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Volume 21 No. 1


The dominant theme in sports media for the past two years is that cable channels are in trouble. Not only are they losing subscribers rapidly, but they have not been able to figure out how to attract younger viewers. NFL Network is the type of niche sports channel that would seem to be most affected by this trend, especially given its cost of $1.48 a subscriber per month, which makes the network cable’s fifth most expensive channel, according to SNL Kagan.

But NFL Network has been bucking the trend, both in terms of distribution and TV ratings. It is in 71.517 million homes, which is only about 1 million homes lower than its October 2013 high of 72.464 million, according to Nielsen.

Plus, the channel’s programming has proved to be popular among the younger demos, network executives say. In fact, this NFL season saw NFL Network become the second most popular sports network in the 18-49 and 18-34 demos, overtaking bigger rivals like ESPN2, FS1 and NBCSN. ESPN has the biggest audience. This marks the first time in NFL Network’s 13-year history that it has hit the No. 2 spot in those demos during football season.

“This is a good, big step for us,” said Jordan Levin, the NFL’s chief content officer. “We live in a world where we see declines across the board, so being able to show a little bit of growth on the total viewers front is a pretty solid place to be.”

“Good Morning Football” airings posted increases among the 18-49 demo.

The network’s live games helped, of course. NFL Network carried 18 “Thursday Night Football” regular-season games, eight exclusively, this season, which were the most watched on the network. The Christmas night Baltimore Ravens-Pittsburgh Steelers game set a network viewership record with 15.4 million viewers.

But in an interview last week, Levin was most energized when talking about his network’s studio shows and shoulder programming, which he said primarily was responsible for pushing NFL Network past ESPN2 among younger demos this season.

Levin identified the morning show “Good Morning Football” as having the biggest impact. The show airs live from 7 to 10 a.m. ET, and reairs from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. ET Monday through Friday. The live telecast posted a 15 percent increase in the 18-49 demo, and the reair also did well. During the season, it averaged 101,000 total viewers from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., which placed it just behind FS1’s morning block of “Undisputed” and part of “The Herd,” which had 107,000 total viewers in the same time frame, Levin said.

“We are within spitting distance,” Levin said. “It’s pretty tight.”

Levin credited a programming strategy that targeted younger viewers. Long-running shows like “A Football Life” profiled younger people. And NFL Network’s other shows, like “GameDay Final,” courted younger viewers by including pop culture stars such as Green Bay Packers fan Lil Wayne and New England Patriots fan Mark Wahlberg. NFL Network launched series like “Tackle My Ride” and carried EA Sports “Madden” video game competitions, which brought younger and more diverse audiences to the network.

“You don’t ever want to abandon your audience — your hardcore avid audience comes first — but you want to find some other opportunities to run out,” Levin said. “Overall those shows don’t represent a large number of hours. But collectively that’s been part of the strategy.”

John Ourand can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

Editor’s note: This story is revised from the print edition.

Some in the industry are waiting for a sports rights bubble to pop, but judging from 2016’s most popular television shows, sports rights are as valuable as ever.

Eighty-eight of the top 100, most-viewed shows on television last year were live sports telecasts, and seven more were big live events.

Super Bowl 50 on CBS was the most-viewed program of 2016, and NFL games filled eight of the top 12 slots.
Only two slots were taken by scripted dramas (two episodes of CBS’s “NCIS”). Three others (two “60 Minutes” episodes and the post-Super Bowl edition of “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert”) were driven by NFL lead-ins.

“It becomes truer every year — the top end of TV is almost exclusively a live event programming business,” said Mike Mulvihill, executive vice president of research, league operations and strategy at Fox Sports. “Most of the live events are sports events, but not necessarily all of them.”

A lot of ink was spilled on the NFL’s ratings drop this season, but 2016 showed that the league still is America’s most popular TV programming, by far. Regular-season games took 49 spots among the top 100, and the NFL playoffs took an additional 11 spots — including six of the top 10.

The Olympics again proved to be a reliable ratings grabber despite a drop from four years ago, as 15 of 17 nights of prime-time coverage on NBC made the top 100. Swimming performances, highlighted by Michael Phelps, were the most-watched nights from Rio, taking the top four Olympics spots, followed by Usain Bolt’s record-setting 100-meter run.

