NFL Remains TV’s Undisputed Champion Despite a 7% Ratings Drop

Without having had to resort to a bubble scheme or cancel any of its 256 scheduled games, the NFL somehow managed to power its way through the regular season [relatively] unscathed by the COVID-19 pandemic. And while ratings were down a bit compared to last season, the league’s unparalleled influence on America’s TV viewing habits remains manifest.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the NFL’s regional and national TV windows averaged 15.4 million viewers over the course of the 17-week campaign, which marks a 7% decline versus last season’s 16.5 million. If nothing else, the fact that the loss of more than one million viewers per week registers as a single-digit rate of change speaks volumes about the NFL’s outsized fan base; if a similar number of people suddenly stopped watching nationally televised MLB games, the year-to-year drop would be on the order of 50%.

Deep-pocketed advertisers value the NFL’s vast reach, as the league is the only megaphone powerful enough to deliver their messaging to tens of millions of consumers. General-entertainment programming can’t lay a glove on football; per Nielsen, the 72 broadcast comedies/dramas/unscripted series are currently averaging just 4.03 million viewers per episode. The NFL’s stranglehold on the TV marketplace is similarly apparent when looking at the crucial adults 18-49 demo. Take NFL games out of the equation and neither CBS, NBC nor Fox comes within shouting distance of averaging so much as a 1.0 in the demo. In other words, without football, the league’s broadcast partners on a nightly basis fail to reach 1% of the audience most sought-after by marketers.

The Sunday afternoon regional games were particularly consistent, as CBS and Fox averaged 14.4 million local viewers, down just 1% compared to the year-ago 14.6 million. Also holding steady was ESPN’s Monday Night Football, although the primetime cable package got a nice lift from a close broadcast ally. Thanks in part to a scheme that saw ABC simulcast three MNF telecasts, the Monday showcase averaged 11.8 million linear TV viewers, a tally that came up just shy (-2%) of last season’s 12.1 million.

Of course, the national broadcast windows are where the proverbial rubber meets the asphalt, and those results were much more scrambled. While the national Sunday afternoon window shared by CBS and Fox was subject to ratings declines that were in keeping with the NFL’s overall losses, NBC’s Sunday Night Football suffered a more significant falloff.

Fox continued to cast a long shadow with its flagship NFL broadcast, as the “America’s Game of the Week” package closed out its 12th straight year as TV’s most-watched program. Including the Thanksgiving Day broadcast from Dallas, the nine-game set averaged 23.6 million viewers, down 4% versus last season’s 24.8 million. Meanwhile, CBS once again can lay claim to TV’s No. 2 program, as its own national NFL showcase delivered 23.8 million viewers. That works out to a 9% decline compared to last season, when CBS’s numbers were boosted by its stewardship of the Cowboys’ Turkey Day broadcast; take out this season’s lower-rated holiday presentation (Texans-Lions), and CBS averaged 21.4 million TV viewers, a 6% dip.

Fox and CBS each accounted for five of the season’s 10 most-watched NFL broadcasts. Tom Brady factored into both networks’ top-performing non-Thanksgiving games, as Fox’s presentation of the Week 1 showdown between Tampa and New Orleans averaged 25.8 million viewers, while CBS’s coverage of Chiefs-Bucs averaged 22.9 million viewers in Week 12.

All told, Sunday’s coast-to-coast afternoon slot averaged 22.6 million linear TV viewers, down 7% versus last season’s 24.3 million.

Sunday Night Football’s ratings prospects weren’t at all helped by the loss of NBC’s primetime Thanksgiving game, which was to feature AFC North rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore. The thrice-delayed grudge match ended up on the unfamiliar turf of a Wednesday afternoon; as such, NBC reached about half the viewers it might normally expect to have tune in during the holiday capper. (The Wednesday game also helped establish a weird scheduling precedent, inasmuch as this was the first season in the NFL’s 101-year history that games were played on every single day of the week.)

Toss streaming deliveries into the mix, which accounted for 571,000 additional weekly impressions, and NBC this season averaged 17.4 million viewers, down 13% compared to 2019. This is the 10th straight year that Sunday Night Football will have earned bragging rights as TV’s No. 1 primetime program; Fox’s Thursday night football ranks second with an average draw of 14.1 million viewers.

Sunday nights averaged a primetime high of 6.35 million adults 18-49, which works out to a 4.9 rating in the dollar demo. By way of comparison, TV’s top-rated entertainment program, the Fox competition series The Masked Singer, is currently averaging around 2.2 million members of the advertiser-coveted 18-49 set (1.7 rating). While NBC is on track to beat all comers in the demo for the 13th consecutive season, it also weathered a 19% year-over-year decline. The SNF drop is more pronounced than the overall decline across all NFL windows (-10%); meanwhile, the season-to-date demo erosion among the Big Four broadcasters now stands at -14%.

NBC’s biggest draw was its Sept. 10 NFL Kickoff broadcast, which featured the Texans and Chiefs and averaged 20.5 million viewers. The defending Super Bowl champs also figured into the network’s second most-watched NFL game, as Kansas City’s Week 11 battle with division rival Las Vegas averaged 19.6 million TV viewers.

Once the dust settles and the audience deficiency units (e.g., makegoods) are accounted for, the NFL’s broadcast partners can expect to have raked in between $2.5 billion and $2.8 billion with in-game ad sales. The real money starts rolling in as the playoffs begin heating up; per Standard Media Index data, the going rate for a 30-second unit in the four divisional round broadcasts averaged out to $868,725 a pop, while the AFC/NFC Conference Championships commanded north of $1.5 million per spot.

When the playoff receipts are added to the regular-season commercial tally, the networks can expect to have booked anywhere from $3.5 billion to $3.8 billion in overall in-game sales. As the host of Super Bowl LV, CBS should rake in north of $500 million on the Big Game, an estimate that includes the network’s slate of pre-game coverage. Per SMI, the last time CBS handled the Super Bowl broadcast, its in-game haul was $336 million.

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