Sagging economy leads to big score in football viewership

Pro football is this fall’s hottest reality show.

At the halfway point of the season, the National Football League has never been a more dominant ratings force.

Each of the networks televising NFL games has shown an increase in viewership vs. last year, and the primetime packages on Sunday and Monday consistently rank among the top programs in key demos.

Through the first nine weeks of the pro football season, an NFL game has stood as the No. 1 primetime program in adults 18-49 eight times (seven weeks for “Sunday Night Football” and once for “Monday Night Football”) while the World Series accounted for the other.

And the average audience for all NFL games — at 17 million — is the highest at this point in a season since 1989.

While there are several possible reasons for the ratings surge — including storylines like quarterback legend Brett Favre on a new team and strong showings by the league’s most popular franchises — there’s probably also something off the field at play too.

Amid a troubled economy and high unemployment, Americans — many armed with their high-def bigscreen TVs — may simply be gravitating toward the best value for their buck. Attendance at games this season has held up pretty well, off somewhere between 1% and 2% vs. last year, but the huge TV audiences would suggest the league has added more fans this season.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, speaking last month at the NFL owners meeting, acknowledged that the weakened economy may have led to a change in consumers’ habits.

“Since we continue to be available on free television, our fans can gather around the television sets rather than pursuing other opportunities that are more costly. I think that could be a contributing factor.”

The surge in NFL ratings also comes as the popularity of veteran reality shows like “Dancing With the Stars,” “Survivor” and even “American Idol” (whose season starts near the end of the NFL season) are waning. They’re still ratings winners, but are not nearly as hot as in previous years.

These kinds of elimination shows are typically watched live or on the same night they air, due to their immediacy and the need for auds to keep up with friends, family and perhaps co-workers chatting around the water cooler.

As the national penetration of DVRs approaches 35% — allowing auds to watch shows on their own timetables — it could be that auds are turning more often to sports for this kind of communal experience.

Looking at this season’s NFL numbers, the national 4:15 p.m. ET game on Sundays (on CBS and Fox) is averaging 23.5 million viewers this season, up 6% from last year, to become the most-watched program on all of television this fall.

day Night Football” is the most-watched show on cable, with an average aud of 14.6 million, up 18% from last year. Its Oct. 5 game between Favre’s Minnesota Vikings and his old team, the Green Bay Packers, drew a cable record 21.8 million, and the most recent week’s Pittsburgh-Denver contest attracted a healthy 16.5 million.

Ratings for CBS are up about 4% this year, while Fox has seen its numbers grow by about 16%. The net was aided by the Nov. 1 rematch between the Vikings and Packers, which drew 29.8 million viewers — the largest aud for any program on any network since the Academy Awards on ABC in late February.

Perhaps the most impressive stat is that the average aud for all NFL telecasts this season (17 million) is more than two times the average viewership of all non-NFL primetime programming on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox since the beginning of the football season (8.3 million).

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