Don't Call It a Comeback: NFL Sees Post-Election Ratings Spike

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Dez Bryant of the Dallas Cowboys stiff-arms Artie Burns of the Pittsburgh Steelers after a reception in the first quarter during their game on Sunday.
Dez Bryant of the Dallas Cowboys stiff-arms Artie Burns of the Pittsburgh Steelers after a reception in the first quarter during their game on Sunday. Credit: Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The first set of NFL games to be televised after election day suggested a Hardingesque return to normalcy for the league and its TV partners, as the ratings for Sunday's two national windows were unimpeachably strong.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the NFL enjoyed a blockbuster Sunday, as the Fox late national window pitting the Cowboys against the Steelers notched a season-high 28.9 million viewers and a 16.4 household rating. That makes it the most-watched, highest-rated regular season game since Dec. 13, 2015, when Fox's coverage of a Cowboys-Packers grudge match drew 28.9 million viewers and a 16.5 household rating.

With the final numbers from the Cowboys-Steelers broadcast on the books, Fox's 4:20 p.m. window, which it brands as "America's Game of the Week," is now averaging 26 million viewers and a 14.8 household rating. Those numbers represent the highest scores for any of the national NFL windows, with CBS's suite of late Sunday games TV's second-biggest draw, averaging 21.3 million viewers and a 12.3 rating. They also reinforce the notion that Fox has maintained the most stable football package. In a year in which primetime ratings are down as much as 20%, ratings for Fox's late games have slipped just 5%.

Maybe it's the games
A number of factors work in Fox's favor, not least of which is an NFC-rich slate that regularly features two of the league's top TV attractions in Dallas and Green Bay. Sunday's game, which Fox took great pains to reserve last summer when the NFL was divvying up the TV allocations, marked the first meeting between the Cowboys and Steelers in four years. The two rivals may not play each other all that often, but their Super Bowl clashes in the 1970s and longstanding mutual animosity are the stuff of legend, so when their paths do cross, fans tend to sit up and take notice.

And boy, did Dallas and Pittsburgh deliver. In what was almost certainly the most thrilling game of a season all but blighted by blowouts and mismatches, the teams traded leads seven times, a back-and-forth that included three touchdowns within the final two minutes of the fourth quarter. With 42 ticks left on the clock, the Steelers racked up what should have been the winning touchdown after Ben Rothlisberger caught the Cowboys napping by faking a spike at the line of scrimmage and then threading the needle to wideout Antonio Brown. Unfortunately for the home crowd, Pittsburgh couldn't contain Dallas rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, the latter of whom secured a stunning come-from-behind win with a 32-yard TD run in the game's waning seconds.

"We are quite terrible," Steelers linebacker James Harrison growled after the game, and while his assessment of Pittsburgh's defense is hard to discredit, the battle between the NFL's No. 1 and No. 4 TV draws was anything but. And while many armchair quarterbacks will say that the end of the election cycle and its attendant distractions may have accounted for some of the ratings spike, that two of the league's most popular teams revitalized a decades-old rivalry in breathtaking fashion is hard to discount.

However the final verdict on causality shakes out (and seemingly everyone has an opinion on the matter, as the comments on this report show) Fox should continue to sidestep the worst of the season-long ratings crunch. Its upcoming national windows include a Washington-Dallas Thankgsiving skirmish as well as a Giants-Steelers match-up on Dec. 4 and a Seahawks-Packers tussle the following Sunday.

Also putting up big numbers was NBC's "Sunday Night Football" broadcast, a rematch of Super Bowl XLIX that delivered 22.5 million viewers and a 12.7 household rating. A nail-biter in its own right, the Seahawks-Pats game was decided with just 14 seconds on the clock, when Tom Brady's pass to Rob Gronkowski on fourth-and-goal fell incomplete in the corner of the end zone. (Gillette Stadium partisans bellowed for a defensive pass interference call on Seattle's Kam Chancellor, but the refs' flags remained holstered. Final score: Seahawks 31, Pats 24.)

