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When Thanksgiving arrives and only five NFC teams have managed to post better than a .500 record and the AFC race is about as opaque as the contents of a gravy boat, best of luck trying to figure out which NFL teams are any good. Luckily for the league and its broadcast partners, such considerations fly out the window when the Dallas Cowboys are suiting up for a nationally televised Sunday afternoon game.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the Fox broadcast of this weekend’s Dallas-Kansas City skirmish averaged 28.1 million viewers, making it the most-watched NFL game of the season thus far. The Chiefs’ 19-9 victory unseated the Week 4 Bucs-Pats showdown (26.7 million TV viewers) on NBC, which marked Tom Brady’s first appearance in Foxborough since taking leave of New England in March 2020.
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With Sunday’s game on the books, the 4:20 p.m. ET window is now averaging 22.6 million viewers, of whom 7.63 million are members of the adults 18-49 demo. By comparison, the primetime entertainment programming on the Big Four networks is currently averaging a moribund 4.25 million viewers, a turnout that includes just 736,834 members of the under-50 set. Far and away the biggest show in prime, NBC’s Sunday Night Football is now averaging 18.3 million linear TV viewers and 6.83 million adults 18-49.
Season-to-date, Dallas has factored in three of the five most-watched NFL games, and five of the top 10. Through their first seven national TV outings, the Cowboys are averaging a league-best 21.9 million viewers and an 11.5 household rating, a delivery that jumps to 24.4 million viewers and a 12.6 rating when looking only at the team’s four marquee Sunday windows on Fox and CBS.
Dallas has four remaining coast-to-coast games scheduled for 2021, including Thursday’s holiday sit-down with the Las Vegas Raiders. The last time CBS hosted a Raiders-Cowboys Tryptophan Bowl was in 2013, when 31.7 million stuffing-addled Americans watched Dallas rally its way to a 31-24 win. (Just two years ago, CBS notched its highest Thanksgiving football ratings in 27 years as Buffalo’s 26-15 upset of the home team drew 32.6 million viewers.)
The resumption of holiday gatherings and a season-long ratings boom should work in CBS’ favor come Thursday afternoon. Through Sunday night’s Steelers-Chargers duel, all regional and national NFL games are averaging 16.2 million viewers, up 8% versus the analogous period a year ago. Barring a blowout, it’s a safe bet to assume that CBS should crack the 30 million-viewer mark.
Speaking of wagering on future outcomes, while the goofy unpredictability of this NFL season likely has accounted for at least some of the recent ratings growth, it’s probably not done much to sustain the nation’s newfound love affair with legalized gambling. Double-digit dogs are beating the favorites outright, and just when you think you have a handle on the ever-shifting dynamics of pro football, the Colts knocked the stuffing out of the Bills 41-15 a mere week after the Browns routed the Bengals 41-16. And both of these were road wins.
Between the handful of seemingly elite teams (and we use that term advisedly) and the small clump of certified no-hopers lies a fathomless gulf of mediocrity. If this is parity, it’s the kind where everyone’s kind of equally lousy. And while this may not be an ideal set of circumstances for someone who’s inexplicably decided to let the kids’ orthodontics fund ride on the outcome of a Panthers-Dolphins game, for everyone else, the chaos is a big part of the fun. Boston is burbling with loose talk about how wicked pissah it would be to get a Pats-Bucs Super Bowl, and certainly NBC wouldn’t say no to that matchup. Could just as easily be, say, Vikings-Titans. Nobody knows anything.
In the meantime, CBS is on pace to book north of $80 million in Thanksgiving Day in-game ad revenue, and scatter units have topped the $1 million mark. After a year’s hiatus, it’s back to untrammeled gluttony, to your cousin acting spacey after going out for a little “fresh air” and to the grand tradition of watching the Dallas Cowboys in a room full of the people with whom you’ve been enacting this same ritual for as far back as you can remember. Back to whatever “normal” is like at your house, a normal that’s been made even more so by the strange and anomalous season the NFL’s served up thus far.
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