In January, CBS acquired the rights to air NFL Network's Thursday Night Football through the first half of the season. That slate turned out to be some of the shittiest professional football ever put on television, and it was a financial catastrophe for the Tiffany network. But prime-time national NFL broadcasts hurt the bottom line elsewhere, too: at Sony Pictures Entertainment, where executives were blindsided just a week before the NFL season kicked off with the news that TNF would be pre-empting two of Sony's most lucrative properties, Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, on the dozens of CBS affiliates that air those two game shows.

Here is the epistolary story, pieced together from a trove of hacked emails, of how CBS tricked Sony into thinking their game shows wouldn't be affected by the NFL, and how Sony even worked with the league to develop a special Jeopardy! category recognizing what turned out to be a ratings-killer.

(For reference: Sony produces both Wheel and Jeopardy!. Leslie Ryan is the CBS V.P. of Communications; Harry Friedman is the Sony executive in charge of the two game shows; Steve Mosko is the Sony Pictures Television president; and Armando Nuñez is CEO of CBS Global Distribution.)

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Date: Thursday, May 1, 2014 10:10 AM
From: Leslie Ryan
To: Harry Friedman
Subject: Meeting to pitch NFL

Hi Harry – As you probably know, CBS won the NFL contract to share Thursday night games with the NFL Network. Our colleagues reached out to us about pitching some fun tie in ideas for Wheel and Jeopardy! We'd love to meet with you to discuss next week. Would you have some times available next Wed-Fri that we could come over and chat.

Thanks!

Leslie

PS – Love the Sports Jeopardy! news. I'm a huge Dan Patrick fan and he just can't stop talking about it on his show every morning J

Sent: Friday, May 02, 2014 4:06 PM
From: Friedman, Harry
To: Ryan, Leslie
Subject: Re: Meeting to pitch NFL

What time will these games be airing ?

Date: Friday, May 2, 2014 4:12 PM
From: <Ryan>, Leslie
To: Harry Friedman
Subject: RE: Meeting to pitch NFL

Games start on Thursday, Sept. 11 and go through December. They are all Thursday night games, which typically start 8 p.m. East Coast.

Sent: Friday, May 02, 2014 4:16 PM
From: Friedman, Harry
To: Ryan, Leslie
Subject: Re: Meeting to pitch NFL

So Wheel and Jeopardy! would be preempted on some CBS stations?

On May 2, 2014, at 4:22 PM, "Ryan, Leslie" wrote:

If the shows air on West Coast stations, they would likely be pre-empted and run after the game. It shouldn't affect East Coast airings.


Sent: Friday, May 02, 2014 5:02 PM
From: Friedman, Harry
To: Ryan, Leslie
Subject: Re: Meeting to pitch NFL

I don't think it makes sense to use our assets to support programming that pre-empts us.

On May 7, 2014, at 12:53 AM, "Ryan, Leslie" wrote:

Let's discuss Friday when we meet. I pulled the station clearance lists and very few CBS stations would be affected by football. I can give you more detail Friday.

Sent: Tuesday, May 06, 2014 4:16 PM
From: Friedman, Harry
To: Ryan, Leslie
Subject: Re: Meeting to pitch NFL

But if there is even one station affected, I'm not interested in doing it .

Date: Tuesday, May 6, 2014 5:07 PM
From: <Ryan>, Leslie
To: Harry Friedman
Cc: "Wentworth, John"
Subject: RE: Meeting to pitch NFL

I totally understand that concern, but on those few stations, Wheel and Jeopardy! would air immediately after football, providing a huge lead in that could benefit the shows. Those ratings still count even in a later time period. We've had discussions with our counterparts on the CBS network side and they love Wheel and Jeop! and are really excited to pitch some ideas.

(Months pass. It is now August 28th, one week before the NFL season starts.)

Date: Thursday, August 28, 2014 2:11 PM
From: George Rannie
To: Harry Friedman
Subject: CBS Thursday Night Football - Wheel of Fortune & Jeopardy! Stations

Harry:

Attached is an Excel list of W/J! CBS stations and their programming plans for the shows following the broadcast of Thursday Night Football.

CBS will broadcast 8 games (see schedule below) and air a pre-game, plus a post show for their affiliates to pick up. Below is a tally of CBS markets that responded to our survey. The list will be updated as more stations send in responses.

