NFL ratings shortfalls have networks scrambling for make-goods, advertisers ‘scratching their heads’

Image: Josh Hallett/Flickr

Broadcast and cable networks, and their advertising clients continue to grapple with the causes and effects of a double-digit decline in television viewership for the first month of NFL games. 

“We’re scratching our heads,” said Andy Donchin, a media buyer at Amplifi US, whose clients include General Motors Co., to the Wall Street Journal “We cannot pinpoint any specific reason why the numbers are down. It is probably being caused by a confluence of events.”

On Monday, SportsBusiness Daily published Nielsen data showing that NFL games in prime time had experienced double-digit year-over-year declines across networks in September, the first month of the season. 

Factoring in the fourth week of games, the Wall Street Journal today revealed only minor improvement to the overall ratings averages. ESPN’s Monday Night Football, for example, is still down 17 percent (it was down 19 percent through the first three games). 

NBC Sunday Night Football is down 13 percent, while CBS Thursday night game is down 15 percent. Notably, daytime coverage on both CBS and Fox are down only 3 percent. 

Meanwhile, broadcast and cable TV networks — who have paid ever-increasing license fees and endured ever-declining terms to license NFL programming — have stayed mum on the subject. According to Bloomberg, however, the networks are scrambling to deliver “make-goods” — that is, free advertising time in other parts of their schedules — to compensate for the under-delivery of NFL audience to advertisers. 

Live NFL programming has emerged as the most coveted asset in the TV business, continuing to grow as prime-time comedies, dramas — and pretty much every other kind of TV show — has plummeted in linear ratings. 

So even though the NFL regular season is only quarter done, a double-digit across-the-board prime-time ratings drop represents a real crisis in the TV business. 

Most pundits are still tying it to the presidential election cycle. 

“The election is probably the biggest factor that you could point to,” Fox Sports President Eric Shanks told WSJ.

CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves also cited the presidential election to WSJ, but added, “I don’t think the sky is falling at all.”

For more:
- read this Bloomberg story
- read this Wall Street Journal story

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