -- or air-breaking -- TV experiment that could change television, viewer habits, future network/cable rights fee negotiations, the NFL and (what the heck) life as we know it on Earth, too.
Or it could be a bust.
Highly unlikely that it will be a "bust" even if Thursday evening arrives at a karmically weird moment, with NFL commish Roger Goodell under fire for the Ray Rice video and the Ravens up first.
But do know this -- Thursday night's huge move is indeed an experiment, the outcome of which remains very much unknown. Will the NFL agree to hand this over to CBS after one year -- and this is just a one year deal, or in fact essentially a six-week deal? Or will it send Thursday games back to its NFL Network after getting a massive awareness boost from CBS? "TNF" will go back exclusively to the NFL Network on Oct. 30 -- that's when "The Big Bang Theory" comes back. Will people in fact, OK, not people, but guys, get used to football on Thursday?
And how will this impact the network's reliance on hugely expensive shows like "The Big Bang Theory" (back late October) -- which just got more expensive?
Let's go to the bullets to sort all this stuff out, if you don't mind:
* Will this succeed? Of course millions will tune in -- and a much larger number of humans will be tuning in to CBS tonight than tuning into NBC or ABC (combined.) But will that be enough? The real question is, what is the NFL's expectation? My hunch is that NBC has lifted that expectation dramatically and perhaps unreasonably -- 21 million on average watch the Sunday night games which indicated to the NFL that there's a massive amount of gold in them thar prime-time hills. But maybe not as much gold on Thursdays as on Sundays -- where Homes Using Television levels are higher than on Thursday. Plus this: the games will still be simulcast on the NFL Network. Maybe some viewers, the habit-bound ones, will stay with the NFL Network instead of CBS. That may have an impact, too.
* Why only a year? Plenty of guesswork on this question, but the NFL is clearly hedging its bets. CBS chief Les Moonves had this to say about the question during the summer TCA press tour: "We knew going in, this was a one-year deal. It is our job to show the NFL what we can do and how great it’s going to be and how great the partnership is going to be. And we’re confident that at the end of the year, they’re going to feel like CBS did a tremendous job. As Roger [Goodell] said, this is a building process. This is the first year. But we’re confident that after this year is over, they’ll sit down and, hopefully, give us a longer deal than that.
* Will this lesson CBS's reliance on those hugely expensive series that just get more and more expensive? I've got to believe that "TNF" is, to a certain extent, a hedge against inflation -- entertainment series inflation -- as well as a hedge against the hard, cold, brutal fact that getting people to watch entertainment fare is harder and harder and harder, even for CBS. Football essentially is a sure bet, so that if this does work, at the very least CBS has a massive promotional platform to push new shows later in the fall. (NBC had a successful launch for "The Blacklist" in part because of relentless football promotion.) CBS will still need to develop entertainment series of course -- but with an ace like this in its back pocket, maybe not so many.
* How will this impact ABC and Fox? You've heard the old line that the rich get richer ... what happens to everyone else? ABC gave up "Monday Night Football" years ago for what I am sure were wonderful business reasons -- but in hindsight were terrible ones. "MNF" was one of TV's singular franchises -- it not only taught people to watch football in prime-time, but taught them to enjoy football in prime-time. It was Roone Arledge's singular insight (one of them), and now, it's hidden, so to speak, on ESPN. (Hidden? I kid: "MNF" is a vast success for ESPN, but I do think ABC's franchise was a cultural institution, while ESPN's is a sports institution.) Ever since, ABC has struggled to fill the vacuum, and with football heading to CBS on Thursdays, that vacuum just grew. Same with Fox -- which is having a terrific time struggling to make up ground lost by a diminished "American Idol." And judging by the early numbers, "Utopia" is not the answer. That's right -- the poor get poorer.