Last spring, during a barnstorming tour of New York's top media agencies, Eric Shanks told TV buyers that Fox Sports would "own the fall," a guarantee that would prove to be the mantra for the whole broadcast network's May upfront presentation. Buyers now say that Fox delivered on its promises.
Back in April, Shanks, who serves as President, chief operating officer and executive producer of Fox Sports, said that American consumers spend $300 million more during the 20 weeks of football season than they do throughout the entire rest of the year. "When America is out there spending the most, Fox Sports is at its best," he said, arguing that Fox's roster of NFL, college football and postseason baseball made it the smartest investment for marketers.
A highlight reel of Fox's fall would include the 23.2 million viewers who tuned in for its "America's Game of the Week" NFL showcase, which secured its ninth consecutive season as TV's highest-rated program; a seven-game Astros-Dodgers battle that was the third most-watched World Series in the last 10 years; and a 23 percent spike in the ratings for its Big Ten-enhanced college football lineup.
"The numbers are real," said Tom McGovern, president of Optimum Sports. "The demise of commercial ratings impressions in general entertainment programming has elevated the role of live sports." McGovern went on to praise Fox's ad sales team for its out-of-the-box approach to reducing clutter while elevating the viewer experience. "They've been at the forefront of ad innovation, he said. "They're good creative partners to work with."
Little wonder that Fox has put sports at the center of its sales pitch. Season-to-date, its scripted shows are averaging a 1.1 live-same-day rating, which works out to 1.4 million adults 18 to 49. By comparison, its national NFL window averaged a 6.8 rating, or 8.8 million targeted viewers, while the World Series delivered a 5.0, good for 6.5 million members of the demo.
Fox certainly is not alone in its struggle to deliver big entertainment numbers in the target demo; NBC, which boasts broadcast's highest-rated drama in "This Is Us," is currently averaging a 1.2 with its scripted fare, while CBS, the most-watched network, and last-place ABC are matching Fox's 1.1 in the 18 to 49 demo.
While Fox's NFL deliveries were impacted by the league's overall 9 percent year-over-year ratings decline, per standard operating procedure, it and the other major rights holders (CBS, NBC, ESPN) were able to make their advertisers whole by way of salted-away audience deficiency units.
According to one national TV buyer who steers a good deal of business toward Fox's NFC package, while the ADU tradeoffs ate into the NFL partners' seasonal sales haul, the amount of inventory given back wasn't materially greater than the volume of makegoods booked in 2016. "Everybody probably took in less money than they had anticipated before the season began, but it's not like the shortfall wiped them all out," the buyer said. "It's not an ideal situation, but it's also certainly not the bloodbath [NFL critics] made it out to be."
The buyer added that there was "zero chance" that increased unit costs and the relatively stable makegoods situation added up to even a small bump in total NFL ad sales revenue. (Per Standard Media Index estimates, the networks at season's end were on track to eke out 2 percent more ad dollars with their combined football packages than they did a year ago, when they raked in $3.5 billion.) "I don't think you can make the math work, not even if you add digital and streaming or what have you," the buyer said. "You can torture the numbers all you want, but there's no way they're up. Again, it's not a total disaster, but they're not up, either, at least as far as I can tell."
Seven of the top 10 most-watched regular-season NFL games aired on Fox, which also has bragging rights to broadcasting the season's highest-rated playoff game.
If you buy into the narrative that human attention is the most valuable commodity by virtue of its scarcity, then Fox Sports in the fall pretty clearly raked in more value than its rivals.
From Labor Day through Christmas, Fox clocked an industry-high 147.9 billion minutes of sports-event viewing, topping CBS (110.4 billion minutes), ESPN (99.2 billion) and NBC (95.2 billion). Naturally, the pendulum will swing NBC's way next month the Comcast-owned broadcaster hosts Super Bowl LII and the 2018 Winter Olympics, but Fox believes its aggregate reach alone backs up its avowal to "own the fall."
"We'll start to see the needle move again in the winter with Big Ten and Big East hoops," says Fox Networks Group Executive VP of Advertising Sales Bruce Lefkowitz. "And that'll lead us to the World Cup, and then before you know it, we're back to the fall."
McGovern believes Fox may be able to make further headway next fall, thanks to what he characterizes as a resurgence of interest in baseball. "Everything from the rise in participation at the Little League level to the big moves made by the major-market clubs suggests that baseball is back," he said. "The Yankees came within a game of the World Series, and they're a young team. The Yankees and Dodgers and Cubs look to be in the mix for a long time. That's good news for Fox."