Madison Avenue Predicts Football Viewership Will Drop Again This Year (EXCLUSIVE)

NFL TV Network Battle
Jorge Lemus/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

With just a few weeks to go before the kickoff of football season, advertisers may be questioning whether primetime NFL games can still score as many marketing touchdowns as it has in the past.

A Variety survey of commercial-ratings projections for the 2017-18 broadcast-network TV season finds that ad buyers believe fewer people than last season will watch commercials during such primetime stalwarts as NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” and the “Thursday Night Football” broadcasts on both NBC and CBS. To be sure, the games remain TV’s top draw, with higher ratings expected for football than almost anything else on next season’s grid. But NFL games are proving just as vulnerable to audience erosion as their scripted counterparts. Advertisers’ commercial ratings predictions are culled by using estimates from three top media-buying agencies, which negotiate prices for and placement of billions of dollars in TV commercials each year.

TV’s Biggest Commercial-Ratings Programs
SHOW 2017-18 C3
2016-17 C3
Live 18-49
NBC THURS FOOTBALL 5.05 6.22 5.2
CBS THURS FOOTBALL 4.70 5.74 4.8
THE OT, FOX 4.20 3.2 4.6
EMPIRE, FOX 3.28 4.88 3.9
THIS IS US, NBC 2.88 1.49 4.6
BIG BANG THURS., CBS 2.6 2.86 4.9
BIG BANG MON, CBS 2.51 3.8
VOICE MONDAY NBC 2.25 2.83 3.0
VOICE TUESDAY NBC 2.14 2.53 2.7
GREY’S ANATOMY, ABC 2.03 2.36 3.3
THE BACHELOR, ABC 1.92 1.89 3.1

The general perception of a program’s performance continues to be rooted in Nielsen’s traditional audience ratings, which are more widely referenced in the industry and in the media. In reality, however, the business emphasis for advertising has moved to the so-called C3 (commercial ratings plus three) measure. Since  May 2007, sponsors and ad buyers have made the number of viewers who watch a particular show within three days’ of its on-air debut — and don’t skip through the ads – as the basis for many of their commercial deals. The C3 rating became part of negotiations between networks and their advertisers as the rise of DVRs eroded viewership of programs – not to mention the commercials that interrupt them. In many cases, a measure known as “C7” that takes into account ad views for up to a week after an initial airing is the basis for pacts, and has become a new choice as streaming video and mobile devices force even more time-shifted viewing.

The 2017-18 C3 projections illustrate the effects of football’s tough season last year, when the outsize allure of the presidential election and the absence of star players prompted a drop of about 8%, or around 1.4 million people, in TV’s overall football audience. NFL stars Tony Romo, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning were off the gridiron for various reasons at the start of the season (Manning retired), and a slew of political headlines and debates kept the nation distracted from its usual pastimes. The Chicago Cubs took part in the World Series for the first time in decades, providing more competition for sports fans.

Meanwhile, a new supply of Thursday-night games on broadcast has made more of the sport available to a wider audience. “Straight up, I believe the NFL has peaked and there too many games being broadcast,”said Ira Berger, who supervises ad buying on broadcast and cable for The Richards Group, an independent Dallas ad agency. “Nothing goes up forever — except taxes.”

These C3 projections should not be taken as gospel. The bulk of football ad pacts are based on live ratings, owing to the fact that only a sliver of the games’ audience time-shifts, though some buyers suggested “C3” is used in some agreements. “That’s all a negotiation,” said one buying executive familiar with negotiations around sports properties. And there’s more to confuse the issue: Buyers said some football advertisers are considering use of so-called “out of home” ratings that measure viewership of games in bars, hotels and offices, among other places. Even so, there’s reason for some concern about football. Already, ad sales executives have said they expect no ads for Viagra, a long-running gridiron sponsor, this season. Its manufacturer, Pfizer, has less reason to advertise a drug on which it is about to lose patent exclusivity.

C3 viewership is also seen dipping for NBC’s “Football Night in America.” The ad viewership for Fox’s “The OT,”a post-game wrap of that network’s Sunday-afternoon NFL coverage that appears sporadically after 7 p.m., is, however, expected to rise.

NBC Sports said it expected robust performance from its two top football properties. “With the best schedule in football, and the only network with two primetime NFL packages, we’re optimistic that we will once again produce the No. 1 and No. 2 primetime shows on television,” the NBCUniversal unit said in a statement.

Despite the trimmed expectations, buyers acknowledge football remains TV’s top draw. Of the 13 broadcast primetime programs expected to get the biggest commercial views, the top five are all football or football-related broadcasts. One buyer expressed surprise that commercial-ratings estimates for football might drop.

The scripted programs expected to garner the most audience for advertisements are Fox’s “Empire,” NBC’s “This Is Us” and CBS’ Thursday- and Monday-night broadcasts of “The Big Bang Theory.”

Here’s a comprehensive chart examining Variety’s C3 projections for the bulk of shows slated for the coming season. The scheduling for some of the programs have not been formally announced, but are based on buyer expectations. Mid-season programs are in italics.

