With TV viewership of the NFL down 7% over the last two seasons, CBS chief executive Les Moonves told investors that he recently met with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to discuss possible fixes.
“We've met with Roger, and we've met with the NFL a number of times,” Moonves told investors during Wednesday CBS Corp. fourth-quarter earnings call. “We’re all looking at how the product can be more efficient, possibly speeding up the games, possibly things in terms of pods, possibly things in terms of the referees looking at the replays. So we're looking at some reformat ideas.”
The average NFL game expanded to an average time of over three hours, 12 minutes in 2015, with actual time the ball is in play extending for only 11 minutes. However, Moonves and Goodell’s brainstorming on how to reduce this bloat should not be confused with reducing the amount of advertising in games, he said.
“Obviously, we're not planning on cutting advertising,” Moonves added. “If there are ways of doing advertising in different ways that are equally beneficial, we're looking at that, and we're trying to make the game as good an experience as we could make it."
CBS said its advertising sales slipped 3% in the fourth quarter, a decline tied most closely to falling ratings for NFL games. CBS is spending nearly $1 billion a season to license pro-football games on Sunday afternoon, as well as during Thursday-night prime-time.
According to investment research company MoffettNathanson, the NFL’s TV numbers were down 9% in the regular season and 6% over three weeks of playoffs. This month’s Super Bowl attracted 111.9 million viewers, off slightly from the 114.5 million who turned in two years ago for New England’s last Super Bowl appearance.
Ratings for prime-time games were off as much as 20% in the early part of this past season.
“In fact, the NFL’s ratings definitely improved materially post-election as the average declines improved from -12% to -5%. So, in this light, the NFL can claim relative victory,” analyst Michael Nathanson said. “However, our review of the data suggests that there are some deeper troubling trends to consider.”
Moonves added, “I'm pleased to say that we saw ratings improvement towards the end of the season. Clearly, this has been a hot-button issue across the industry. It does bear repeating that the NFL is the premier property in all of media, and we feel very good about our long-term partnership. It's also fair to say that this season's decline, as well as having three fewer Thursday Night Football games affected our advertising revenue. The good news is with that behind us, overall underlying network advertising is now accelerating here in the first quarter.”