NFL games account for nearly three-quarters of the year's top 100 broadcasts
If 2018 was the year the NFL stanched the bleeding caused by two straight seasons of ratings declines, 2019 marked the end of any further discussion about what professional football means to the livelihood of the broadcast TV networks. Having closed out the fall campaign with an average audience of 16.5 million viewers across its Sunday, Monday and Thursday TV windows, the NFL grew its year-over-year deliveries by 5 percent and improved upon its performance in 2018 by a solid 10 percent.
Given the ongoing contraction of TV ratings, any growth is noteworthy. As it happens, the NFL’s gains coincide with a 7 percent seasonal decline in the overall usage of TV and a 9 percent year-to-year drop in overall primetime deliveries.
The gulf between the reach of the NFL and even the most popular scripted series has grown only wider; while CBS’s “NCIS” remains the most-watched entertainment program with an average draw of 11.4 million live-same-day viewers—a figure that more than doubles the overall primetime average of 5.9 million viewers per night—that pales in comparison with the numbers football puts up each week. The league’s top TV property, the national Sunday afternoon window shared by Fox and CBS, averaged a staggering 24.3 million viewers in 2019, up 8 percent versus last season’s 22.6 million, while NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” grew 4 percent to just under 20 million viewers.
In a year marked by the end of two massive hits (CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory” and HBO’s “Game of Thrones”), the NFL absolutely dominated the tube, accounting for 41 of the top 50 most-watched broadcasts, and 73 of the top 100. Including the World Series, NBA Finals, college football bowl games, the NCAA Men’s Div. I Basketball Championship, the Kentucky Derby and the FIFA Women’s World Cup Final, sports laid claim to 88 of the most-watched programs of 2019.
While it perhaps goes without saying, the NFL’s broadcast partners all but owned this year’s ratings chart, as Fox, CBS, NBC and ESPN accounted for 47 of the top 50 broadcasts and 91 of the top 100. Fox, whose “America’s Game of the Week” notched its 10th consecutive season as TV’s top-rated broadcast package, had bragging rights to 34 of the year’s most-watched programs, topping CBS (27) and NBC (24). ABC, whose stewardship of big-ticket sports is limited to the NBA Finals and a single NFL Wild Card game, carried just four of the year’s top broadcasts, trailing its cable sibling ESPN by two events.
Among the NFL teams that appeared in the top 100 with the greatest frequency were the Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots, Los Angeles Rams, Chicago Bears, New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks. Of these, only the Packers, Chiefs and Seahawks remain active in the postseason.
The NFC continued to enjoy disproportionate representation on the ratings charts, as intra-conference games accounted for 28 of the year’s most-watched broadcasts, while all-AFC meetings claimed 15 slots. AFC vs NFC showcases filled 10 of the 100 top slots; naturally, the biggest draw among these was Super Bowl LIII.
Among the 73 NFL broadcasts that charted in 2018, 25 aired in prime time. The vast majority of these were “Sunday Night Football” games on NBC, although four of Fox’s “Thursday Night Football” broadcasts made the list and ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” took the No. 85 slot thanks to a Week 11 Seahawks-49ers nail-biter that was resolved in overtime.
Not with a bang but a whimper
The hegemonic might of live sports left very little room for any general-entertainment series to make their mark in 2019; indeed, once political news, award shows and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade had had their say, only three slots remained for pre-recorded programming.
Buoyed by its Super Bowl LIII lead-in, the series premiere of James Corden’s competition series “The World’s Best” managed to snag the No. 35 slot before going on to serve up a wholly forgettable 11-episode run on CBS. The sole scripted episode to make the cut was the two-part series finale of “The Big Bang Theory,” which ranked 55th on the year with a live-same audience of 18.5 million viewers.
Other scripted series that nearly made the cut include CBS’s “Young Sheldon” and “NCIS.” And while encore presentations and digital deliveries would have put the “Game of Thrones” finale over the top, the show’s live linear TV audience didn’t cut the mustard; per Nielsen, the first airing of the May 19 showstopper averaged 13.6 million viewers, leaving it about 17 rungs shy of the upper echelon.
Snapping up the very last spot on this year’s top 100 list was episode 35.191 of the syndicated game show “Jeopardy!,” which aired on June 3. With an average draw of 14.2 million viewers, the end of James Holzhauer’s reign was the most-watched installment of “Jeopardy!” since Ken Jennings’ historic run came to a close on Nov. 30, 2004.
The remainder of the year’s top performers were live news/political events, which aired across multiple networks. While most Americans weren’t exactly riveted by the five-day impeachment inquiry, the Dec. 18 vote to impeach President Trump in the House of Representatives seized the 84th slot on the list with an average draw of 16.1 million viewers.