McManus, Shanks optimistic about NFL ratings outlook
After a 17 percent viewership drop for NFL games over the last two seasons, TV executives obviously are focused on how many viewers watch the games this season.
But TV executives also say concerns about the NFL’s ratings drop are overblown. I recently caught up with CBS’s Sean McManus and Fox’s Eric Shanks, the two executives who own the rights to Sunday afternoon football. CBS’s Sunday afternoon ratings for NFL games dropped 11 percent last season, and Fox was down 9 percent.
Both McManus and Shanks preached optimism, saying that the NFL’s position as television’s most reliable programming has not changed.
“I don’t see any diminution of the NFL,” McManus said. “Nobody likes it when the ratings are down, even if they are down marginally. But it’s still the No. 1 product on television. It’s still the best promotional platform and the best programming platform in all of television. That’s going to remain true for many years to come.”
I asked Eric Shanks and Sean McManus to identify the top three media-focused storylines they are watching during this NFL season.
Shanks1. “Thursday Night Football”
“We have excitement around Thursday and the schedule. It’s a long-term key property for us.”
2. “Fox NFL Kickoff”
“Last year, we put a lot of effort behind ‘Fox NFL Kickoff,’ our 11 a.m. ET show. We had the goal of being No. 1 at 11 a.m. and No. 1 at noon with ‘Fox NFL Sunday.’ Hopefully, this is the year for ‘Fox NFL Kickoff’ to win its time period and provide an even better lead-in for ‘Fox NFL Sunday.’”
“We want to be able to earn what we sold.”
“Relatively speaking, the NFL is stronger than it’s ever been if you look at it in relation to the rest of the television universe.”
2. Super Bowl LIII
“Whenever you have a Super Bowl year, there’s always more opportunity and more pressure on you.”
“I want to make sure that top-to-bottom our production and on-air talent teams are the best in the business.”
Both McManus and Shanks argued that the NFL is stronger than ever when it comes to television. That was one of the reasons why Fox committed $3 billion over five years for “Thursday Night Football.” Shanks pointed to a statistic showing that the NFL accounted for 71 of the 100 most-watched telecasts in 2017 among the 18- to 49-year-old demographic. Just 10 years earlier, that figure was at 22.
“In all of media, you look at everything in context,” Shanks said. “It’s incredibly strong compared to anything else. We have faith in the fact that this country loves football and they want to watch it.”
Shanks said outside factors contributed to the ratings downturn early in the 2017 season, and Fox never recovered. Fox’s Week 1 slate competed against coverage from Hurricane Irma, he said. And Fox’s Week 2 slate was hurt by an hourlong delay in the Cowboys-Broncos game because of a lightning strike, which kept ratings down.
“We got whacked the first three weeks with weather we haven’t seen before,” Shanks said. “Hopefully the weather cooperates this season. Then you wait and see what the news cycle is going to be.”
Many conversations about the NFL’s ratings downturn have centered on the player protests during the national anthem. McManus said he did not have definitive data showing that the coverage of those protests hurt ratings.
“But I don’t think they’ve helped, certainly,” he said. “What the direct effect is, I’m not sure. When fans tune in, generally speaking they want to watch a football game. The fewer distractions from that football game, the better off everybody is.”
One potential minefield this season deals with the NFL’s helmet rules, which have been vilified by fans and players during the preseason. Both Shanks and McManus said the fan anger around some of these penalties shows no signs of hurting game ratings yet.
“This is an outcome that needs to be coached, not officiated,” Shanks said. “Rule changes are put in to correct a certain behavior. We’ve already started seeing the behavior of the helmet rule taking effect. It’s being coached in a positive way. It was like the emphasis on starting to call some of the things that are actually in the rulebook. That will be coached out. I already like the catch rule change.
I think that’s going to be fantastic. It’s a process. If the behavior ends up being what I think they had in mind, it will be positive.”