As Fox gets ready to break the huddle ahead of its first-ever "Thursday Night Football" broadcast, the network believes it has the ratings momentum and the sort of powerhouse schedule that will transform the much-maligned NFL window into appointment viewing.
Through the first three weeks of the NFL season, Fox's in-game coverage is averaging 17.9 million viewers, up 1 percent compared to the analogous period in 2017. The network's first five Sunday afternoon windows (two national broadcast and three slots of regional coverage) delivered an average 10.3 household rating, up 2 percent versus the year-ago 10.1 rating.
Fox has been on-target across its Sunday NFL package, as four of the network's first five football windows have delivered year-over-year growth. Thus far, its regional coverage has been strong, while TV's highest-rated standalone program, the late-afternoon "America's Game of the Week" showcase, is out-performing the rest of the pack with an average draw of 22.8 million viewers and a 12.9 rating.
That the NFL as a whole is holding steady after two consecutive seasons of 9 percent ratings declines suggests that the league may be entering a period of relative stability. Season-to-date, all NFL windows, regional and national, are averaging 15.5 million viewers and a 9.0 household rating, a dip of just 1 percent from the analogous deliveries last fall.
It's that league-wide stability and Fox's leadership position among NFL network partners that makes Mike Mulvihill confident that the network will make a splash tonight with its inaugural "Thursday Night Football" broadcast. The executive VP of research, league operations and strategy at Fox Sports, Mulvihill says the new "TNF" era (Fox in January inked a five-year, $3 billion deal for the package) should get off to a strong start with tonight's Vikings-Rams showdown.
"I think the reasons we have to be feeling good about our NFL games greatly outnumber anything negative," Mulvihill says. "Our schedulers and the NFL have worked together to give us every opportunity to not only optimize the Thursday night package, but to do so in a way that won't come at the expense of our 'America's Game of the Week' franchise."
That the Fox schedulers locked in the Minnesota-Los Angeles clash for the opener should go a long way toward attracting a larger-than-average TV audience. Despite the Vikings' bizarre 27-6 drubbing at the hands of the Buffalo Bills last Sunday, Vegas oddsmakers still believe that tonight's game should serve as a precursor to January's NFC Championship Game.
Repping the nation's second-largest media market, the Rams have become the sort of hot property that makes the NFL's broadcast partners want to shine the spotlight on them at every turn. Featured in a mere three national windows last season, the Rams this year are slated to appear in no fewer than nine coast-to-coast broadcasts, making them the league's most in-demand squad this side of the Dallas Cowboys. (Jerry Jones' charges are scheduled to play in 11 national windows.)
While Mulvihill didn't offer a ratings target for tonight's game, the numbers to beat are the 14.6 million viewers and 8.9 household rating CBS and the NFL Network's simulcast scared up with last year's Bears-Packers game. For what it's worth, those year-ago numbers are in line with media buyers' projections for Fox's entire 11-game "TNF" slate, although the turnout for tonight's curtain-raiser is expected to be closer to 19 million viewers and an 11.0 rating.
The all-time record for a "TNF" broadcast is 21.1 million viewers and a 12.9 rating, which CBS delivered (with a bit of a lift from the NFL Net simulcast) back in September of 2015. That game was certifiably nuts; with 27 seconds on the clock, Denver returned a Kansas City fumble 21 yards to the house to secure a 31-24 win. But if Fox is to come within shooting distance of those deliveries, it will have to avoid a repeat of last year's Vikings-Rams snoozefest. Nearly 29 minutes of game clock elapsed between the second and third scores, which worked out to about an hour-and-a-half of goose eggs in real-time.
After the dust settles in the L.A. Coliseum tonight, Fox's "TNF" schedule features the NFL's five highest-rated franchises in Dallas, New England, Green Bay, Seattle and Pittsburgh, as well as the NFC's representative in the top market (New York Giants). Mulvihill says the first three games are shaping up to be big ratings drivers, and while there may be some deflation in the middle of Fox's run (with Jimmy Garoppolo out with a season-ending ACL tear, that Nov. 1 Raiders-49ers game no longer looks terribly promising), things should pick up again nicely down the stretch.
"I don't think it's much of a stretch for me to tell you that we think this is the best Thursday night schedule anyone's managed to pull together," Mulvihill says. "It's put us in a much better position with advertisers."
As AdAge reported last month, among the brands that will be conspicuously featured in the new "TNF" package are pre-game sponsor Verizon and halftime show backer Toyota.
While there's an awful lot of football still to be played and we live in an era when the political climate can change faster than the weather in Buffalo, partisan rancor is one thing advertisers haven't had to worry about thus far this season.
"Most of the conversation this year has been about things that are going on between the white lines," Mulvihill says. "Instead of getting heated over some of the other [off-field] stuff, fans are talking about Clay Matthews and how he can't catch a break with the roughing-the-passer penalties. Or when you listen to sports radio, you'll hear people calling in to talk about the new wave of great young quarterbacks that are coming up, the Patrick Mahomes and the Baker Mayfields.
"People are talking about football again, and that's really encouraging."
Fox's coverage of the Vikings-Rams glee kicks off tonight at 8 p.m. EDT. The opening kickoff is scheduled for 8:20 p.m.