CBS, Fox Regional Windows Play a Key Role in NFL’s Ratings Rally

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Tom Brady’s Nielsen-juicing impact on the 2021 NFL season appears to be contagious, as the league in Week 4 enjoyed one of its highest-rated outings in years. And while the quarterback’s triumphant visit to his old stomping grounds did not disappoint, the gains made outside the primetime window were impressive in their own right.

Thanks in part to a pair of overtime wins for the beleaguered representatives of the New York market and a rare showdown between two of the NFL’s senior-most quarterbacks, each of the six TV windows posted significant ratings increases compared to the year-ago deliveries. Yes, NBC’s Bucs-Pats broadcast scared up a predictably huge audience—not only did the most recent installment of Sunday Night Football notch a multiyear high for the network, but it now stands as the year’s ninth most-watched program of 2021, out-rating seven of January’s 12 playoff games—but the improvements made in the less celebrated time slots are worthy of a closer look.

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Fueled by the Giants’ 27-21 OT win down in New Orleans, a five-TD showing by Patrick Mahomes in Philly and a masterful performance by the Dallas offense against the undefeated Panthers, the regional windows on CBS and Fox skyrocketed 33% year-over-year with an average draw of 17.8 million viewers. If you’re looking for a better result for the localized Sunday afternoon games, you’ll have to go all the way back to Week 15 of the 2016 season.

Separately, Fox’s regional coverage, which included Panthers-Cowboys in nearly 40% of markets served and Cardinals-Rams in another 20%, averaged 18.3 million viewers. CBS’ 1 p.m. ET window, which was dominated by the Chiefs-Eagles matchup (60%), drew 17.4 million viewers, good for a 73% boost compared to the year-ago slot (Chargers-Bucs with 75% coverage).

Season-to-date, CBS’ Sunday NFL broadcasts are averaging 17.9 million viewers, a gain of 22% versus last year’s first four weeks (14.7 million). CBS is currently delivering its highest Sunday football ratings since 2014.

If the late window was complicated by the Jets’ shocking overtime victory over the depleted Titans—but for the fans in the home markets, viewers who had expected to see Pittsburgh and Green Bay kickoff in the 4:25 p.m. game instead were shuttled over to MetLife Stadium—the overall deliveries remained worthy of the national designation. Once Tennessee and New York had finally settled their differences (a period which neatly coincided with the entire first quarter of the Steelers-Packers broadcast), 90% of the country was fed the signal from Lambeau Field.

CBS’ coverage of the rare meeting between Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers averaged 22.3 million viewers, up 20% versus the analogous Bills-Raiders dust-up in 2020. While the two veterans had played a combined 436 games over the course of their careers heading into Sunday’s outing, they’d only crossed paths twice before—first in December 2009, when Pittsburgh eked out a 37-36 win at home, followed by a return engagement in Super Bowl XLV. Rodgers got the better of that one, in what stands as his only NFL title to date.

Earlier in the week, two decidedly less-ravaged QBs duked it out in Cincinnati, as Jags rookie and No. 1 NFL Draft pick Trevor Lawrence aired it out against Joe Burrow, the league’s overall top selection in 2020. NFL Network’s standalone Thursday Night Football telecast averaged 8 million viewers, good for a 48% boost versus last year’s Broncos-Jets curio (5.71 million).

At press time, final ratings for ESPN’s Monday Night Football are delayed by Nielsen processing issues; that said, the preliminary data indicates that the Raiders-Chargers telecast made it a perfect six-for-six in terms of the NFL windows that put together year-to-year gains.

Lest we forget the contribution from the NFL’s primetime showcase, NBC’s Sunday Night Football package is currently averaging 21.7 million viewers, and nearly 23 million when streaming impressions are added to the linear TV deliveries. Per Nielsen, 8.33 million of those NBC viewers are members of the much-sought-after adults 18-49 demo; by way of comparison, the 44 general-entertainment series that have aired since the fall TV season began are averaging 4.46 million viewers and fewer than 830,000 members of the dollar demo. No help seems to be forthcoming from the crop of freshman shows, as the season’s eight newcomers are currently averaging just 3.66 million viewers and just shy of 635,000 in the under-50 crowd.

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