NBC's 44% Plunge Reveals: Football Has Become TV's Addiction

Pigskin Carried the Peacock in Fourth Quarter, Showing TV's Reliance on Sports

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NBC was the only broadcast network to score a ratings touchdown in the fourth quarter, thanks to "Sunday Night Football." Early in 2013, however, the Peacock is getting tackled.

A drama, "Do No Harm," was canceled within weeks of its debut. The lead actress of sitcom "Up All Night" is leaving the series in the wake of an NBC decision to rework its premise. The second season of much-ballyhooed "Smash" crashed in the ratings. And Friday nights have been filled entirely with news programs, including the ailing "Rock Center."

It all points to continued struggles for the once-great NBC and an over-reliance on football that may have implications for the broader TV market.

Regular airings of "Sunday Night Football" (and the popular competition series "The Voice") helped the network increase its 18-to-49 audience year-over-year by 16.2% for the season as of December 30, 2012, according to research from Barclays, while 18-to-49 viewership fell at CBS, Fox and ABC.

But without "SNF" and with the next cycle of "The Voice" not starting until March 25, NBC's 18-to-49 ratings thus far in 2013 are off 44.2% year-over-year as of Feb. 3, Barclays reported. Meanwhile, CBS is up, Fox's decline has narrowed and ABC's viewership is nearly flat.

"I can sum up NBC's performance in the first part of 2013 in one word: dismal," said Billie Gold, VP-director of buying/programming research at Carat. "NBC is going to have to really put some time into development next season."

A spokesman for NBC Entertainment, the NBC Universal unit that programs the broadcast network's prime-time schedule, declined to make executives available for comment. Ad buyers are anticipating the return of sci-fi drama "Revolution," the only breakout freshman hit among broadcast networks in the first half of the TV season.

But for the Peacock and its broadcast-TV brethren, football is becoming a ratings addiction. The average audience for 101 NFL games televised in 2012 was about 16.6 million viewers, according to data from ad-buying firm Horizon -- more than the average viewership for nearly all prime-time entertainment programs.

As costly as the rights are for broadcasting games, CBS, Fox and NBC all benefit from football's ability to secure massive numbers of viewers who watch the telecasts live and are thus more desirable for many advertisers. And because ESPN carries "Monday Night Football" while the NFL's own cable network runs Thursday-night games -- the draw of live football also tamps down some desire to chuck traditional TV delivery altogether in favor of over-the-top options.

Despite the disastrous prime-time schedule, NBC's economics have been improving, with revenue up 27.4% in 2012, according to a fourth-quarter earnings report released last week from parent Comcast. A good portion of that, however, came from NBC's telecasts of Super Bowl XLVI and the Summer Olympics, and may be hard to match in 2013. Comcast's recent decision to buy up the portion of NBC Universal it doesn't own from General Electric ahead of schedule was made partly on the thesis that the conglomerate's value will increase in the years ahead.

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