Ratings are huge, and NBC is the prime(time) beneficiary

The National Football League has never been hotter, and that is evident in the list of TV’s most- watched sports telecasts of the year.

Fifteen NFL games — including last season’s playoffs and this regular season — drew a larger audience in 2011 than any other sport. The college football championship game and the deciding game of the World Series came closest (see chart).

Of course, the NFL’s primetime broadcast package, NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” is bigger than most of primetime’s top entertainment series in demographics as well as total viewers. Five years ago, in the franchise’s first year on the Peacock, “SNF” was the season’s No. 6 show in adults 18-49, but it has vaulted to No. 1 this season (8.0 rating/19 share in the demo, and more than 20 million viewers overall).

NBC has done little else in primetime this season — it has only one entertainment series among the top 25 shows — but football has enabled it to hang in the ratings race in the fourth quarter.

And after adding an 18th regular-season game to its “SNF” roster last season (against the World Series), NBC was recently awarded a 19th game — on Thanksgiving night — beginning next season.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see rival networks (especially ABC, the only major that doesn’t air NFL games) start to more aggressively tout nonsports averages, as gaudy numbers for the country’s most popular sport are a misleading representation of NBC’s performance and only masks the net’s underlying problems.

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