The National Football League has been blitzed by all the negative publicity it has received from myriad domestic violence incidents involving some of its star players; it has not, however, been sacked, as the league’s game telecasts across all of its partner TV networks have continued to draw mass audiences that are just about on pace with last season.
The 93 regular season games televised across the five partner networks through Week 15 (Dec. 16) have averaged 17.9 million viewers, up about 3% from the 17.4 million average from the same period last season, according to Nielsen data.
Many media analysts also expected a significant ratings impact on the networks when the NFL added a seven-game Thursday night package to CBS’ television rights, but that result didn’t really materialize either.
NBC, the viewership leader, has averaged 21.6 million viewers through the first 15 weeks for its Sunday Night Football telecasts, virtually flat from the 21.7 million viewers it averaged for the same period last season.
Fox has averaged 20.7 million viewers for its Sunday games, down just 2% from the 21.2 million it averaged last season, while ESPN has averaged 13.2 million, down 4% from 13.8 million.
Even CBS’ Sunday afternoon games were basically flat in viewership, up 1% to 18.9 million from 18.7 million for the first 15 weeks, while it averaged 16.8 million in its first season of Thursday night games that it simulcast with the NFL Network.
And much like it planned when it awarded the new broadcast package to CBS this season, the NFL saw its NFL Network ratings reap some benefits after the simulcasts with CBS ended in late October and the network began televising the games solo.
Through six Thursday night games on NFL Network through Dec. 16, viewership was averaging 8 million, up from 6.8 million last season, an increase of 18%. Much of that could be attributed to viewers hearing the cross-promotion between CBS and NFL Network during the simulcast games, and also due to the fact that the No. 1 CBS broadcast team of Jim Nance and Phil Simms have continued to work the NFL Network games.
The networks for the most part offer advertiser guarantees based on household ratings or viewers and not the adult 18-49 ratings that the networks base their entertainment programming guarantees on. So while the demo ratings are down a bit more than the viewer numbers it doesn’t matter as much for the networks.
Excluding the NFL Network, which is up 8% in the 18-49 demo through 15 weeks to a 2.7, all the other networks are down. CBS’ Sunday telecasts are down 2% to a 6.1, NBC is down 4% to a 7.8, Fox is down 6% to a 6.8 and ESPN is down 8% to a 4.9. However, other than the NFL Network’s 18-49 rating, all the other networks continue to have 18-49 demo ratings higher than the broadcast and cable networks in primetime. And they also continue to reach mass audiences of men across all demos—18-34, 18-49 and 25-54.
The one impact giving CBS the Thursday Night Football package did have on the other networks was taking away some of their marquee matchups. Said one network exec, “If you redistribute back the matchups the NFL took away from the other networks, their viewership would be flat to up rather than down a tick.”
But overall, with all the negative publicity the league has received throughout the season over the domestic violence issues, the additional rating points added this season, some of the more popular teams having disappointing seasons and the fact that many games turned into blowouts and had mass tune-outs, the numbers are very good.
“The NFL ratings continue to be rock solid,” said one network executive. “They are the largest and most solid ratings of any type of programming in any category out there.”
Through Dec. 16, NFL game windows accounted for the Top 16 most-watched shows on television this season and 37 of the Top 40. The most-watched game was Thanksgiving Night on Fox, when the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the Dallas Cowboys and drew 32 million viewers. The most-watched Sunday games were the Nov. 30 New England Patriots vs. Green Bay Packers game on CBS, which drew 30.9 million, and the Oct. 12 Dallas Cowboys vs. Seattle Seahawks game on Fox, which drew 30.2 million. NBC’s most-watched game was its Thursday Night kickoff game Sept. 4 between Green Bay and the Seahawks, which drew 27.1 million.
Overall, Fox and NBC each had 13 of the Top 40 TV telecasts through Dec. 16, while CBS had 10 and ESPN one.
The most-watched broadcast network primetime entertainment show was a Sept. 30 telecast of CBS drama NCIS, which drew 19 million.
Fox through Dec. 16 televised eight national games on Sunday afternoons, which averaged 26.6 million viewers. Fox’s numbers were pulled down a bit on the season by some disappointing campaigns the NFC teams it televises are having. Teams such as the San Francisco 49ers, New York Giants, New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears did not draw the more mass audiences they would have if they had been in the playoff hunt from the start of the season.
NBC’s Sunday Night Football is on the way to winning its fourth-straight primetime viewer and 18-49 demo title, as it’s unlikely any broadcast primetime series for the remainder of this season will top its 20.7 million viewers-per-telecast average or its 6.8 18-49 rating.
A lot of media attention has been given to AMC drama series The Walking Dead which earlier this month aired its midseason finale, but which has given SNF a race in the 18-49 demo. Most of the media stories pointed out that The Walking Dead head-to-head had drawn a higher 18-49 rating than SNF, however, those comparisons were made using The Walking Dead’s one-hour time period rating vs. SNF’s three-hour primetime rating.
According to data from Nielsen, taking just SNF’s 9-10 p.m. time period rating vs. The Walking Dead,SNF between Oct. 12 and Nov. 30 averaged a 7.2 live rating among adults 18-49, compared to The WalkingDead’s 4.7. Among live-plus-same-day viewers in the 9-10 p.m. time period, SNF still edged out The Walking Dead in the demo 7.6 to 7.4.