NFL playoffs ratings surge supports oversaturation theory for regular season viewership plunge

The NFL's ratings came back in a massive way in the fourth quarter of 2016, and they couldn't come soon enough for the league. Earlier in the year, the NFL's saw viewership declines of around 20% of its primetime telecasts on CBS, NBC and ESPN.

Forget all the goofball theories about NFL TV ratings declines, like Colin Kapernick’s National Anthem protest. When a pro football game exists in isolation and features two very interesting teams, viewership still goes through the stadium roof.

Fox’s Sunday broadcast of the NFC division semifinal matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers averaged a whopping 48.5 million viewers, making it the most-watched divisional-round game in history. 

On Sunday night, NBC’s primetime telecast of the AFC divisional matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs averaged 37.1 million viewers. The game’s 21.9 Nielsen overnight household rating was a record for a primetime playoff game. 

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These numbers represent a massive fourth-quarter TV ratings comeback for the National Football League, which at midseason was devastated by viewership declines of around 20% for its primetime telecasts on CBS, NBC and ESPN.

As the league, its TV and advertising partners, and pundits everywhere pondered the sudden, steep viewership declines to what had been TV’s most resilient linear model, a bunch of theories emerged.

A popular one as that coverage of the presidential election siphoned off viewers to cable news networks, which saw commensurate ratings gains over the fall. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell liked that one.

A less thought out, racially charged theory pushed forward by some conservatives was that viewers were put off en masse by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kapernick’s decision to protest the myriad questionable police shootings of African-Americans by taking a knee during the National Anthem. 

The theory that probably blocks and tackles best was one suggesting that the league had finally oversaturated itself with too many viewing options. With primetime games proliferating on three nights (Sunday, Monday and Thursday), and these games often featuring crummy matchups, NFL watching had become a little bit less of a special engagement for the average viewer. 

Of course, it’s impossible to conclusively prove any of these theories. But the fact that having two good teams play a meaningful game can still draw an audience says something about the latter hypothesis.