The ratings news coming out of the 2008 television season reads like a ticker-taped narrative of woe: The broadcast nets are down by about 10% vs. last year at this point, four out of five returning skeins are down from last year, and only two of 16 new shows improved their timeslots.
And this despite Nielsen reports that Americans are watching more television than ever before.
One of the main reasons for this dichotomy is that the grass is a lot greener on the gridiron. Primetime football is bucking the downward trend in a big way, realizing ratings gains on all three of its weekly platforms.
- NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” finished its third season with an average of 16.8 milion viewers, up from 15.9 million in 2007. The Dec. 14 contest between the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys notched the largest aud for the franchise to date (23.1 million viewers) — and that came on the heels of a November sweep that saw “SNF” rule as the month’s No. 1 program among adults 18-49.
- Over on ESPN, “Monday Night Football,” with 11.9 million viewers, finished up nicely over 2007 (11.2 million). A string of strong early-season matchups helped set the pace, including the September contest between the Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles, which set a cable record of 18.6 million viewers.
- In college, ABC’s “Saturday Night Football” telecast averaged nearly 8 million viewers in fall, up from 6.1 million in 2007; and in some demo categories, the package posted its best numbers to date.
Turns out, however, that when it comes to pigskin’s primetime surge, the “what” is a lot easier to lay out than the “why.” Last season’s 11-week writers strike, which began in November 2007 — the shank of the football season — may have sent some habitual series viewers looking for alternatives. And of course, reality TV fatigue and a slate of ho-hum sitcoms and fading dramas haven’t done the networks any favors.
On top of that, there’s the deepening recession, which has tightened discretionary income and put out-of-home events like concerts, theater and, well, sporting events even further out of reach of many household budgets.
“We’re now seeing sports on television competing with other forms of entertainment outside the home,” says David Carter, head of the Sports Business Institute at USC. That’s especially true, he says, now that ballgames look better than ever on the tube. “A lot of folks are saying, ‘I can spend $300 or $400 taking the family to the game, or I can forgo a couple of those and get one of those big-screen HD TVs whose price has just been cut in half.’ “
Enhancing the run, pass, and kick action is the fact that as the DVR continues to encroach on scripted and unscripted fare, football is an event that demands to be watched in the moment. “Live sports is the best reality television there is,” says ESPN’s executive VP of programming and strategy, John Wildhack.
And the reality has been pretty exciting this season.
College ball benefited from thrilling late-season runs by Oklahoma and Florida, which will meet for the national championship on Jan. 8. In a strong year for teams from the south, auds also turned out in big numbers for games involving Alabama, Texas and Texas Tech.
Moreover, claims Wildhack: “The sport has grown in its popularity over the past five years, especially among young people. I think we’ve disproved the notion that college football is a regional game.”
The NFL has had its share of gripping narratives as well, including the rollercoaster ride of the Dallas Cowboys’ season, the resurgence of the Miami Dolphins, and the prospect of both Gotham franchises landing in the playoffs. (The Cowboys and New York Jets fell short of the postseason, however, along with the New England Patriots — perhaps hurting the ratings for this year’s playoffs despite a strong regular season.)
“Around every geographic corner, there is something to be talked about, and that doesn’t even get into the off-the-field drama” says Carter. “When that happens, it’s good for everybody.”
On the field, Wildhack adds, “About 95% of the games have been very competitive; the league right now is incredibly unpredictable.”
Whether or not the programmers are maximally cashing in on the success is another question, as at least two of televised sports’ three top advertising categories, automotive and financial services (the third being alcoholic beverages) have been decimated in the Wall Street meltdown.
“There’s a glut of inventory in sports in general,” says Larry Novenstern, executive VP and managing director at Optimedia Intl., an ad buyer. Although those spots will eventually be sold by game time, Novenstern notes, the networks “will have to try to figure out how to monetize what they still have left.”