TV Long View: NFL Ratings Up While Broadcast Nets Bleed Viewers

The audience for football has bounced back some this season, while primetime viewing on the networks continues to slide.
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Headlines about the NFL this season have largely been about the league's offensive explosion, hot teams like the Los Angeles Rams and players such as Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes II.

What's faded from discussion about the league is head trauma; a presidential beef with players protesting injustice by kneeling during the national anthem; and choppy, frequently replay-interrupted game telecasts.

The largely sunny narrative surrounding the league's 2018 season includes a rebound in TV ratings. NFL viewership as a whole is up about 2 percent year to year through 10 weeks of play. Games are averaging 15.25 million viewers across the six regular weekly broadcast windows on CBS, Fox, NBC and ESPN, up from 14.9 million in 2017. (In all cases, figures cited are for TV viewing only; streaming typically adds another 2 percent or so to a sporting event's audience.)

The NFL hasn't reclaimed all the audience it lost the prior two seasons, but after viewership declines in 2016 and 2017, it has stopped the slide.

Even amid those ratings drops, however, the NFL was the surest bet to draw a mass audience on commercial TV. That's even more true now, in a season where nonsports programming on the broadcast networks is sliding pretty much across the board.

Through the first seven weeks of the 2018-19 TV season, the five English-language broadcast networks are averaging a combined 7.5 rating among adults 18-49 in primetime. That's off about 10 percent from a collective 8.3 at the same point a season ago.

That number includes all programming. Strip out sports (including college football and the World Series), and the situation is even more dire: Returning scripted series are down 16 percent in the demo.

Only seven of 55 returning scripted shows (13 percent) are at or above their same-day averages for 2017-18. Only two — Bob's Burgers and Chicago Fire — are running more than one-tenth of a point ahead of last season. Considering that ratings typically tail off later in the season, it's a good bet that most of those seven will finish down for the full season.

The deluge of think pieces about what was wrong with the NFL's ratings last year — while proceeding from very real data that viewership was in decline — obscured the fact that the league's games outdrew just about everything else on TV.

The top three shows among adults 18-49 (live plus same-day) in 2017-18 were NBC's Sunday Night Football, Thursday Night Football on CBS and Thursday Night Football on NBC (the two networks split presentation of the games last season). The first two also topped the same-day charts in total viewers (which, along with household ratings, are the currency for ad buyers of live sports), and NBC's run of Thursday games was fourth.

Even with a week of delayed viewing added in, only three scripted shows had higher 18-49 ratings than any of the primetime NFL telecasts. Just six scripted series averaged more viewers over a full week than the NFL's same-day tally of 14.9 million last season.

That looks to be case this season as well: Sunday Night Football is averaging 19.34 million viewers in same-day figures. That's almost 2 million people ahead of the seven-day total for the second-place show, The Big Bang Theory (17.35 million). Thursday Night Football ranks in the top 10, and its 12.77 million viewers are more than double Fox's Thursday average last fall.

The not-really-a-joke line among TV ratings watchers for several years has been "flat is the new up." In an environment in which nearly everything else is down, the NFL being up a little bit this season seems practically against the laws of physics.