FYI, since NBC is airing the first Thursday game on 9/4, WJ! will probably be moved or pre-empted in those NBC markets that night.

2014 CBS WJ! Thursday Night Football Markets:
1. 34 markets moving/sliding show(s) to a different time period
2. 10 markets pre-empting show(s) (not airing at all)
3. 12 No changes for WOF
4. 14 No changes for Jeopardy!
5. 43 station responses out of 75

Large Market Breakdown:

  • WBZ Boston: Moving Jeopardy! to 1:52 A.M.
  • KTVT Dallas: Moving WOF to their sister station TXA – 21
  • KHOU Houston: No change for Jeopardy!/Pre-empting WOF
  • WTSP Tampa: Sliding Jeopardy! and pre-empting Weekend Jeopardy!
  • WCCO Minneapolis: Moving WOF to 1:30 A.M.
  • WOIO Cleveland: Jeopardy! Moves to 7:00 P.M./Sliding WOF to Friday
  • WBNS Columbus: No change for Jeopardy!/Moving WOF to 1:52 A.M.
  • WDJT Milwaukee: No change for Jeopardy!/Moving WOF to their sister station WMLW

Date: Thursday, August 28, 2014 2:24 PM
From: <Friedman>
To: "Rannie, George"
Subject: Re: CBS Thursday Night Football - Wheel of Fortune & Jeopardy! Stations

Moving /sliding in 34 markets ? Not airing at all in 10 markets? This is vastly different than what we were led to believe.

Sent: Thursday, August 28, 2014 2:27 PM
From: Friedman, Harry
To: Mosko, Steve
Subject: FW: CBS Thursday Night Football - Wheel of Fortune & Jeopardy! Stations

This sucks.

Date: Thursday, August 28, 2014 2:28 PM
From: <Mosko>
To: Friedman

How did they get such bad info…

On Aug 28, 2014, at 2:47 PM, "Friedman, Harry" wrote:

I think they always knew and simply didn't tell us knowing we would not be happy.

Date: Thursday, August 28, 2014 2:50 PM
From: <Mosko>
To: Friedman

Want me to call Armando.

Date: August 28, 2014 at 2:57:14 PM PDT
From: "Friedman, Harry"
To: "Mosko, Steve"

I do. Call me If you need background .

Date: August 28, 2014 at 6:05:08 PM EDT
From: "Mosko, Steve"
To: "Madden, Robert"

Call me

Date: August 29, 2014 at 9:58:35 AM EDT
Subject: NFL Thursday
From: "Mosko, Steve"
To: "Armando Nunez"

This is really a problem. Harry...sony k..were completely mislead with inaccurate info.. Harry worked his ass off to help you w les...and this is what we get and ramifications are huge..Harry's huge promotions this fall are at risk because Thursday is the most important night for advertisers and we now lose big chunk of country..and in a renewal year our natl 5 day ave w be down yr to yr which is horrible. If we had a better idea what we were dealing with we could have been proactive w scheduling .. Working w Neilson etc.. No we are on defense and we look really bad. Bob calling you today.

Date: Tuesday, September 2, 2014 7:15 AM
From: <Friedman>
Subject: FW: CBS Thursday Night Football - Wheel of Fortune & Jeopardy! Stations

The impact on us from Thurs Night football is far greater than we were lead to believe. We may need to move the Million $$$ winner episode to Wednesday, 9/17 . We'll make the decision later this morning, but just wanted you to start preparing.

Sent: Tuesday, September 02, 2014 7:21 AM
From: Friedman, Harry
To: Mosko, Steve
Subject: FW: CBS Thursday Night Football - Wheel of Fortune & Jeopardy! Stations

We have a Million Dollar winner from DC on Wheel during Teacher's Week. It's great episode and an even better story. The ep was scheduled to air on Thurs 9/18. Although Wednesdays have lower HUT levels, it may make sense to move it . Thoughts ?

( They did indeed move the episode up a day.)

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Sent: Tuesday, September 02, 2014 10:34 AM
From: Madden, Robert
To: Nunez, Armando
Subject: Meeting to pitch NFL

Armando –

Below are the emails that we relied upon - see in particular the emails of May 2nd and May 6th which I marked in red. So while you are correct that it was not an email from you, CTD clearly led us to believe that not only would we not be preempted on the East Coast, we were also be airing immediately after the games. I guess we should have checked further but the emails were unequivocal.

We are working now with Joe to see what can be done.

