With Fox set to kick off its five-year, $3-billion-plus deal for NFL Thursday Night Football, Fox Sports production president John Entz and play-by-play man Joe Buck are seeing a “looser” and “more entertaining” approach take shape.
“The Thursday night package was attractive for many reasons,” Entz said during a conference call with reporters. “One thing we wanted to emphasize was consistency. The broadcast had had trouble with people finding it since it was on different networks over the years.”
In terms of tone, he added, “It seems looser. … It feels like there’s kind of a breath of fresh air that’s been put in.” Entz based that assessment on two initial runs with Fox’s team handling key production and booth duties for broadcasts carried by the NFL Network, per the contract. In the prime-time context, compared with Sunday afternoon, Buck noted, “You feel like you have to be a little more entertaining.”
This Thursday’s game between the Minnesota Vikings and Los Angeles Rams will be the first of 11 prime-time contests (not including Thanksgiving) aired by Fox. (CBS and NBC had split the past two seasons.) Overall, NFL ratings are up a fraction of a percentage point this season compared with the same point in 2017, despite widespread angst about officiating, anthem protests, player safety and the long-term viability of the sport.
Despite cumulative ratings declines of 17% since 2016, football is a bedrock element of the “New Fox” programming lineup. The company that will remain after Disney’s takeover of 21st Century Fox assets — consisting of the broadcast network, local stations and cable networks like Fox News and FS1 — has grabbed up NFL, WWE and boxing rights in anticipation of this winter’s close of the $71.3 billion deal, which will cleave off the prolific TV studio that has long fed the Fox network. In a bullish report today, Wall Street analyst Michael Nathanson said New Fox is vastly undervalued, in large part because of the NFL. BTIG’s Rich Greenfield believes the extra NFL games raise the stakes for major cable provider Altice in its carriage dispute with Fox. “It is quite hard to see Altice without Fox programming given the importance of local NFL programming,” he wrote.
Buck said having multiple games a week (the late-Sunday-afternoon NFC game of the week as well as Thursdays) is a net plus, not a minus. “Doing two games a week is fun,” Buck said. “I find it invigorating. I think it’s been good for our group. I think it’s brought out different sides of our personalities on the air. I think we’ve been able to loosen up a little. And I think we’ve been a little more off-the-cuff.”
Matching up against networks’ priority Thursday night lineups, rather than Sunday afternoon fare, affects the tone of the broadcast, Buck said. “If somebody’s flipping by The Big Bang Theory and then they come on the game, I don’t think you can be textbook, cut-and-dried, talking about two-deep zones and breaking down ‘ball,’ so to speak. I think you’ve got to bring other stuff in. I think you have to have fun.”
Analyst Troy Aikman, Buck’s longtime on-air partner, said he understood the reason for past complaints about the glut of games and the short week of preparation for Thursday night games, which led to some less-than-scintillating play. “It’s hard,” he said, citing the many Thanksgiving Day games he suited up for while quarterbacking the Dallas Cowboys. “The turnaround is hard. It feels like you just had a game and then you’re waking up and lining back up again.”
Another gripe has been about the quality of the matchups on Thursdays, but Aikman said that also appears to be overstated based on the 2018 schedule. “The lineup we have on Thursday nights, it’s one where you say, ‘Wow, with these two teams it looks like a really compelling matchup.’ … It should make for some better games this year, as we’ve already seen and I believe we’ll continue to see.”
Upcoming marquee games include the Indianapolis Colts at the New England Patriots on October 4; the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles at the New York Giants on October 11; and the Green Bay Packers at the Seattle Seahawks on November 15.