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Dec 23 (Reuters) - "Thursday Night Football" ended its season with a flurry, as Comcast Corp unit NBC's five-game portion of the schedule averaged 17 million U.S. viewers, an increase from earlier in the season.
Earlier this season, CBS Corp's CBS averaged 14.7 million viewers for its five games, which all fell during the contentious U.S. presidential election campaign. The campaign had been cited by the National Football League as a key factor in lower TV viewership.
Ratings across the board were down 14 percent from last year through the first nine weeks of the season, before the Nov. 8 election. Networks have had to give free extra commercial time to advertisers to compensate for lower-than-promised ratings, though advertiser demand has remained high.
The games aired by CBS and NBC were simulcast on the league's cable network and Twitter Inc's social media platform.
The average minute audience for Twitter's 10 games was 220,000 viewers, a fraction of the 15.9 million that watched the games on NBC, CBS or NFL Network. The 15.9 million for the games that aired on either NBC or CBS - NFL Network also aired eight games exclusively - was down 10 percent from last year, when CBS was the only broadcast channel that showed Thursday night games.
Fans criticized Thursday night games for their lackluster quality of play, while players complained that having to play a Thursday night game just four days after playing on Sunday went against the league's edict to better protect them from injuries.
The criticism got to a point where the NFL was said to be rethinking its stance on staging games every Thursday, according to a report from NBC-owned NFL site Pro Football Talk. The league quickly denied any speculation that it was looking to end "Thursday Night Football."
"We are fully committed to 'Thursday Night Football' and any reports to the contrary are unfounded," the league said in a statement shortly after the report.
Primetime games were hit the hardest this season, though the gap has closed since the election. NBC's "Sunday Night Football" was down 18 percent heading into Election Day, but has closed the gap since, now off from 2015 by 11 percent, with two more games on the schedule.
The ascendance of the Dallas Cowboys, one of the league's most popular teams, has helped as well. Four of the five most-watched NFL games this season featured the Cowboys. (Reporting by Tim Baysinger; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)