TV Long View: Even in a Down Year, the NFL's Ratings Are Untouchable

Kansas City Chiefs v Las Vegas Raiders
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The NFL suffered a ratings decline for the 2020 regular season.

Actually, "suffered" probably isn't the right word — "experienced," maybe. The "suffering" part is more descriptive of other types of programming on ad-supported TV. Even though the NFL took a hit last season, its position relative to most other programming only grew stronger.

The audience for the league's regular season shrank by about 7 percent compared to 2019, averaging 15.4 million viewers (not including a handful of rescheduled games that aired outside the usual broadcast windows and a streaming-only telecast on Amazon). Each of the NFL's six regular weekly telecasts declined year to year, with losses ranging from 3 percent (the first game of Sunday doubleheaders and ESPN's Monday Night Football) to 15 percent (NBC's Sunday Night Football).

Both of the network primetime windows, in fact, were down by double digits in total viewers, as Fox's Thursday Night Football dipped by about 11 percent. Yet compared to 2019-20, the gap between the NFL and the top other shows on the networks has only widened.

As mentioned above, the average NFL regular season game drew about 15.4 million viewers. The six most watched shows in primetime, excluding football, are averaging 11.2 million viewers through Jan. 17 (including a week of delayed viewing) — a 37.5 percent advantage for the NFL (and probably slightly higher: the football figures don't include delayed viewing).

In 2019, the league averaged 16.5 million viewers per game, about 33 precent more than the 12.43 million for the top six non-sports shows. So even though the league lost more than a million viewers per game, the gap between it and biggest entertainment shows only widened. What's more, the top six shows for the current season includes CBS' 60 Minutes; excluding that, the six most watched entertainment shows draw 10.91 million viewers, trailing the NFL by a 41 percent margin.

The gap between the two network primetime NFL telecasts and their closest competition is even wider — and like the total viewer margin, only increased this year despite lower numbers for the Thursday and Sunday night games.

Last season, Sunday Night Football scored a 5.9 rating in the key ad demographic, and Thursday Night Football earned a 4.5 (both are seven-day figures). The top non-sports program, The Masked Singer, had a seven-day rating of 3.2 — about 29 percent less than Thursday Night Football and 46 percent below Sunday Night Football.

This season, SNF slipped to a 4.7 (down 20 percent), and Fox's Thursday games came in at 3.9 (down 13 percent). Three shows — Grey's Anatomy, The Masked Singer and This Is Us — are tied for the non-football lead with 2.3 ratings. That's 41 percent smaller than the Thursday Night Football average and less than half that of Sunday Night Football.

Viewership for the first two rounds of the NFL playoffs also declined year to year, though last weekend's conference championship games improved a little. The Super Bowl will be gigantic as usual, and the fact that it features two of the league's biggest stars in quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady can only help. It's been true for years that the only comparison to the Super Bowl in terms of ratings is other Super Bowls. That's becoming increasingly true for the rest of the NFL's games too.

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