Much attention (and a decent amount of schadenfreude) has been paid to the relative erosion of the NFL’s massive television ratings in recent years, and the attention is appropriate. So is the schadenfreude, for that matter.
But the continued success of NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” — which remains staggering, if slightly less staggering than before — serves as the primary example of why the sport’s demise, particularly as a desirable television product, is greatly exaggerated.
Wednesday brought the conclusion of the 2016-17 television season, and with it, some news that felt rather familiar. As expected, “Sunday Night Football” was prime-time television’s No. 1 show for a record-tying sixth consecutive year. The only other program in the history of network television to hold the top spot in the Nielsen ratings as long was “American Idol” (2005-06 to 2010-11). “The Cosby Show” and “All in the Family” each had runs of five years.
“Sunday Night Football” averaged an 11.3 household rating and a viewership of 20.3 million during the 2016 NFL season. That average viewership is 39 percent higher than the most-watched scripted show on television, CBS’s “NCIS” (14.6 million).
It should be noted that the numbers from “Sunday Night Football” were down from the 2015 NFL season, when it checked in with a 13.0 household rating and a 22.5 million average viewership, both all-time highs for the program. Last year, 13 “SNF” games drew at least 20 million viewers. This year, it was down to 10.
But “Sunday Night Football” reigns supreme again in prime time, and any declines in viewership have not opened the door for other programs to fill the void.
How dominant is the sport itself, even with its very real issues, as a television product? Put it this way: “Thursday Night Football” is generally considered an inferior product, because it is. Yet the No. 2 most-watched show this season in prime time was NBC’s Thursday night slate of five game broadcasts (average viewership 17 million), which were simulcast on NFL Network.
And third? CBS’s five “Thursday Night Football” broadcasts (14.7 million).
NFL ratings are slipping. But for now, they remain the envy of every other program, network, or sport. “NCIS” should be so lucky.
NBA is on its game
As a basketball fan, I’m a child of the Bird/Magic ’80s, and I cannot imagine an NBA era that matches that one for aesthetic appeal and sheer entertainment value.
But as a basketball fan who at least attempts to put nostalgia and personal biases aside, I’m happy to acknowledge that the league in its current form, with diversely talented superstars and a burgeoning championship rivalry between the Cavaliers and Warriors, is as appealing as it has been in 30 years.
It’s a terrific league in a lot of ways, and the nine-year, $24 billion extension that kicked in this season between the league and broadcast partners ESPN/ABC and TNT has to be considered one that will ultimately prove worthwhile even as cable channels continue to bleed revenue because of cord-cutters.
Viewership was down slightly during the regular season across the league’s broadcast partners, and there were frustrations with teams resting stars during national games. Nationally televised games averaged 1.19 million viewers, down 6 percent.
Still, that viewership equaled the numbers of two years ago, and this year’s schedule included 19 more games, including some on Monday nights that were typically among the lower rated. The first year of the extension must be considered a success.
And the notion, propagated by some brief and uncompetitive series such as the Warriors’ sweep of the Spurs in the Western Conference finals, that ratings are suffering during the postseason is false. ESPN/ABC, which has the NBA Finals this year, has so far seen a 5 percent increase in its overall viewership over last year, averaging 4.37 million viewers compared with 4.17 last year.
TNT’s total numbers aren’t yet available, since the Celtics and Cavs were playing Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals Thursday night, but the network must be thrilled with what it has seen lately. Game 4 Tuesday in which the Cavaliers came from behind to take a 3-1 series lead earned a 4.3 final rating and 7.1 million viewers on TNT.
That made it the most-watched Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals since Heat-Pacers in 2013, which averaged 8.1 million viewers. And it topped Game 3, which averaged 7 million viewers, as the most-watched game on cable this postseason.
There haven’t been many thrilling games this postseason. But that hasn’t prevented NBA fans from tuning in.
Follow Chad Finn on Twitter at @GlobeChadFinn.