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NFL Ratings Take Hit From Hurricane Irma in Week 1

Hurricane Irma’s destructive tear through Florida and the Southeast last weekend took its toll on the NFL’s week 1 television ratings.

With the exception of NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” all NFL telecasts experienced declines in final Nielsen household numbers and total viewers. The hardest hit were the Sunday afternoon games, which took place as many Florida viewers were experiencing the brunt of the storm as it moved up the state — and others across the country were following its path on cable news.

Overall, total viewership for kickoff weekend was down 13% from last year, and viewership in the 18-49 demo down 14%.

Fox’s 1 p.m. ET regional action averaged a 6.6 household rating and 11.3 million total viewers, each down 28% from the same week last year. The 4 p.m. game, which in most markets featured the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers, drew a 12.7, down 18%, and 22.8 million viewers, down 17%. CBS’ regional game drew a 7.6, down 18%, and 13.4 million viewers, down 17%.

From 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. ET Sunday, as those games were airing, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the Weather Channel — all of which were dominated by Irma coverage — together averaged an 8.1 household rating, up 344% from the same Sunday last year. From 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., during NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” the four channels averaged a 7.1 rating, up 173% from last year.

Boasting a matchup of two major-market teams with national followings, “Sunday Night Football” weathered the storm. The New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys drew a 13.4 rating, up 2% from last year, and 24.4 million viewers, up 6%. NBC’s season-opening game last Thursday featuring the Kansas City Chiefs and the New England Patriots fared less well, down 14% with 12.6 and 13% with 21.8 million viewers.

ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” double-header also took a hit, with only 48 of 56 Nielsen metered markets reporting ratings due to damage from Irma. The early game featuring the New Orleans Saints and the Minnesota Vikings drew a 6.8 and 11.4 million viewers, each down 12%. The later matchup between the Los Angeles Chargers and the Denver Broncos drew a 6.0, down 3%, and 9.9 million viewers, down 4%.

After several seasons of steadily increasing viewership, the NFL and its broadcast partners experienced an 8% decline in Nielsen-measured total viewers in 2016 from the previous year. Week 1 had been anticipated as an indicator of whether the 2017 season would see ratings tick back up, as league and television executives blamed much of last year’s decline on the drama surrounding the presidential election and its pull of viewers to cable news. But with Irma making an apples-to-apples comparison difficult, week 2 will be a better indicator as to whether the TV audience’s appetite for football has fully returned.

Guggenheim analyst Michael Morris observed in a note Thursday that Nielsen markets affected by the storm accounted for roughly 8% of all U.S. television households — and also attributed some linear viewership drop-off to increases in digital viewing. But Morris went on to write, “Continued declines in NFL ratings again this season will likely place further downward pressure on media stocks … as investors face further uncertainty in ratings since the NFL is an indicator of overall primetime programming ratings performance.”

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