Before the season began, the Dec. 10 grudge match between bitter NFC East rivals the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants was expected to be one of the year's biggest draws, but a string of injuries and a run of historically lousy play has now sidelined Fox's national broadcast of the game.
The NFL this week flexed out the showdown between its top-rated franchise and the team that represents the NFC in the country's largest media market, shifting it from Sunday's late national window to the 1 p.m. ET slot. And while this is a somewhat jarring development -- the last time these teams squared off in the early Sunday slot was back in December 2005 -- even the most cursory glance at the standings goes a long way toward justifying the league's decision.
With a current record of 5-6, the Cowboys may still sneak into the playoffs; meanwhile, the 2-9 Giants have all but thrown in the towel on the 2017 campaign. Rather than showcase this skirmish between mediocrity and rank futility, Fox is sliding the 10-1 Philadelphia Eagles and the 8-3 Los Angeles Rams into the 4:25 p.m. glamour slot.
The late national window, which alternates from week to week between Fox and CBS, is the most-watched and highest-rated NFL block. The overwhelming popularity of the 4:25 p.m. games can be chalked up to a combination of stronger matchups and less competition. Unlike the 1 p.m. window, which can feature up to 10 regional games, the 4:25 national broadcast generally has to contend with just two simultaneous local telecasts. The slot also casts a wide net, with the late-afternoon broadcasts reaching anywhere between 80 percent to 98 percent of all U.S. TV markets.
Remanding the Cowboys to the 1 p.m. window reduces the team's national TV slate to 12 games and effectively closes the books on the Giants's final shot at reaching a mass audience this season. Through Week 12, Dallas remains the NFL's star attraction, averaging 22.3 million viewers and a 12.3 household rating in its nine national TV windows. The Giants are the league's sixth-biggest draw, averaging 17.5 million viewers and a 9.6 household rating over the course of four national broadcasts.
The Giants and Cowboys first squared off on NBC's "Sunday Night Football" back on Sept. 10, drawing 24.4 million viewers and a 13.4 household rating. Dallas's 19-3 victory now stands as the season's highest-rated prime time NFL broadcast and the fourth highest-rated game overall. On Sept. 11, 2016, the teams delivered 27.5 million viewers and a 15.5 household rating in Fox's first national window before drawing 26.5 million viewers and a 14.9 rating in their Dec. 11 "Sunday Night Football" rematch.
|2017 STD||2016 STD|
|total viewers/HH rating||total viewers/HH rating||% change|
|FOX LATE*||23.6M/12.9 HH||27.5M/14.7 HH||-14%/-12%|
|CBS LATE*||20.5M/11.3 HH||22.8M/12.6 HH||-10%/-10%|
|ALL LATE||21.8M/12.0 HH||24.8M/13.5 HH||-12%/-11%|
|SNF*||18.2M/10.4 HH||19.6M/11.1 HH||-7%/-6%|
|TNF (CBS)||14.1M/8.6 HH||14.7M/9.0 HH||-4%/-4%|
|TNF (NBC)||13.3M/8.1 HH||13.3M/8.1 HH||-|
|MNF||10.7M/6.5 HH||11.0M/6.6 HH||-3%/-2%|
|TNF (NFLN)||6.33M/3.8 HH||5.56M/3.5 HH||+14%/+9%|
Source: Nielsen live-plus-same-day ratings data, Sept. 7-Nov. 27, 2017 / Sept. 8-Nov. 28, 2016
While Dallas and New York have lost their chance to bask in the national limelight, that's not to say that the game won't draw a crowd in its new time slot. Despite airing in just 32 percent of the country, Fox's coverage of the Oct. 1 Rams-Cowboys game was the biggest NFL broadcast of Week 4, drawing 20.1 million viewers and an 11.5 household rating.
A 7/2 favorite to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LII, Philadelphia is the NFL's 13th highest-rated squad. In their three national appearances to date, the Eagles are averaging 15.7 million viewers and a 9.2 rating. The Rams rank 18th with an average delivery of 13.7 million viewers and an 8.0 rating.
Season-to-date, all NFL regional and national windows are averaging 15 million viewers, down 8 percent compared to the year-ago 16.3 million. Household ratings are down 6 percent to an 8.7.
With three-quarters of the season wrapped up, the prime-time windows are enjoying a greater measure of stability than the Sunday afternoon broadcasts. "Sunday Night Football" ratings are down 6 percent year-over-year, CBS's "Thursday Night Football" package slipped 4 percent and ESPN's "Monday Night Football" is off 2 percent. Ratings for all Sunday afternoon windows, including the early single-headers and the late national broadcasts, are down 11 percent.
Ads hold up
The ratings slide hasn't had an outside impact on the NFL ad sales business. According to Standard Media Index estimates, in-game ad dollars were up 2 percent in September and inched up 3 percent in October. Through the first eight weeks of the season, the NFL's TV partners booked some $1.27 billion in ad sales, per SMI.
Of the remaining national broadcasts on the schedule, those that would appear to have the best shot at delivering an overstuffed audience include the Sunday night avian battle featuring the Eagles and Seahawks (Dec. 3), CBS's coverage of the AFC's most viable franchises (Patriots-Steelers, Dec. 17) and Fox's Christmas Eve presentation of the Seahawks-Cowboys game.