NFL Sunday Night ratings down 15%, anthem protest theory picks up credibility

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A defensive struggle between two NFC West playoff teams that went to overtime and ended with a rare tie produced an 11.6 overnight rating for NBC. 

For league officials, broadcast and cable networks, pay-TV operators and advertisers – not to mention pretty much everyone else concerned about why NFL viewership has been down 15 percent or more for virtually every prime-time game telecast since the season started in mid-September – the ratings result probably generated the same level of consternation that Sunday’s 6-6 tie did for the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals.

Sure, the overnight number was a marked uptick over the record-low 9.0 overnight wrought by last week’s Sunday Night game between the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans.

RELATED: NFL Commissioner Goodell: ‘We don’t think we’ve lost viewers’

But it was notably 15 percent lower than the comparable week seven Sunday Night matchup in 2015 featuring the eventual Super Bowl runner-up Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles. 

CBS kicked off week seven of NFL coverage with a 39 percent year-over-year prime-time ratings drop for a Thursday-night game between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears. We’re still waiting to get overnights for Monday night’s game between the Denver Broncos and Houston Texans on ESPN.

Speculation about the sudden viewership drop has centered around election-year coverage, with cable news networks experiencing a corresponding uptick in their ratings. The matchups featuring a lot of moribund mid-market teams have been cited. Saturation of NFL programming has also been mentioned by pundits a possible cause.

One fringe theory that has picked up steam: Viewers have been turned off by the National Anthem protest kicked off by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick during the preseason. According to a recent Yahoo-backed survey of 1,136 self-identified NFL fans, 29 percent said they were watching fewer games last year and the anthem protest came up as the most frequently cited reason. 

The concern, of course, is that TV’s last consistently powerful live programming source is now succumbing to the same erosion that every other type of show on linear television has endured.