SBJ/December 17-23, 2012/Media

NFL shifts Thursday landscape

Extra NFL Net games topple college, NBA

On Nov. 1, NFL Network posted its lowest TV rating of the season, as 4.8 million viewers tuned in to watch the Chargers rout the Chiefs.

Still, the game’s viewership more than doubled the audiences that tuned in to the NBA and college football that night. On TNT, 2.1 million viewers watched the Spurs win a nail-biter over the Thunder. And on ESPN, 1.9 million viewers watched Miami rout Virginia Tech.

The numbers are not surprising. The NFL’s TV dominance is well-documented. By any measure, it is the country’s most popular TV sport. This fall, for example, NFL games make up 24 of the 25 most-watched shows on all of television.
But this year is different. Last year, ESPN and TNT would not have faced Thursday night competition from the NFL on Nov. 1. NFL Network’s Thursday night package didn’t start until Nov. 10 last year.

The NFL’s decision to expand the number of Thursday night games from seven to 13 and start the schedule in September has had a cascading affect on the rest of the TV sports landscape. College football used to rule Thursday nights through mid-November. Now, its numbers that night are down and don’t look to be coming back any time soon.

The move certainly helps NFL Network, which is posting higher TV numbers for live games. Its 4.1 rating and 6.4 million viewers are up 11 percent and 3 percent, respectively, from last year’s Thursday night game package. Thanks to deals with Cablevision and Time Warner Cable, NFL Network can be seen in 12 million more homes than last year. According to Nielsen, it was in 57 million homes in December 2011; it’s in 69 million today.

It’s clear that adding extra NFL games on Thursday is hurting the TV performance of other properties. But one result that may have been unexpected is its impact on the NFL’s other TV partners, as well. Fox’s total game viewership is down 5 percent; CBS’s is down 3 percent.

Several industry sources blame the NFL Network’s expanded schedule for the viewership drop. They note the added games have taken two home markets — and their correspondingly big ratings — from the Sunday afternoon broadcasters and placed them on Thursday nights.

The prime-time NFL games on ESPN and NBC essentially are flat.

While Sunday afternoon may be affected, the big picture shows that more people are watching NFL games than ever before. If you add up the total ratings points for NFL games across all the networks, total viewing of NFL games is at its highest level ever, up 3 percent from last season.

Fox Sports believes the dip in ratings is a natural result that follows three straight years of ratings growth.

“Given all the factors that impact ratings that are outside our control — team performances, length of games and final scores — it makes no sense to expect ratings growth year after year ad infinitum. In the larger picture, total NFL viewing is up and the NFL on Fox is still the league’s strongest package,” said Michael Mulvihill, senior vice president of programming and research for Fox Sports Media Group. “We’re coming off our highest-rated season in 16 years, our third straight showing year-to-year growth, and this season’s ratings are still exceptionally strong. We’re really very comfortable with where we are right now.”

Similarly, ESPN says its NFL programming has not been affected by the Thursday night games.

“Are they taking share from us?” said ESPN President John Skipper. “For the most part, the answer to that has been no. They really haven’t.”

But it is having a clear impact on ESPN’s Thursday night college football package. Last year, ESPN’s Thursday night college football game had no NFL competition until week 10, when NFL Network started its schedule.

It comes as no surprise, then, that ESPN’s Thursday night viewership has dropped a whopping 35 percent this season going up against the NFL. Its 12 games that competed with NFL Network games this season (Sept. 13 through Nov. 29) drew an average of 1.8 million viewers, down from a 2.7 million average during the same period last year.

In fact, ESPN’s most-watched Thursday night football game this season occurred when it had no NFL competition at all. NFL Network had not yet started its schedule when South Carolina beat Vanderbilt in the season-opening game, one that drew 4.1 million viewers on Aug. 30.

ESPN’s least-watched Thursday night college football game was an Oct. 11 Arizona State rout of Colorado, which drew just 823,000 viewers. Its NFL Network competition that night, a close Titans victory over the Steelers, drew 5.7 million viewers.

The NFL also is chipping away at the NBA’s hold on Thursday night viewing. TNT’s Thursday night exclusive window has been a key element to its league package, and so far this year its Thursday night NBA games have averaged just 1.7 million viewers. There’s no direct comparison to last year when the league suffered through a work stoppage, but TNT’s average viewership is down from two years ago when it averaged 2.2 million viewers on Thursday night from Oct. 28 through Dec. 9. After the NBA returned last season on Christmas, TNT’s Thursday night package averaged 2.3 million viewers.

So far this year, TNT’s lowest-rated Thursday night game was a close victory by the Dallas Mavericks over the Phoenix Suns on Dec. 6, which drew 1.2 million viewers. That same night on NFL Network the Broncos’ easy victory over the Raiders drew 6.8 million viewers.

Austin Karp is assistant managing editor for sister publication SportsBusiness Daily.

Going Head-to-Head: How the NFL has fared against college football, NBA on Thursday nights

Date NFL Network # of viewers (000s) ESPN (CFB) # of viewers (000s) TNT (NBA) # of viewers (000s)
Sept. 13 Bears-Packers 8,559 Rutgers-South Florida 1,333 N/A N/A
Sept. 20 Giants-Panthers 6,993 BYU-Boise State 2,069 N/A N/A
Sept. 27 Browns-Ravens 8,053 Stanford-Washington 2,116 N/A N/A
Oct. 4 Cardinals-Rams 6,435 USC-Utah 2,273 N/A N/A
Oct. 11 Steelers-Titans 5,651 Arizona State-Colorado 823 N/A N/A
Oct. 18 Seahawks-49ers 7,023 Oregon-Arizona State 1,878 N/A N/A
Oct. 25 Buccaneers-Vikings 5,165 Clemson-Wake Forest 1,171 N/A N/A
Nov. 1 Chiefs-Chargers 4,795 Virginia Tech-Miami 1,864 Thunder-Spurs 2,144
Nov. 8 Colts-Jaguars 5,194 Florida State-Virginia Tech 2,684 Thunder-Bulls / Clippers-Trail Blazers 1,625
Nov. 15 Dolphins-Bills 5,373 North Carolina-Virginia 1,218 Celtics-Nets / Heat-Nuggets 1,495
Nov. 29 Saints-Falcons 7,066 Louisville-Rutgers 1,699 Spurs-Heat / Nuggets-Warriors 1,574
Dec. 6 Broncos-Raiders 6,755 N/A N/A Knicks-Heat / Mavericks-Suns 1,926

N/A: Not applicable
Distribution: Both ESPN and TNT are in roughly 99 million homes, while NFL Network is in 69 million homes.
Source: SportsBusiness Daily analysis of Nielsen data.

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