NFL Ratings Remain Strong Despite Overall Decline in TV Viewership

When discussing the outsized influence the NFL has over the mediascape, it is perhaps best to reel in at least some of the attendant hyperbole surrounding the league and its stranglehold on American culture. To avoid grubby-ing up phrases like “unbridled hegemony” and “spooky omnipotence” with overuse, they should be stored safely away in a locked safe, behind a scrim of Mission Impossible-grade tripwire lasers.

Easier said than done. A string of blowouts led to ratings declines in four of Sunday’s five broadcast windows, yet deliveries for Week 1 of the 2023 NFL season managed to outshine the massive turnout for the year-ago slate. Per Nielsen, the first batch of games averaged 18.94 million TV and streaming viewers, good for a 1% lift versus last season’s Week 1 average (18.76 million). The increase, however slight, was registered even though TV usage during that five-day period was down 9% compared to the analogous period in 2022.

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Once again, TV did all the heavy lifting. Strip out the ancillary streaming numbers, and the NFL’s media partners last week averaged 18.31 million viewers per window, giving them a slight edge over last year’s 18.25 million. Perhaps more to the point, the opening week generated a bundle of ad dough for the networks. According to estimates, the broadcast partners raked in $387.9 million in NFL sales during that first week of action.

The NFL’s reliance on TV as its primary delivery system is even more nakedly apparent when all the eyeballs are lumped together into one big pile of optical caviar. From NBC’s Thursday night Lions-Chiefs opener through Aaron Rodgers’ star-crossed Monday Night Football cameo, NFL games generated 128.18 million linear-TV impressions—the league’s strongest showing since 2016. By way of comparison, the aggregate impressions for all 131 national Major League Baseball windows thus far in 2023 add up to 102.71 million. In just five days, the NFL has managed to scare up 25.47 million more viewers than baseball has over the course of its entire season. If baseball is the national pastime, it’s safe to classify the NFL as a national obsession.

And while Sunday afternoon was a bit of a letdown, with overall deliveries falling 22% in the 1 p.m. ET regional windows before rallying with a 7% bounce in the 4:25 p.m. slots, primetime put up record numbers. NBC got things started with a Thursday night Lions-Chiefs place-setter that averaged 27.54 million viewers, marking an eight-year high for the NFL Kickoff window, while Rodgers’ long-awaited (and short-lived) Jets debut gave Monday Night Football its highest deliveries since ESPN assumed control of the package back in 2006.

Unless you’ve been on a Darkness Retreat, you’re probably aware that things did not exactly go as Rodgers and the Gang Green faithful had envisioned. As much as Rodgers’ season-ending injury effectively neutralized the mania that’s surrounded the Jets since the team traded for him back in April, the vast majority of fans who’d tuned in for the ABC/ESPN presentation did not search elsewhere for alternative entertainment options when Zach Wilson trotted in to relieve the four-time MVP. According to Nielsen, some 22.64 million viewers remained locked into the game, down just 2.56 million from the game’s first-quarter peak and good for a 14% improvement over last year’s MNF opener.

If Disney was able to spin pain into gold, NBC’s deliveries from the night before demonstrated the Dallas Cowboys’ uncanny ability to squeeze diamonds out of doggy dirt. Despite handing the Giants the most one-sided blowout in the history of the Sunday Night Football package—with the visitors up 26-0 at the half, even the most die-hard fans and degenerate gamblers had little cause to linger for the duration—Dallas still managed to put on a show, as NBC averaged 21.8 million viewers.

For the sake of contrast, the San Diego State-UConn men’s hoops NCAA title game currently stands as the most-watched non-football sportscast of 2023, averaging 14.69 million viewers on CBS. If Dallas can draw nearly 22 million viewers in an all-but-unwatchable 40-0 wipeout, the NFL won’t be losing any sleep over the death of the Jets’ pipe dream. (The Cowboys are scheduled to appear in at least 11 additional national windows between now and Dec. 30.)

Speaking of the Jets, who are set to make seven national appearances in the next 11 weeks, the NFL isn’t in any rush to shove Robert Saleh’s squad out of the spotlight. (Under the terms of the league’s flexible scheduling protocol, the TV slate is locked in until Week 5.) “We’re going to always monitor who is playing their way on, and what stories are emerging,” said Hans Schroeder, NFL executive VP of media distribution, earlier this week. “The Jets are 1-0 right now, there is a lot of football left across the entire league, and we’re going to do what we always do—which is to focus on getting the best games in each of our windows as we move through the season.”

As it happens, the Jets’ next coast-to-coast showcase lifts off Sunday in CBS’ late-afternoon window, as New York heads to JerryWorld to take on the Cowboys. Last season, Dallas averaged a league-high 27.24 million viewers over its five appearances in the national 4:25 p.m. slot, a run that includes its 40-3 shellacking of the Vikings on Nov. 20. Cowboys fans apparently are big on staying around for the end credits, even when the movie stinks. CBS’ broadcast of the beatdown averaged 27.55 million viewers, making it the fifth most-watched NFL game of the regular season.

As Schroeder said, there’s no telling how things will shake out across the league in the weeks to come. For now, however, the first batch of audience metrics tells a story that needn’t be embellished by hype or hoopla. TV’s biggest show is back, and it managed to serve up higher ratings than it did a year ago, even though one-tenth of the medium’s user base has moved on to other things.

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