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You Keep Watching

Despite off-the-field scandals and on-the-field blowouts, the NFL's television ratings remain as strong as ever

The drumbeat of negative headlines, the collective outrage over the actions of Ray Rice, Greg Hardy and Adrian Peterson, blowouts seemingly every Thursday night.

It doesn’t matter. You keep watching.

When evaluating where the NFL’s TV viewership stands at the midway point this season versus 2013, keep in mind that any overall comparison is apples to oranges thanks to the CBS/NFL Network Thursday Night package. With an eye toward more exposure, the NFL simulcast seven of the season’s first eight Thursday games (excluding the NFL Kickoff on NBC) on both CBS and NFL Network, thus assuring the viewership numbers would be significantly juiced with the switch from cable-only NFL Network to an over-the-air network. The new package did its job: Through the first seven weeks of the season, CBS averaged 16.5 million viewers where the NFL Network games averaged 8.5 million viewers in 2013. Most importantly for CBS, TNF’s viewership is 81 percent higher than CBS’s Thursday night primetime programming of a year ago.

In terms of viewership trends for this season, I enlisted Austin Karp, the assistant managing editor of Sports Business Daily and as sharp as it gets when it comes to NFL viewing. The main takeaway is that the NFL has not suffered any kind of significant drop-off from last year.


Monday Night Football viewership is up seven percent this season and has consistently won primetime on Mondays. Through the first eight weeks (nine games), MNF is averaging 13.99 million viewers. (Last year MNF averaged 13.68 million viewers for its 17-game schedule.)

“I’m not sure I should be surprised, but I thought the gap between AMC's The Walking Dead (which is averaging about 16 million) and ESPN's Monday Night Football would be closer,” Karp said. “I thought there would be some better competition there for the title of “King of Cable,” but the viewership numbers for AMC (only two episodes) have been well ahead of ESPN.”


Sunday Night Football continues to lead broadcast shows in primetime and adults 18-49, but it was down three percent in viewership as of Oct. 19. Through eight SNF telecasts, NBC averaged 22.1 million viewers—marking the second consecutive year that NBC has topped a 22 million-viewer average at this point in the season. Those numbers come despite a score differential of 17 or more points during each game. Last year NBC averaged 21.7 million viewers for its 19 NFL telecasts.

“NBC started strong through Week 4, but turned lower after that,” Karp said prior to last Sunday’s Saints-Packers game. “And much like many Thursdays, some Sunday night games have had lopsided scores.”


The network’s Sunday broadcasts have averaged 20.8 million viewers through the first seven weeks of the season, down one percent in viewership from FOX’s most-watched year ever (21.0 million viewers). Karp said Fox was helped from national window coverage featuring Cowboys-Seahawks (Week 6) and Giants-Cowboys (Week 7). The network’s games averaged 21.2 million viewers in 2013.


Through the first seven weeks of the season, CBS’s Sunday NFL games had averaged 17.52 million viewers. It’s the third-highest viewer average for the first seven weeks of the season since the NFL returned to the network in 1998, but down from last season. (CBS’s regular-season schedule averaged 18.7 million viewers in 2013.)

FOX's Week 6 telecast of Richard Sherman's Seahawks and Tony Romo's Cowboys drew 30 million viewers, the season's most-watched game so far. (Rod Mar/SI/The MMQB)

FOX's Week 6 telecast of Richard Sherman's Seahawks and Tony Romo's Cowboys drew 30 million viewers, the season's most-watched game so far. (Rod Mar/SI/The MMQB)

History shows us there is rarely any longterm sports television viewing drop-off for major pro or college sports when an athlete, coach, or league executive does something that people consider personally abhorrent or immoral. Why is that the case?

“We might think of people as NFL fans, but they are really fans of a team, not the League,” said Amanda Lotz, an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan. “There may be real discontent with the actions of the league or the actions of a player, but it is a difficult move to deny fanship of a team as a result. We are Chiefs or Steelers fans, not NFL fans. The dynamics between team and individual sports is also a consideration. Though we may have fondness for particular players, that's not what draws us in the case of the NFL either.

“It isn't domestic violence that is being broadcast on Sundays. Even though women and men may feel strongly that the acts were criminal and that the league was wrong to cover them up, it is difficult for that to override what might be a lifetime of fan behavior and one often linked closely to identity of place and family. As for women in particular, I wonder how many of those are individual women viewers. If other members of the household are watching and that is a family ritual, that too makes behavior change difficult.”

As of Oct. 23, there had been six NFL games that had averaged more than 25 million viewers, versus 10 by that date in 2013. The most-watched game at this point last season was the Packers-Niners opening week game (it drew 28.5 million). This year’s most-watched game came Week 6, when the window airing the Cowboys-Seahawks drew 30.0 million viewers.

If you are looking for some indication of how the ratings will play for the rest of the season, the NFL often benefits when the sport’s top television teams (Broncos, Cowboys, Packers, Patriots) are playing well. The Redskins-Cowboys overtime thriller on Monday delivered MNF’s best viewership since Dec. 2010. The game drew 18.8 million viewers and peaked between 11:30 and 11:45 p.m. ET at 22.5 million. It ranks as the ninth most-viewed cable program in history, excluding breaking news.

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