As the NFL’s TV ratings crisis entered its sixth Thursday last week, the league and its linear TV partners received some heartening news — Thursday Night Football ratings were down only 5 percent from a year ago, better than the double-digit drops that prime-time NFL games have been experiencing all fall.
Despite the subtle improvement, some pretty high-level industry watchers are reading quite a bit into a football season in which virtually every prime-time telecast has seen major ratings drops.
Football’s traditional TV audience “is never going to be what it was again,” said Brian Hughes, a senior VP at Magna Global, to The Washington Post.
Meanwhile, the Post also obtained a memo sent out last week from NFL executives Brian Rolapp and Howard Katz, acknowledging that “all networks airing NFL games are down,” particularly in prime-time.
The execs attributed the shortfall to what they called a “confluence of events,” which includes the ongoing election season. Key stars like Marshawn Lynch and Tom Brady, meanwhile, have either retired or been on suspension.
Match-ups haven’t always been compelling, either. Last Monday’s 24 percent ratings drop for Monday Night Football was based on a matchup featuring the entirely disappointing Carolina Panthers — a Super Bowl contender last year that has won only one game so far this season — and the moribund Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“While our partners, like us, would have liked to see higher ratings,” they added, “they remain confident in the NFL and unconcerned about a long-term issue.”
Some analysts, meanwhile, have said it’s too early to panic. MoffettNathanson analyst Michael Nathanson, for example, cited figures last week, nothing that the league’s ratings were also down in 2012-13 and 2014-15, and that league audience growth has been relatively flat over the last five years.
However, with NBCUniversal’s blanket coverage of the Rio Olympic Games also way down, as well, a number of other pundits are calling pro football’s collapse an important harbinger for the future of live linear TV.
Of course, the NFL hasn’t entirely lost its clout, either.
“In a sea of very low-rated programs, to have the NFL be so dominant even with these depressed ratings, its still something we value,” said Andy Donchin, the chief investment officer for Amplifi US, a division of the ad-buying giant Dentsu Aegis Network, to the Post.