The last time the Dallas Cowboys headed into their traditional Thanksgiving Day game sporting a 3-7 record, America’s Team took a 33-14 drubbing at the hands of the Carolina Panthers in what was effectively the end of Tony Romo’s 14-season career. On the final play of the third quarter of that 2015 CBS broadcast, Romo was taken to the ground by linebacker Thomas Davis, re-injuring the clavicle that had been snapped just 10 weeks before.
Things turned out rather nicely for Tony Romo, in the long run, and if the game wasn’t much to watch, the QB’s future employer had itself quite an afternoon. According to Nielsen, the CBS broadcast averaged 32.5 million viewers, making it the year’s most-watched regular-season NFL game.
Such is generally the case when Dallas suits up on Turkey Day—and undoubtedly, the absence of the usual primetime capper during the pie-and-coffee hours (a COVID outbreak pushed NBC’s Ravens-Steelers game to Sunday) will only help boost deliveries for Fox. Over the course of the last decade, Dallas’ tryptophan classic failed to beat all comers just twice; in 2017, CBS’s coverage of the Chargers’ 28-6 win over the home team averaged just 606,000 fewer viewers than its subsequent Patriots-Steelers broadcast a month later, while Fox’s 2012 Washington-Dallas holiday showcase was bested only by NBC’s presentation of the two NFC East rivals’ Dec. 30 rematch, which propelled the Skins into the playoffs and sent Romo and Co. packing.
As grim as the division standings look this time around, the ugly parity that holds sway over the NFC East should draw a larger audience than a skirmish between two 3-7 teams might otherwise suggest. Alongside the New York Giants, Dallas and Washington are all clotted together a hair’s breadth behind the 3-6-1 Philadelphia Eagles, which makes Thursday’s late-afternoon game on Fox a must-win for both clubs.
(If the prospect of a 6-10 team hosting a Wild Card game leaves you grinding your molars into a fine particulate substance, this is not simply another example of 2020 cranking up the dial from “Ugh” to “Awful.” A similar outcome occurred in 2010, when the 11-5 Saints were forced to travel to Seattle to take on the 7-9 Seahawks in the opening round of the playoffs—which is where the defending Super Bowl champs’ season came to an end.)
As befits the sports world’s most cunningly marketed franchise, the Cowboys tend to serve up must-see TV even when they’re not playing Grade-A football. Just last year, a 6-5 Dallas squad was upended by Buffalo by a 26-15 margin in front of a TV audience of 32.6 million viewers, giving CBS its biggest Thanksgiving Day delivery since 1992.
Meanwhile, if the Detroit Lions serve as a side dish that not everyone necessarily takes to—for good or ill, the team functions as the football world’s version of ambrosia salad—that’s not to say that they haven’t made an impact on the ratings. Since the beginning of the decade, Detroit has featured in three top 20 Thanksgiving broadcasts, including a 2011 slugfest with division rival Green Bay that scared up 30.2 million viewers. That earned the Lions bragging rights to TV’s second-biggest draw of the 2011-12 broadcast season, trailing only that same afternoon’s Dolphins-Cowboys game by just 730,000 viewers.
As you may well expect, there’s a premium associated with the annual football tradition. While NBC’s big-earning primetime game has been shifted to Sunday afternoon, the CBS and Fox broadcasts will continue to pull in the marketing mega-dollars. Thanksgiving is a day for expressing gratitude for one’s good fortune over quivering cranberry-based grub, and perhaps nobody in TV has more to be thankful for than the network ad sales execs. Per Standard Media Index estimates, CBS and Fox last season individually raked in some $75 million in Turkey Day NFL inventory, a haul which marked the regular-season high-water mark for both networks.
The Texans and Lions set the table today at 12:30 p.m. ET on CBS, before Washington and Dallas break bread and bust heads at 4:30 p.m. ET on Fox. Detroit today makes its 81st appearance in a Thanksgiving Day game, while the Cowboys will host their 53rd holiday outing.