Prolonged Election Coverage Holds NFL Primetime Ratings at Bay—For Now

Anthony Crupi
·6 min read

As much as the NFL and its network partners had been banking on a post-Election Day ratings recovery, the deferred results and the inevitable recounts and legal challenges still to come would suggest that the news will continue to steal share from football through year’s end. And that’s just fine—for the most part.

Sunday marks the halfway point of the 2020 NFL campaign, and the ratings numbers are down across the board. With an average draw of 14.6 million live TV viewers across 51 national and regional broadcast windows, the league’s audience has shrunk 8% from 15.8 million viewers a year ago. But the suffering is not distributed equally, and some windows are holding up far better than others.

Season-to-date, the late-afternoon Sunday window shared by Fox and CBS is averaging 22.1 million viewers and an 11.7 household rating, securing the 4:20 p.m. game’s standing as the most-watched program on TV. The total audience for the broadcast is down just 1% compared to last season’s eight-week average (22.4 million), while the household rating has fallen 9% from a 12.8. (Without getting too far into the weeds of the ratings currency, the discrepancy between viewers and households reached is a function of Nielsen’s having introduced out-of-home viewers to the TV sample earlier this fall.)

More importantly, at least where the Fox and CBS advertisers are concerned, the marquee Sunday broadcast is holding up in the all-important target demo. With an average delivery of a 6.3 rating, which works out to 8.15 million adults 18-49 per game, the national window is down just 3% versus the year-ago 8.42 million (6.5 rating). Bear in mind that the negligible demo decline is being played out during a season in which live broadcast deliveries of adults 18-49 are down 14%.

Fox’s first four broadcasts of what it has branded “America’s Game of the Week” averaged 23.4 million viewers, 1% off the pace from last season’s 23.7 million. The all-NFC slate has served up a TV-high 8.7 million adults 18-49 per game, down 4% from 9.1 million. By comparison, the broadcast average for all primetime entertainment shows is a meager 825,000 adults under 50.

CBS has had a bit of a rougher go in the 4:20 slot, but it’s still hanging tough. Not only was the network robbed of its second big national matchup—a coronavirus outbreak shoved its scheduled Pats-Chiefs game to the following Monday night, leaving it with a less bankable Bills-Raiders pairing—but the balkanization of the Oct. 25 window left Jim Nantz and Tony Romo presiding over a game with just 50% clearance, down from 93% as originally scheduled. (The late national window usually reaches at least 75% of the country’s media markets, and every now and again, as with Fox’s Oct. 18 Packers-Bucs game, the clearances jump all the way up to 100% coverage.)

For all that, CBS is averaging 20.8 million viewers in its four big Sunday games, down just 3% versus the analogous period in 2019. Per Nielsen, CBS draws 7.6 million members of the dollar demo per game, down just 3% from 7.8 million.

If all is bumblebees and applesauce on Sunday afternoons, the ratings picture darkens somewhat when the two broadcast primetime packages are isolated. NBC’s Sunday Night Football is currently averaging 16.6 million viewers per game and a 9.2 household rating, and while that’s head and shoulders above anything else in primetime, it also marks a 16% drop from last season’s 19.7 million. Fox’s Thursday Night Football has taken an even bigger hit, falling 20% from 15.3 million to 12.2 million viewers over the course of the first four broadcasts. The Fox figures include the weekly NFL Network simulcast; when boiled down to the broadcast essentials, the Fox Thursday night games are down 22% to 10.2 million viewers.

Both primetime offerings have run into COVID-19 issues, with NBC having to bump Tom Brady and the top-rated Bucs from its Oct. 25 broadcast in favor of Seahawks-Cardinals, while Fox’s second Thursday night game was shifted to the following Monday. The Chiefs and Bills kicked off at 5 p.m. in the Eastern time zone, which is a great time slot for drive-time radio but isn’t exactly a bustling hour for network TV.

Drilling down into the NBC numbers provides an interesting look at some of the NFL’s core demographics. Through the season’s first nine Sunday Night Football broadcasts, the audience skew is 64% male and 36% female, while the median age of all viewers is 52.4 years, up a tick from 51.0. Adults 18-49 account for nearly 40% of the audience, while the 18-34 set make up 15% of the TV crowd. As is the case with all traditional TV, the under-18 set aren’t paying much attention; per Nielsen, Gen Z makes up just 6% of the SNF audience.

For its part, ESPN’s Monday Night Football has defied this season’s primetime trends, averaging 11.2 million TV viewers and a 6.6 household rating, which is about where things stood a year ago (11.3 million/6.9). The cable net was given an early boost back on Sept. 21, when its coverage of the Saints-Raiders air battle was simulcast by network sibling ABC. The grand opening of Las Vegas’ $2 billion Allegiant Stadium averaged a season-high 15.6 million viewers across the two Disney networks.

On the regional front, the single-header games that kick off Sundays at 1 p.m. Eastern on Fox and CBS are averaging 15.9 million viewers, off just 1% from the year-ago 16.1 million, while the early games that lead into the big 4:20 broadcasts are down 12% to 12.2 million viewers per week.

The usual caveats about declining TV usage rates and a populace otherwise distracted by electoral politics apply. Since the fall TV season began 45 days ago, broadcast usage is down 31% on a prorated basis, which amounts to a loss of some 8.7 million viewers per night. Most of those who have stuck around this fall are watching sports or news. And while precedent holds that the deliveries should bounce back after Election Day—in 2016, NFL ratings were down 12% through the first nine weeks of the season, only to improve to an average -5% decline in the eight weeks following the denouement of Trump vs. Clinton—the glacially unfolding spectacle of this year’s presidential scrap will likely continue to steal ratings share for the foreseeable future.

Some 56.9 million people watched the anticlimactic election returns on Tuesday night, making that 21-network simulcast the year’s fifth most-watched TV program. With 56 days left before 2020 begins to recede in our rearview mirrors, political events now account for four of the top five broadcasts (naturally, Super Bowl LIV is top banana) and eight of the top 25. The NFL holds 14 of the top 25 slots. In a normal year, that number would be 20 or higher.

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