Bob

Over the summer, Sony worked with CBS and the NFL to produce a special Jeopardy! category to recognize the NFL lead-in—one that, they later learned, completely backfired. That category ran in the Jeopardy! round on Thursday, Oct. 7; it was the first category selected, and contestant Josh Hager ran the category, the correct responses to which were all personalities from CBS or NFL Network football coverage. This is roughly one minute of television that was a huge amount of work for Sony employees due to the NFL's tight regulation of its public image:

Sent: Tuesday, September 02, 2014 11:04 AM
From: Friedman, Harry
To: Madden, Robert
Subject: Re: Meeting to pitch NFL

Thanks Bob. I also take issue with Armando's characterization that the NFL integration in Jeopardy! was just one category and didn't constitute "going the extra mile". Really? We were under an impossibly tight deadline to get anything at all into the shows. We dropped everything to make this happen,and our clearance people worked through the weekend to meet the NFL's rigid standards. We not only had to source and pay for "NFL acceptable " photos of CBS sports talent from libraries like Getty, but also then had to seek NFL permission to use, them. This is just one example of what we did to keep our word. I can give you a dozen more. And whatever form of "cross-promotion" they may have had in mind somehow never came up. I'm not just angry. I'm offended.

Date: September 2, 2014 at 4:15:05 PM EDT
Subject: FW: Meeting to pitch NFL
From: "Mosko, Steve"
To: "Madden, Robert"

You need to make sure armando knows I'm angry because he fucked w harry

Harry Friedman is recognized by many in the industry as a genius TV executive. His reaction to this debacle is well-reasoned:

On Sep 7, 2014, at 6:02 PM, "Friedman, Harry" wrote:

The issue that surfaced last week regarding preemptions of our shows for NFL Thursday night football is really just the tip of a looming iceberg. We're still compiling the projected numbers, but I have little doubt that the 2014/2015 seasons for Wheel Of Fortune and Jeopardy! will be adversely affected, both in ratings and in revenue, by an unprecedented number of preemptions. Being syndicated across affiliates of all broadcast networks means there will hardly be a week that will go by without Wheel and/or Jeopardy! being preempted by NFL football, college football, election debates & results, holiday specials, all-star games , awards shows , playoff games, March Madness…and the list goes on and on.

These interruptions not only wreak havoc on our sweepstakes, tournaments and valuable promotions with brand integration partners, they also undermine one of the cornerstones of our successful relationship with our audience : reliability. We are still appointment television. We exemplify multi-generational co-viewing.

We know that increasingly, TV viewers are being empowered and enable to watch what they want , when they want, and where they want…except when their favorite, regularly scheduled show id preempted. So ignoring the law of physics that says two objects cannot occupy the same space, here's my idea:

Create a system or technology…maybe in partnership with DirecTV?…with a sub-channel that provides the viewers total control of what they watch in the event of a preemption. For example, before the start of an NFL Thursday night game in Boston, a menu pops up for WBZ viewers:

At 7:30 pm , this station will present the NFL Thursday Night pre-game show. Please select from one of these viewing choices below:

* Watch Jeopardy! at its regularly scheduled time and record the pre-game show .

* Watch the pre-game show live , and record Jeopardy!

* Watch the pre-game show live at 7:30. Jeopardy! will be seen on this station at 1:52 am

I don't know if this idea is technologically possible. But I've got to believe if U-verse and others can design DVR systems capable of recording and storing 8 channels simultaneously , they can certainly do this. The benefits to the producers and syndicators are obvious; consistency, continuity, rewarding viewer loyalty, maintaining time period integrity. The viewer maintains control over what, when, and where they watch. The station and the network greatly reduce the risk of losing the viewer to the competition, in both the short term and the long term . The viewer could end up watching both the scheduled show that occupies the time period, and the program that is preempting it on the same station. Of course , if this works for Wheel and Jeopardy! it will work for any of our syndicated shows.

Anyway, all of this is to say I think this is a huge problem and wanted to come up with a way to solve it and not just complain about it. Thoughts ?

Ratings data show Wheel and Jeopardy! both suffered ratings declines due to the CBS NFL pre-emptions. The worst decline came on October 16th, when the shows were pre-empted for or up against the Jets-Patriots game.

Image by Jim Cooke

To contact the author of this post, write to tim@deadspin.com or find him on Twitter @bubbaprog.