7PM America’s Funniest Home Videos .78
8PM To Tell the Truth .78
American Idol 1.86
9PM Shark Tank 0.87
10PM 10 Days in the Valley 0.92
The Crossing 1.08
7PM 60 Minutes 1.24
8PM Wisdom of the Crowd 1.21
9PM NCIS: Los Angeles 0.94
10PM Madam Secretary 0.86
7PM The OT 4.20
7:30 Bob’s Burgers 0.88
8PM The Simpsons 1.56
8:30PM Ghosted 1.15
9PM Family Guy 1.38
9:30PM Last Man on Earth 0.92
7PM Football Night In America 3.5
Dateline Sunday 0.66
Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly 0.64
8PM NBC Sunday Night Football 6.55
Ellen’s Game of Games .82
Good Girls .80
Little Big Shots 1.17
8PM Dancing with the Stars 1.5
American Idol 1.84
The Bachelor 1.92
10PM The Good Doctor 1.36
8PM The Big Bang Theory 2.51
8PM Kevin Can Wait (as of 10/24) 1.47
8:30PM 9JKL 1.38
9PM Kevin Can Wait 1.55
9PM Me Myself & I 1.12
9:30PM Me Myself & I 1.02
9:30PM Superior Donuts 1.02
10PM Scorpion 1.08
8PM Supergirl 0.94
9PM Valor 0.50
Black Lightning (not scheduled yet by CW) 0.55
8PM Lucifer 0.96
Lucifer 0.72
9PM The Gifted 1.26
8PM The Voice 2.25
Reverie 1.13
The Wall 1.19
10PM The Brave 1.42
8PM The Middle 1.28
8:30PM Fresh Off the Boat 1.15
9PM Black-ish 1.48
9:30PM The Mayor 1.35
10PM Kevin (Probably) Saves the World 0.9
Deception 0.58
8PM NCIS 1.59
9PM Bull 1.42
NCIS: New Orleans 1.07
8PM The Flash 0.78
9PM DC’s Legends of Tomorrow 0.59
8PM Lethal Weapon 1.51
X-Files 1.51
9PM The Mick 1.23
9:30PM Brooklyn Nine-Nine 0.80
LA to Vegas 1.23
911 0.78
8PM The Voice 2.14
9PM This is Us 2.88
10PM Law & Order: True Crime 1.65
Rise 1.65
8PM The Goldbergs 1.46
8:30PM Speechless 1.31
9PM Modern Family 1.6
9:30PM American Housewife 1.42
10PM Designated Survivor 1.57
8PM Survivor 1.54
9PM Seal Team 1.12
10PM Criminal Minds 1.23
8PM Riverdale 0.43
9PM Dynasty 0.46
8PM Empire 3.28
9PM Star 1.52
8PM The Blacklist 1.2
9PM Law & Order: SVU 1.36
10PM Chicago PD 1.2
8PM Grey’s Anatomy 2.03
9PM Scandal 1.72
Great American Baking Show 0.93
For the People 1.44
10PM How to Get Away with Murder 1.53
Grey’s Anatomy spinoff: Rescue 1.31
What Would You Do 0.81
8PM Thursday Night Football (Starting September 28) 4.7
8PM The Big Bang Theory (Starting November 2) 2.60
8:30PM Young Sheldon (Starting November 2) 1.52
9PM Mom (Starting November 2) 1.35
9:30PM Life in Pieces (Starting November 2) 1.28
10PM S.W.A.T. (Starting November 2) 1.05
8PM Supernatural 0.56
9PM Arrow 0.58
8PM Gotham 0.88
Masterchef Junior 1.14
Showtime at the Apollo 0.75
9PM The Orville 0.75
Beat Shazam 0.97
8PM Thursday Night Football (Starting 9/7) 5.05
8PM Superstore (Starting 9/28) 1.09
8:30PM The Good Place (Starting 9/28) 1.14
9PM Will & Grace (Starting 9/28) 1.15
9:30 Great News (Starting 9/28) 1.0
10PM Chicago Fire (Starting 9/28) 1.51
8PM Once Upon a Time 0.80
9PM Marvel’s Inhuman 0.95
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. 0.88
10PM 20/20 0.82
8PM MacGyver 1.05
9PM Hawaii Five-0 0.90
10PM Blue Bloods 1.09
8PM Crazy Ex-Girlfriend 0.18
9PM Jane the Virgin 0.35
8PM Hell’s Kitchen 1.0
9PM The Exorcist 0.87
8PM Blindspot .077
9PM Dateline 1.01
Taken 0.86
8PM ABC Saturday Night Football 1.65
ABC Saturday Night Movie 0.38
8PM Crimetime Saturday 0.46
9PM Crimetime Saturday 0.46
10PM 48 Hours 0.67
8PM Fox Sports Saturday 1.63
8PM Saturday Dateline Mysteries 0.58
10PM SNL Vintage 0.63