NFL’s Sunday Afternoon Ratings Thrive While Primetime Lags

·8 min read

As much as NFL deliveries on the whole have held up during the Great Sports Ratings Slump of 2020, a few of the TV packages are clearly outperforming the rest of the pack. At the midway point of the regular season, the Sunday afternoon windows have been steady, while the broadcast primetime showcases are having a tough go of it.

First, the big picture. Through Week 9, the national and regional NFL broadcasts are averaging 14.6 million viewers, which represents a 7% dip versus the year-ago 15.7 million. Thanks to some inspired scheduling moves made necessary by the occasional coronavirus outbreak, the NFL’s TV roster remains completely up-to-date; as such, the year-over-year comparison is a level 57 windows to 57 windows.

Remove the statistically nettlesome NFL Network telecasts (the cable channel reaches about 50% of the country’s TV households), last season’s crack-of-dawn London outings and the COVID-delayed games that were shifted to unfamiliar terrain (Monday at 5 p.m. ET, Tuesday night) and the seasonal decline is 8%, from 16.5 million viewers to 15.2 million.

If the decrease in impressions is hardly a welcome result—if nothing else, some networks will be on the hook for considerable audience deficiency units, and with much of primetime TV in a funk, there’s a discernible lack of viable inventory on hand with which to make advertisers whole—it’s not exactly left sales execs fumbling for the Valium. The National Football League is still the King, Queen and Jack of the TV ecosphere, which is itself suffering from record ratings attrition.

Through the first 50 days of the 2020-21 broadcast season, network TV consumption is down 31% on a prorated basis when compared to the analogous period last fall. According to Nielsen data, the Big Four nets (CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox) are currently averaging 19.4 million viewers per night, which works out to a net loss of 8.58 million; in that light, the NFL’s loss of approximately 1.06 million viewers per week is far less disconcerting.

The NFL’s demographic slippage is also relatively tame when compared to the overall losses sustained by the networks. The regional and national packages together are delivering an average audience of 5.5 million adults 18-49, down 11% from an average draw of 6.15 million members of the dollar demo during the first half of the 2019 season. Again, this is less than ideal, but when held up against the far more precipitous losses across network TV, the departure of some 650,000 fans in the under-50 set isn’t a terrible blow. Per Nielsen, the Big Four are now averaging 5.7 million adults 18-49 per night on a prorated basis, which marks a 24% drop from the year-ago 7.51 million. Net loss: 1.81 million adults 18-49.

When viewed through the prism of TV’s overall audience declines, the NFL’s viewership slippage isn’t necessarily cause for concern. That said, not all the packages are performing at the same level. For example, the Fox/CBS Sunday afternoon game that kicks off at 4:20 p.m. ET on alternate weeks remains TV’s biggest draw. Season-to-date, the late-afternoon window is averaging 22.2 million viewers, down just 1% versus the year-ago 22.4 million. That’s nearly double the size of the audience (11.2 million viewers) that CBS serves in Sunday prime with TV’s most-watched non-sports program, 60 Minutes.

Thus far in 2020, Fox has aired four of its “America’s Game of the Week” broadcasts, averaging 23.4 million viewers with the NFC showcase. That’s down a negligible 1% compared to Fox’s year-ago average (23.7 million). Fox currently has bragging rights to the season’s most-watched, highest-rated NFL game, as its Sept. 13 presentation of Bucs-Saints scared up 25.8 million viewers and a 13.2 household rating. With 50 days left on the calendar, that Week 1 meeting between Tom Brady and Drew Brees now stands as the year’s 17th most-watched U.S. TV broadcast.

CBS’s Sunday afternoon window is also holding up well; through five national broadcasts, the network’s hybrid AFC-NFC roster is averaging 21.2 million viewers, down just 1% versus 21.4 million. Despite an early scheduling disruption that saw its Oct. 5 national window downgraded from a rematch of the 2019 AFC Championship Game in Pats-Chiefs to a Bills-Raiders game perhaps more suited for regional coverage, CBS has managed to make the most of a rocky season.

Also showing little sign of fatigue is ESPN’s Monday Night Football, which prior to the unpalatable pairing of the 2-5 Patriots and 0-8 Jets on Nov. 9, had limited its average audience shrinkage to just -1% year-over-year. The AFC East skirmish averaged 9.83 million viewers, down 30% from last season’s analogous Cowboys-Giants telecast (14 million). Despite the low turnout, ESPN’s losses are still relatively contained; MNF is now averaging 11.1 million viewers per week, down 5% from last season’s 11.7 million.

As expected, the cable news networks have yet to loosen their stranglehold on the American TV audience; the endless chatter about recounts and alleged election improprieties helped Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC combine to reach 9.41 million viewers opposite the Pats-Jets game, and while that marked a decline of 17% from the previous Monday (11.3 million), the Nov. 9 cable news numbers were still up 60% compared to the year-ago evening. News consumption may be slowing down somewhat in the wake of a frenzied election, but the seeming lack of resolution will keep those deliveries inflated well over their usual levels—and NFL ratings may continue to be impacted as a result.

While we’re on the topic of politics, it’s perhaps worth noting that this season’s ratings declines aren’t as steep as they were at this juncture back in 2016. Through Week 9 of a season buffeted by the Trump-Clinton race, the audience for all NFL windows was down 12%. So: We’ve rented this crummy movie before, and somehow it’s slightly less crummy this time around.

And that’s where the reassuring data begins to peter out. While the regional Sunday windows are a mixed bag—the single-header games that kick off Sundays at 1 p.m. ET on Fox and CBS are averaging 15.9 million viewers, down 3% from the year-ago 16.4 million, while the early games that lead into the big 4:20 broadcasts are down 11% to 12 million viewers per week—the primetime broadcast packages are struggling. NBC’s Sunday Night Football is averaging 16.6 million live-same-day TV viewers, which marks a sharp 17% drop from 19.9 million, while Fox’s Thursday Night Football is down 16% to 12.4 million viewers.

Pull out the deliveries for NFL Network’s TNF simulcasts and Fox’s primetime coverage is currently averaging 10.3 million viewers and a 3.1 rating in the demo, which works out to around 4 million adults 18-49 per broadcast. In a year’s time, the Fox standalone broadcast has lost 2.1 million viewers per game and has seen its target demo shrink 14%. Whatever allure the Thursday night package might once have held for the Fox affiliates is fading, which makes TNF a likely candidate for a new network home when the new rights deals are hashed out.

Sunday Night Football is in the midst of an even more sudden demo drop, as its 18-49 audience is down 22% season-to-date (6.49 million vs. 8.21 million). While that represents a significant loss, especially for NBC’s advertisers, the drop is in keeping with the aforementioned 24% demo decline across the Big Four networks. SNF remains the most-watched, highest-rated primetime program on television, and its demo deliveries are three times that of the top non-sports series.

The NFL’s network partners are also keeping a wary eye on the younger demos, which have been churning away from linear TV in record numbers. To advertisers, consumers in the 18-34 demo are valued in indirect proportion to their commercial consumption. Notoriously difficult to reach thanks to the predations of video games, smartphones and streaming video and a studied indifference to the idiot box, the 18-34 set spells doom for the future of ad-supported TV.

According to Nielsen, in a year that has seen approximately 4.4 million consumers walk away from wired-cable and satellite TV service, broadcast’s two primetime NFL packages have lost 18% of their 18-34 audience. A year ago at this time, the marquee broadcasts were down just 3% in the younger demo. By the time the next bundle of NFL rights packages expires in 2028 or thereabouts, the younger demos will have abandoned TV altogether, while football makes its move toward a somewhat unimaginable digital future.

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