Long yardage
NBC's Sunday night ratings were its highest since Week 2, when the Packers and Vikings scared up 22.8 million viewers and a 12.7 household rating. While the deliveries for the Seattle-New England battle were a shot in the arm for the Peacock, however, it's worth noting that the game only would rank as the twelfth highest-rated "Sunday Night Football" broadcast of 2015.

Season-to-date, "Sunday Night Football" is averaging 19.7 million viewers and an 11.2 household rating, down 15% and 17%, respectively, compared to its year-ago 23.2 million viewers and 13.5 rating. NBC can't expect to make up the difference over the course of the next seven weeks.

But its upcoming slate does include intriguing match-ups such as Green Bay-Washington, a Thanksgiving Night Steelers-Colts game that will put up big numbers by default (if nothing else, tryptophan is a profound anti-motivational tool), and a Cowboys-Giants shootout scheduled for Dec. 11. Meanwhile, the NFL has done NBC a solid in swapping out a decidedly dire-looking Pats-Jets ordeal on Nov. 27 in favor of airing a crucial AFC West game featuring Kansas City and Denver.

Of course, with five "Thursday Night Football" games in the wings, NBC has an opportunity to add a whole lot of bonus GRPs to its NFL totals. The additional inventory also gives NBC a good deal more flexibility in how it allocates make-goods to its advertisers. (Media buyers say they're satisfied with how the networks have managed their respective under-deliveries, and expect to see a continuation of Sunday's ratings rally as the back half of the season progresses.)

If Sunday's two national windows demonstrated that the NFL may be rebounding from its season-long ratings struggle, results were less encouraging on Monday night. ESPN's presentation of the Giants' 21-20 victory over the visiting Bengals averaged 10.7 million viewers, down from the previous week's 11.2 million.

Season-to-date, "Monday Night Football" is averaging 10.7 million viewers and a 6.5 household rating, down 18% and 20%, respectively, compared to its year-ago 13 million viewers and an 8.1 rating. To put those deliveries into context, consider this. Over the course of the first 10 weeks of the 2015 campaign, ESPN's prime-time NFL package cracked an 8.0 household rating no fewer than six times. This time out, only one Monday night broadcast has rung up an ocho, and if it had aired last season, that Oct. 3 Giants-Vikings game would stand as ESPN's 10th highest-rated game.

More than any other NFL broadcast outlet, ESPN this season has been the victim of a string of lousy luck. Eight of the network's 11 "Monday Night Football" games have been decided by a margin of two touchdowns or more, and three were blowouts of 22, 28 and 25 points. To date, the average margin of victory in the Monday night window is 14.8 points, up 87% compared to the year-ago 7.9-point spread.

Fortunately for ESPN, a few gems remain to be played, including a Nov. 28 Packers-Eagles shootout, a Dec. 12 Ravens-Patriots bruiser and, in the final Monday night game of the season, a curtain-closer between the surprising Lions and the ascendant Cowboys that promises to have some sway over the NFC playoff picture.

Trump effect
The election may be over, but the impact that national politics is having on overall TV share hasn't altogether abated. Despite overlapping the final quarter of the Cowboys-Steelers game, the president-elect's interview on "60 Minutes" scared up a staggering 20 million viewers, of which some 5.53 million were members of CBS's core adults 25-to-54 demo. Meanwhile, cable news ratings were up 31% in primetime compared to the equivalent Sunday a year ago, which was largely devoted to coverage of the Paris terrorist attacks. If any news network siphoned off would-be NFL viewers from NBC it was Fox News Channel, which saw its overall deliveries jump 64% in Sunday prime versus its average on Nov. 15, 2015. CNN on Sunday night was down 28%.

One constant Sunday night threat that has lost a little bite is AMC's "The Walking Dead." While still TV's top-rated scripted show by an overwhelming margin, the zombie apocalypse drama has begun shedding live viewers of late, drawing 11.4 million viewers and a 5.4 rating in the adults 18-to-49 demo against the Seahawks-Pats game. That marked a 17% drop versus the year-ago 6.5 demo and now stands as the show's lowest-rated episode since November 2012.

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