NFL Ratings Roll On Despite Blowouts, PR Problems

Late Afternoon Games on Fox Continue to Be Biggest Draw

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In a season blighted by blowouts and extramural ugliness, the National Football League didn't miss a stitch. Seemingly impervious to bad PR and the fragmentation that has hamstrung most of TV's scripted offerings, the NFL in 2014 sewed up its usual string of gaudy ratings stats.

Credit: Sean Ryan/NFL

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the NFL prime-time and late national game packages effectively matched last season's deliveries. NBC's "Sunday Night Football" slipped a fraction of a percent, averaging 21.3 million viewers and a 12.5 household rating, down from 21.4 million viewers and a 12.6 household rating over the course of the year-ago campaign. NBC's consistency was particularly noteworthy, given the lopsidedness of the games it broadcast—the average margin of victory in this season's "SNF" showcase was 18.3 points per game.

NBC's regular season results were echoed across the dial. While the "Monday Night Football" point spread was up in the double digits (10.5 per game, on average), ESPN dipped just 3% to 13.3 million viewers and an 8.3 household rating.

CBS's inaugural "Thursday Night Football" broadcast was a study in extremes. The first four games were decided by a margin of 31.3 points, but things settled down to a spread of 6 points in the latter half. Simulcast on NFL Network, the eight CBS games averaged 16.8 million viewers and a 10.4 household rating. When the standalone NFLN telecasts are factored in, the 2014 "TNF" package soared 52% to 12.3 million viewers and a 7.6 household rating. Look for CBS to secure the rights to a second season before the league throws the new bundle into play for a long-term pickup.

While overlooked in the annual year-end tallies, TV's most potent weapon is actually outside of prime time. Fox's late (4:25 p.m.) national game was once again the biggest draw, averaging 26.6 million viewers and a 15.5 household rating, down a half-point versus its year-ago average.

The Fox late national game is also the priciest advertising environment. According to media buyers with skin in the game, each 30-second ad unit in Fox's eight-game afternoon showcase commands north of $600,000.

Lastly, through eight 4:25 p.m. games and its Thanksgiving Day broadcast, CBS averaged 25.9 million viewers and a 14.7 household rating, making it the second highest-rated and most-watched program across TV.

The always polarizing Dallas Cowboys remain the NFL's most-watched franchise. However, in terms of marketable ratings points, the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks proved to be the more desirable squad, appearing in five of the year's top 10 highest-rated broadcasts. Dallas notched four top-10 appearances, edging the Green Bay Packers (three), while the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers all popped up in two games that pulled a 15.0 rating or better.

The highest-rated single game of the regular season was CBS's Nov. 30 broadcast of the Pats-Packers meeting in Lambeau Field. Billed as a preview of Super Bowl XLIX, the showdown between two of the NFL's marquee properties averaged a staggering 17.6 HH rating. On the other end of the spectrum, the Dec. 18 NFLN telecast of the match between the basement-dwelling Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars eked out a meager 3.4 rating.