This year, a total of 17.8 million viewers were pulled in on those cable networks for a dramatic game in which Villanova won over North Carolina on a buzzer-beating last second shot. That’s versus a Duke-Wisconsin game year ago on CBS that pulled in 28.3 million viewers, indicating a 37% drop.
This year’s game didn’t even best CBS’ 2014 results of 21.3 million viewers.
Does that mean sports on cable TV is still behind broadcast TV? The answer isn’t an easy yes or no.
For one, cable networks still don’t have the reach of a broadcast network. The best cable networks can “reach” on average 50% of the average TV viewing household. Broadcast networks are at the 80% to 90% level. Additionally, cable networks generally have lower penetration of U.S. TV homes (which can also hurt viewership).
And that isn’t the only measure. More viewers still watch broadcast network series in big numbers. CBS shows “NCIS” and “Big Bang Theory,” for example, pull in around 17 million and 16 million viewers a week respectively.
Overall, 14 non-sports broadcast TV series average 10 million or more viewers this season. Cable? Just one series averages that ranking: AMC’s “The Walking Dead," at 13 million. But “The Walking Dead” can crow it is the highest-rated non-sports entertainment series for key 18-49 viewers, averaging a 6.5 Nielsen rating.
Still, broadcast network ratings -- as well as cable network ratings -- aren’t what they once were. Viewer erosion is virtually everywhere. Even so, the average broadcast network grabs more viewers than the average cable network in prime time.
Now the other side of things: Were it not for cable, much of the aftermarket for broadcast network programming would need another home. Think about all the syndicated off-network reruns that run on local TV stations and cable networks. Think about operations such as NBCUniversal and Disney-ABC, which count heavily on revenues from their respective cable TV network operations.
And then think about what Les Moonves, chairman/CEO of CBS, said to TVNewsCheck about the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament recently, recalling what happened when CBS owned the event exclusively: “We were losing $100 million a year.”
CBS’ partnership with Turner has now turned that sports business proposition around -- with profits.