For its first game of the season (New England-Arizona), NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” was down 14%, to 23.1 million viewers. Then it lost another 14% in the second week to 22.8 million (Green Bay-Minnesota), and 7% to 20.6 million in the third week (Chicago-Dallas).
ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” lost 4%, down to 13 million viewers in its first game of its opening doubleheader (Pittsburgh-Washington), and in the second game was down 28%, to 10.3 million (Los Angeles-San Francisco).
This past Monday, there was even a bigger drop for “MNF” -- 40%, to 8 million viewers (Atlanta-New Orleans). That game was competing against a powerful multi-network airing of the first Presidential debate. Fox News Channel pulled in 11.4 million viewers; CNN had 7 million viewers; and MSNBC 4.9 million viewers.
(Obviously Donald Trump’s concerns about prime-time NFL games stealing some of his limelight haven’t been justified so far -- though there are two more debates to come.)
Why the drop? CNBC says some star power players are missing, players who draw in big TV viewers: Tom Brady (suspension), Peyton Manning (retired), and Tony Romo (injury).
But considering all the positives, who can complain about moderately sinking ratings when NFL 30-second unit prices are still way above prices for other prime-time TV programming, including other live sports events.
Has Twitter’s new Thursday night package of games had an impact? Many don’t think so. Big-screen live-sports viewing still commands the most attention from viewers, and thus gets the most advertising.
NFL still has much strength -- and the season is still early, with 13 games still to come. Still, the NFL did expand to 10 “Thursday Night Games” this year -- 5 for NBC, 5 for CBS. One wonder what its next expansion move might be -- and whether at some point the NFL games will hit saturation, causing perhaps its own football fractionalization.
Live TV programming isn’t just for sports. For the last several years, TV networks expanded into live musical events, with NBC’s “The Sound of Music” (18.3 million viewers), “Peter Pan” (9.1 million), and “The Wiz” (11 million), and Fox’s “Grease” (12.2 million).
But TV networks need to look longer term. Will they expand to other live TV programming -- in search of those non-fast-forwarding TV viewers, and advertisers paying higher rates?