The following chart based on viewership includes shows that run across different networks but feature nearly identical programming, like the NCAA tournament Final Four and College Football Playoff and Championship, which were multicast over several networks. It also includes the presidential debates, where 10 English-language networks carried the same programming. It does not include the political conventions or election night coverage, which each network covers with its own on-air talent.

2016’s Top 100-Viewed TV Programs

Rank Network(s) Date Program Average # of viewers (000s)
1 CBS  Feb. 7 Super Bowl 50: Broncos-Panthers 111,864
2 10 networks* Sept. 26 U.S. Presidential Debate No. 1: Clinton-Trump 79,054
3 10 networks*  Oct. 19 U.S. Presidential Debate No. 3: Clinton-Trump 67,473
4 9 networks**  Oct. 9 U.S. Presidential Debate No. 2: Clinton-Trump 64,065
5 CBS  Jan. 24 AFC Championship: Broncos-Patriots 53,300
6 Fox  Jan. 24 NFC Championship: Panthers-Cardinals 45,739
7 CBS  Jan. 17 AFC Divisional Playoff: Broncos-Steelers 42,953
8 Fox  Nov. 2 World Series: Game 7: Cubs-Indians 40,043
9 Fox  Jan. 10 NFC Wild Card: Packers-Redskins 38,851
10 Fox  Jan. 17 NFC Divisional Playoff: Panthers-Seahawks 36,683
11 NBC  Jan. 10 NFC Wild Card: Seahawks-Vikings 35,360
12 Fox  Nov. 24 Redskins-Cowboys (Thanksgiving) 35,109
13 ABC  Feb. 28 The Oscars 34,425
14 NBC  Jan. 16 NFC Divisional Playoff: Cardinals-Packers 33,732
15 NBC  Aug. 9 Rio Olympics: Night 5 (Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, U.S. women’s gymnastics win gold) 33,440
16 CBS  Jan. 16 AFC Divisional Playoff: Patriots-Chiefs 31,495
17 CBS  Jan. 9 AFC Wild Card: Steelers-Bengals 31,226
18 NBC  Aug. 11 Rio Olympics: Night 7 (Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, Simone Manuel win gold) 31,215
19 ABC  June 19 NBA Finals: Game 7: Cavaliers-Warriors 31,018
20 NBC  Aug. 7 Rio Olympics: Night 3 (Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky win gold) 29,779
21 Fox  Nov. 13 NFL national window (Cowboys-Steelers) 28,883
22 NBC  Aug. 8 Rio Olympics: Night 4 (Michael Phelps, beach volleyball) 28,861
23 Fox  Oct. 16 NFL national window (Cowboys-Packers) 28,011
24 CBS  Nov. 24 Vikings-Lions (Thanksgiving) 27,611
25 Fox  Sept. 11 NFL national window (Giants-Cowboys) 27,531
26 NBC  Aug. 14 Rio Olympics: Night 10 (Usain Bolt, Simone Biles win gold) 26,749
27 NBC  Dec. 11 SNF: Cowboys-Giants 26,499
28 NBC  Aug. 5 Rio Olympics: Opening Ceremony 26,488
29 NBC  Aug. 10 Rio Olympics: Night 6 (Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky swimming) 26,447
30 ESPN/ESPN2/ESPNU Jan. 11 CFP National Championship: Alabama-Clemson 26,182
31 NBC  Aug. 13 Rio Olympics: Night 9 (Michael Phelps’ final race) 25,524
32 ABC/ESPN Jan. 9 AFC Wild Card: Chiefs-Texans 25,424
33 Fox  Dec. 4 NFL national window (Giants-Steelers) 25,414
34 Fox  Dec. 11 NFL national window (Seahawks-Packers) 25,261
35 NBC  Sept. 8 Panthers-Broncos (NFL Kickoff) 25,186
36 CBS  Dec. 18 NFL national window (Patriots-Broncos) 24,990
37 CBS  Feb. 15 Grammy Awards 24,962
38 NBC Nov. 24 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade 24,639
39 CBS  Nov. 20 NFL national window (Eagles-Seahawks) 24,359
40 NBC  Jan. 3 SNF: Vikings-Packers 24,286
