Is Broadcast TV Still Better Than Cable - For Sports? It's Complicated

Even with what many call one of -- if not the best -- NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Games ever, ratings for the game on three Turner cable networks could not better CBS’ results of a year ago.

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.

3 comments about "Is Broadcast TV Still Better Than Cable - For Sports? It's Complicated".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, April 7, 2016 at 5:58 p.m.

    Wayne, the real problem is the definition of "best". If average minute audience size defines what is best and nothing else, then fine, broadcast beats cable in most cases. On the other hand, if the games that cable presents are more riveting, are better covered visually and by the announcers and "color ' folks, leave the viewer with a more satisfying feeling, etc. then I would think that cable is better. Unfortunately, a great many people in "linear TV, as well as the time buying community, equate bigger audiences with "better" and pay higher CPMs for it without any evidence that this is a valid evaluation. It's mostly driven by ego not common sense.

  2. Chuck Lantz from, network, April 7, 2016 at 8:05 p.m.

    Moonves complains about losing 100 million dollars on NCAA basketball, and 10 million households couldn't watch the NCAA basketball final.  Take your pick of which stat is the more important one.

    Since our entire family, including our dog, bleeds Carolina Blue, we had the championship game running on five different screens, including two TVs, two iPhones and a tablet, all through the house, viewing two of the three available streams; the national stream, and the UNC "homie" stream.  That part of the non-broadcast experience was fantastic.

    What wasn't so fantastic, and which was a subject of some discussion as we watched, was the fact that what could be argued was the best, or certainly one of the best games ever played was not available to millions of households.  And yes, my family actually does discuss that sort of stuff.  

    It's sad on a number of levels. First of all, what does limiting possible viewership do to the overall importance of the game?  When heavyweight championship boxing matches were televised nationally, boxing was hugely popular. Now that viewership is severely limited to those who can afford the high price of pay-per-view, it's nowhere near as popular.  There are many other factors at play, of course, but purposely limiting the audience certainly doesn't help.

    Another sad, and socially troublesome problem with a non-broadcast NCAA tournament is that many of the same types of young kids who once watched college basketball on so-called "free" TV who now play the college game, were not able to watch the tournament this time around.  The fact is that young kids, especially those with limited life choices, won't suddenly decide to go against their social flow and work to stay in school via their favorite sport unless they can SEE their favorite sport, played by kids who came from similar backgrounds, on affordable media.

    Then again, we can't have Les Moonves and others whining about losing millions. That would be tragic, right?

  3. Chuck Lantz from, network, April 7, 2016 at 8:10 p.m.

    PS:  After confessing my deep allegiance to the Tarheels, this will be seen as 100% pure sour grapes, but the officiating in the final game absolutely sucked. Oh, and congrats to 'Nova. We would have killed you in OT. 

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