SBJ/January 8 - 14, 2007/This Weeks News

NFL’s TV changes pay off

When the NFL was negotiating its TV contracts in 2005, the league’s media mind, Steve Bornstein, did not play it safe. Instead, he moved chess pieces along the league’s television landscape and changed the packages. So far, the results have been an unqualified success.

Cowboys-Giants, the Fox late game Dec. 3
was the regular season’s top-rated game.

In the first year of the league’s new six-year television deals, each of the four major networks posted significant ratings increases, a feat that NBC’s Dick Ebersol described as “almost unheard of in this time of audience fragmentation.”

While ratings were up across the board, the biggest success in year one was with the NFL’s prime-time lineup, where ESPN and NBC posted gains over last year’s Sunday and Monday night games.

And it was Bornstein who took the risk by moving the venerable “Monday Night Football” series from broadcast to cable, and moved a series that launched on cable, “Sunday Night Football,” to new broadcast partner NBC.

Both networks experienced ratings jumps.

“Monday Night Football” became the most-watched series on ESPN, averaging a 9.9 cable rating/12.325 million viewers, numbers that easily bested last year’s “Sunday Night Football” on ESPN, which posted a 7.1 cable rating/8.735 million viewers.

Meanwhile, NBC’s Sunday night rating average of 11.0/17.5 million viewers was up from last year’s 10.8/16.323 million viewers for “Monday Night Football” on ABC.

Combined, the NFL’s Sunday and Monday night package was seen by 19 percent more viewers this year, an average of 29.825 million versus 25.058 million.

“That’s the most significant part of the ratings story this season,” said Mike Trager, the former chairman of Clear Channel Entertainment’s TV division. “The prime-time lineups showed a strong incremental bump. The Sunday afternoon packages are much more predictable and more stable.”

But while the afternoon package may be more predictable, they were extraordinarily successful. Fox and CBS both posted impressive gains for their Sunday packages, posting their highest ratings since 1999.

Overall, Fox showed a 5 percent jump from 2005 by averaging a 10.6 rating/23 share, which equates to 16.6 million viewers. Last year, it posted a 10.1/22, or averaging 15.7 million viewers.

Fox had its biggest success with its exclusive national late game, which averaged a 13.8/26 (21.8 million viewers), which was up 6 percent in ratings from last year.

CBS averaged a 9.8/21 for its Sunday afternoon games, a slight increase from last year’s numbers. CBS’s national game averaged a 12.4/25 share.

Even the NFL Network, which is carried in only 40 million homes, enjoyed success, averaging a 5.4 cable rating/4.1 million viewers across its eight-game schedule.

NBC, like the other broadcasters, got its
biggest audience for a Cowboys game.

“The NFL is the biggest entertainment property in our country — bigger than any prime-time program,” said Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports who leads his own consulting company. “There’s no other property that comes anywhere close to that.”

The only seemingly discordant note was struck by the flexible schedule, which did not post the ratings jump that many expected. Bornstein and league officials folded in the flexible schedule as part of the new package this year with the hopes of avoiding unattractive late-season matchups. Last season, “MNF” ratings dropped half a rating point over the last four weeks of the season, causing the series to post its lowest final rating in its 36-year history.

NBC’s seven game late-season stretch pulled a 10.3 rating/11.526 million households, a figure that was down from the first nine games of its non-flex schedule. The figure also was off from ABC’s much-maligned late-season stretch last year, which delivered a 10.6 rating/11.679 million households.

Ironically, NBC’s flex schedule was hurt by a Dec. 31 contest between the Bears and Packers — a blowout game that wound up having no playoff implications. The game delivered the second-smallest audience for “Sunday Night Football” of 13.4 million viewers.

“We didn’t see a difference with the flex schedule, quite honestly,” said Larry Novenstern, executive vice president of national electronic media at Optimedia. “Hopefully, this will make NBC more realistic with their [ad rates] next year.”

NBC had been getting an average of $315,000 for 30-second spots.

Still, NBC executives and media analysts consider the flex schedule a success. NBC says it met its expectations, particularly given the tougher Sunday night competition of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” and CBS’s “Without a Trace.”

Network executives also pointed to “Sunday Night Football” as a catalyst for other network shows, such as “Heroes,” which was promoted heavily during “SNF.”

Industry analysts point to Bornstein’s move to switch prime-time networks around as a possible reason for ratings growth across the board. The press attention that focused on that move — and the resulting bickering between the networks — created a noticeable buzz around the season.

Another reason for the ratings increase could be parity, which saw many teams involved in the playoff hunt late into the season.

The rating increases were impressive, but industry analysts caution executives not to read too much into the NFL’s ratings performance this season.

“A ratings figure for one season represents an anomaly in this business,” Trager said. “It’s great that the NFL got off to a good start in the first year of a new deal. If they maintain these levels, it will be one hell of a move.”

Pilson sounded a similar theme.

“Everyone would be happy next year if the ratings were flat,” he said. “You never really know why ratings are up when they go up or why they’re down when they go down.”


This year, everybody's up

Network
2006
Rating/Viewers
2005
Rating/Viewers
2004
Rating/Viewers
NBC (a) 11.0/17,500,000 10.8/16,323,000 11.0/16,400,000
Fox 10.6/16,600,000 10.1/15,700,000 10.1/15,400,000
CBS 9.8/15,400,000 9.7/15,100,000 9.7/15,000,000
ESPN (b) 9.9/12,325,000 7.1/8,735,000 7.3/9,100,000
NFLN 5.4/4,100,000    
     
* ESPN and NFLN are cable coverage ratings.

Big numbers for the big games
The following lists the average number of viewers for the national games broadcast by the NFL’s TV partners. The viewer numbers for Fox and CBS are for their late national games, with Fox and CBS having nine each this season.

NET
2006 Viewers
2005 Viewers
% +/-
2004 Viewers
% +/- (2004 to 2006)
Fox 21,800,000 20,400,000 6.9% 19,800,000 10.1%
CBS 19,500,000 19,100,000 2.1% 19,400,000 0.5%
NBC (a) 17,500,000 16,323,000 7.4% 16,400,000 6.7%
ESPN (b) 12,325,000 8,735,000 41.4% 9,100,000 35.2%
NFLN 4,100,000
 
(a) = NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” in 2006 is compared to ABC’s “Monday Night Football” in 2005 and 2004
(b) = ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” in 2006 is compared to ESPN’s “Sunday Night Football” from 2005 and 2004
Note: Viewer numbers for Fox and CBS are for the exclusive, late national games

Mama, let your babies grow up to be Cowboys
These were the most-watched games on each of the NFL’s TV partners this season.

Network
Date
Game
Rating
Viewers
Fox Dec. 3 Cowboys-Giants 17.8 27.6 million
CBS Nov. 19 Colts-Cowboys 14.7 23.4 million
NBC Dec. 25 Eagles-Cowboys 12.1 23.2 million
ESPN Oct. 23 Giants-Cowboys 12.8 11.8 million (homes)
NFLN Dec. 16 Cowboys-Falcons 7.5 2.9 million (homes)
 
* ESPN and NFLN are cable coverage ratings.
Sources: Networks, SBJ/SBD archives
Research by Austin Karp, SportsBusiness Daily
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