41 NBC  Aug. 15 Rio Olympics: Night 11 (women’s gymnastics) 24,220
42 NBC  Dec. 18 SNF: Buccaneers-Cowboys 24,148
43 NBC  Aug. 16 Rio Olympics: Night 12 (women’s gymnastics) 24,135
44 NBC  Aug. 12 Rio Olympics: Night 8 (Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky swimming) 24,019
45 Fox  Oct. 30 World Series: Game 5: Cubs-Indians 23,638
46 CBS  Nov. 27 NFL national window (Panthers-Raiders) 23,497
47 Fox  Nov. 1 World Series: Game 6: Cubs-Indians 23,396
48 NBC  Sept. 11 SNF: Patriots-Cardinals 23,078
49 NBC  Sept. 18 SNF: Packers-Vikings 22,751
50 Fox  Oct. 30 NFL national window (Packers-Falcons) 22,736
51 Fox  Oct. 2 NFL national window (Cowboys-49ers) 22,697
52 NBC  Nov. 13 SNF: Seahawks-Patriots 22,513
53 CBS  Sept. 25 NFL national window (Steelers-Eagles) 22,008
54 NBC/NFL Net Dec. 1 TNF: Cowboys-Vikings 21,760
55 NBC  Aug. 18 Rio Olympics: Night 14 (Usain Bolt wins 200 meters) 21,700
56 CBS  Oct. 23 NFL national window (Patriots-Steelers) 21,675
57 NBC  Dec. 25 SNF: Broncos-Chiefs 21,413
58 CBS  Sept. 18 NFL national window (Colts-Broncos) 21,354
59 CBS  Oct. 9 NFL national window (Bengals-Cowboys) 21,304
60 CBS Feb. 7 “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert”^ 21,100
61 Fox  Jan. 3 NFL national window (Seahawks-Cardinals) 20,884
62 NBC  Nov. 24 Steelers-Colts (Thanksgiving) 20,881
63 ABC  June 16 NBA Finals: Game 6: Cavaliers-Warriors 20,702
64 NBC  Aug. 17 Rio Olympics: Night 13 (Usain Bolt in 200-meter semifinals, beach volleyball) 20,683
65 NBC  Aug. 6 Rio Olympics: Night 2 (first night of competition) 20,633
66 CBS Jan. 17 “60 Minutes” 20,624
67 NBC  Sept. 25 SNF: Bears-Cowboys 20,617
68 ABC  June 13 NBA Finals: Game 5: Cavaliers-Warriors 20,528
69 CBS  Nov. 6 NFL national window (Colts-Packers) 20,157
70 Fox  Nov. 6 NFL singleheader 20,152
71 NBC  Aug. 19 Rio Olympics: Night 15 (Usain Bolt’s final race) 20,050
72 CBS  Nov. 13 “60 Minutes” 20,000
73 Fox  Oct. 28 World Series: Game 3: Cubs-Indians 19,384
74 Fox  Oct. 25 World Series: Game 1: Cubs-Indians 19,368
75 ESPN/ESPN2 Dec. 31 CFP Semifinal: Peach Bowl: Alabama-Washington 19,344
76 ESPN/ESPN2 Dec. 31 CFP Semifinal: Fiesta Bowl: Clemson-Ohio State 19,236
77 ABC  June 2 NBA Finals: Game 1: Cavaliers-Warriors 19,196
78 Fox  Sept. 25 NFL singleheader 19,168
79 Fox  Sept. 18 NFL singleheader 19,163
80 CBS  Dec. 11 NFL singleheader 19,101
81 CBS Jan. 5 “NCIS” 18,975
82 CBS  Jan. 3 NFL national window (Jets-Bills) 18,958
83 NBC  Nov. 20 SNF: Packers-Redskins 18,729
84 Fox  Dec. 18 NFL singleheader 18,705
85 ESPN Dec. 26 MNF: Lions-Cowboys 18,605
86 CBS  Dec. 4 NFL singleheader 18,539
87 NBC Jan. 10 Golden Globe Awards 18,511
88 NBC  Nov. 27 SNF: Chiefs-Broncos 18,436
89 Fox  Dec. 24 NFL national window (Vikings-Packers) 18,397
90 NBC  Nov. 6 SNF: Broncos-Raiders 18,325
91 NBC  Oct. 2 SNF: Chiefs-Steelers 18,057
92 NBC  Oct. 30 SNF: Eagles-Cowboys 18,023
93 CBS May 17 “NCIS” 18,015
94 NBC/NFL Net Dec. 22 TNF: Giants-Eagles 17,943
95 (tie) NBC  Dec. 4 SNF: Panthers-Seahawks 17,752
95 (tie) TBS/TNT/truTV April 4 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship: Villanova-North Carolina 17,752
97 NBC  Oct. 23 SNF: Seahawks-Cardinals 17,707
98 CBS  Nov. 20 NFL regional 17,559
99 CBS  Jan. 3 NFL regional 17,550
100 CBS/NFL Net Sept. 22 TNF: Texans-Patriots 17,546

