On Turkey Day, the broadcast networks had much to be thankful for

In a Thanksgiving ritual, America gorged on balloons, high-strung dogs and football

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Tina Fey and Today co-anchors Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Tina Fey and Today co-anchors Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Credit: Eric Liebowitz/NBC

America's annual celebration of tryptophan loading, bitter internecine strife and untrammeled gluttony was also one of the biggest days of the year for the broadcast networks, as holiday programming once again proved to be as essential to a proper Thanksgiving as pumpkin pie and hand turkeys.

The broadcast day unofficially lifted off with NBC's presentation of the 92nd Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and while an Arctic cold spell and 30-mph-wind gusts kept the balloons from peeking into the fifth-floor windows of the buildings lining Sixth Avenue, the TV turnout was at near-record heights. Last Thursday's march averaged 23.7 million viewers and a 12.4 household rating, making it the fourth most-watched Macy's parade in the modern Nielsen era, and the year's 23rd highest-rated TV program.

NBC's parade deliveries peaked in 2013, when the balloons, floats and marching bands averaged 25.2 million viewers.

Hosted by "Today" show stalwarts Savannah Guthrie, Hoda Kotb and Al Roker, NBC's parade coverage averaged a 6.0 rating among NBC's target audience, which works out to around 7.75 million adults 18-49. To put that number in context, the median demo rating for scripted series on the Big Four networks is a 1.0.

According to iSpot.tv data, the top spenders in the parade broadcast included Macy's (naturally), Google Home, Verizon and Geico. NBC freed up 17 spots to hype its own in-house wares, airing promos for Dwayne Johnson's upcoming competition series "The Titan Games," as well as "Today," "The Tonight Show" and scripted fare such as "Manifest" and the relocated comedy "Brooklyn Nine-Nine."

As Americans on the East Coast began to nibble on the pre-dinner spread and take a few preliminary potshots at their cousins/in-laws/pets, NBC at noon launched into its presentation of the National Dog Show. The Purina-sponsored event drew a solid 11.2 million viewers and a 2.7 in the dollar demo, making it the third most-watched NDS since NBC first started broadcasting the canine pageant back in 2001. Whiskey, a whippet and Very Good Boy, won Best in Show, this despite the fact that his breed is largely renowned for an unstable genetic profile that at once makes them the dumbest and fastest things in the entire world. (Seriously, they have booster rockets for legs and a whole bunch of bumblebees where their brains should be.)

Low-flying balloons and speedy, dim-witted hounds aside, the bulk of Thanksgiving's ratings harvest was devoted to all things football. At 12:30 p.m. EST, CBS kicked off its coverage of the Chicago Bears-Detroit Lions game, a Motor City tradition going back all the way to 1920. The early Turkey Day broadcast averaged 26.5 million viewers and a 12.3 household rating and now stands as CBS's most-watched NFL game of the season and the 17th highest-rated TV program of 2018.

CBS's biggest Turkey Day advertisers were State Farm, Verizon, Ford, Chantix and Kay Jewelers.

CBS has two chances to top its Turkey Day deliveries in its Dec. 16 Patriots-Steelers showdown and the following week's pass-happy Steelers-Saints duel. Both games are set to air in CBS's remaining national TV windows. Last season's thriller in Foxboro drew a season-high 26.9 million viewers and a 15.2 household rating, and barring an unlikely blowout, there's no reason to believe that the Brady vs. Roethlisberger rematch won't scare up similarly massive numbers this time around.

While it's difficult to overestimate what a dominant Bears franchise means to the NFL, the early game was only a preview of what was to come later in the afternoon. As a proud nation filled its collective pie hole and fought off the stupefying effects of excess turkey, Fox's coverage of the Washington-Dallas grudge match became mandatory viewing. The Cowboys' 31-25 victory was witnessed by some 30.5 million viewers, making it the year's eighth biggest TV broadcast and the highest-drawing regular-season NFL game since the same two teams clashed in the Tryptophan Bowl in 2016. That Fox broadcast averaged 35.1 million viewers.

Season-to-date, Fox's national afternoon NFL windows are averaging 22.8 million viewers and a 12.4 household rating, down 1 percent and 3 percent, respectively, compared to the year-ago 23.1 million viewers/12.8 rating. CBS's national package is currently TV's No. 2 standalone program, averaging 21.6 million viewers and a 12.1 rating. As one might expect from a season in which NFL ratings have improved versus the analogous time period in 2017, overall deliveries for CBS's football showcase are up 5 percent while household ratings are up 7 percent.

While automotive brands rolled out the usual giant-red-ribbon holiday schtick, Fox also took in a good deal of ad dollars from movie studios. After Ford, the top two spenders in the Washington-Dallas game were Walt Disney Pictures, which sent jaws floorward with its 90-second teaser for the CGI remake of "The Lion King," and Warner Bros., which leveraged the NFC East rivalry to get out the word for "Aquaman," "The Mule," "Creed II" and the ponderously-titled "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald."

Priced much like an early playoff game—the unit cost for time in the network's first primetime Thanksgiving broadcast, the infamous "Butt Fumble" game of 2012, was $975,000 a pop, and a 30-second spot in this year's game fetched as much as $1.2 million—NBC's Thanksgiving night offering has never quite put up the sort of numbers the afternoon games enjoy. Which isn't to say that the Peacock's coverage of New Orleans' 31-17 win over the Atlanta Falcons didn't scare up a crowd; the latest demonstration of Drew Brees' otherworldly passing skills drew 21.7 million viewers and a 10.1 rating, marking a 28 percent improvement over last year's sloppy Giants-Redskins broadcast.

As it happens, the average draw for NBC's seven Thanksgiving night games is 21.7 million viewers. The high-water mark was reached in 2015, when the Bears and Packers battled it out in front of a national television audience of 27.8 million viewers, while last year's game scraped bottom with "just" 16.9 million viewers.

Top spenders in the final Thanksgiving game of 2018 were Walmart, Verizon, Volkswagen, Amazon, Toyota, Chevrolet, Hyundai and Microsoft Surface. Together, the in-game messaging for those eight brands averaged some 45.9 million commercial impressions, per iSpot.

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