Note: All figures exclude Spanish-language telecasts.
* Fox, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, PBS, CNBC and Fox Business all televised the debate.
** Fox, ABC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, PBS, CNBC and Fox Business all televised the debate; NBC televised “Thursday Night Football.”
^ Aired following Super Bowl 50.
Source: SportsBusiness Journal research

I asked three media executives to describe the “coolest products” they saw at the recently completed Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. I told them not to limit their answers to products with sports applications. It was no surprise to see the excitement around virtual and augmented reality ideas, which promise to change the way fans watch games at home or in venue.

Craig Barry, executive vice president and chief content officer, Turner Sports

“The HTC Vive headset made by Steam now has a wireless application that eliminates all cables without any latency. The opportunity for untethered 360-degree movement creates a much broader landscape for the VR experience.

“Overall, the word of the show is drones. The Yuneec Typhoon was a real player because of its GPS tracking capability, as well as Intel’s RealSense technology for automated collision avoidance.”

Attendees try out HTC Vive headsets while riding VirZoom bike gaming controllers.

Mike Davies, senior vice president, field operations, Fox Sports

“I left the convention thinking about Panasonic’s Connected Stadium exhibit, where a variety of interesting technology was used to bring the fan closer to the game (as well as make it easier to spend money while watching it). Stadiums are working hard to bring the television experience to the fans at the game. You could see this at Panasonic’s simulated augmented reality VIP suite, where you could use a remote to project any number of interesting data points on a window in front of you, view a variety of cameras, and look up information on the fly.

“Walking down the hall to the (somewhat anemic) virtual and augmented reality section, others were trying to bring the in-person fan experience to the home, too. The convergence of augmented reality both at home and in venue is undeniable as a point of interest for both sides.”

Eric Black, CTO, NBC Sports Group Digital and Playmaker Media

“With Amazon’s Alexa integration and a 29-inch touchscreen display, the kitchen possibilities are endless for this connected device. I’m a huge fan of the capabilities of Alexa. The idea of Prime integration and automated restocking of groceries would be a kitchen dream come true.”

Yes, that was Mark Gross sitting in ESPN’s producer’s chair last Wednesday night during a Memphis Grizzlies-Oklahoma City Thunder game.

Gross has been with ESPN since 1988, but he had never produced a game — any game — for the network. Now ESPN’s senior vice president of production and remote events, Gross decided to swap jobs with senior coordinating producer Tim Corrigan for one night.

Mark Gross, with experience in studio shows, wanted to handle a live event.
“I’ve always wanted to do this, but I’ve never been able to commit the kind of time it takes to prepare for the game,” Gross said by phone on the day before he was scheduled to handle the telecast. “Tim and I have talked about this together, and we both felt like the time was right.”

This does not appear to be an ego-driven vanity stunt. Gross began overseeing remote productions in January 2014, when he became Corrigan’s boss. For the past several years they had been talking about having Gross produce a live game to help him get a better sense of what goes into it.

“I’m expecting this to give me a better sense of what goes into game productions,” said Gross, whose background is more focused on studio shows.

Gross remarked at the amount of preparation that goes into a regular-season NBA telecast in the middle of January. He initially had been studying the Washington Wizards and Boston Celtics but had to switch gears on Dec. 28 when ESPN swapped out of that game to the Grizzlies-Thunder.

“I dove into anything I could get my hands on — newspaper articles, blog posts — about both of these teams,” Gross said. “I am amazed at the volume of paperwork that gets used for just one game.”

In producing the game, Gross said he planned to keep reminding himself that his job is to document the game. Corrigan told him to be flexible and not over-use technologies like replays. “If the replay doesn’t add something or show anything new, why use it,” Gross said.

“I’d like people to walk away from the game with a better sense of who Russell Westbrook is. But I have to remember to be flexible. Anything can happen.”