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‘Sunday Night Football’ audience rises

December 3, 2018

After seeing its ratings slip last year, No.1 primetime show “Sunday Night Football” is seeing noticeable audience growth this season.

Through Week 13 of the 2018 schedule, “Sunday Night Football” is averaging about 19.8 million viewers. The total represents a 7 percent increase from the same stage of the 2017 campaign and the highest viewership since the equivalent point in the 2015 season, according to data from Nielsen and Adobe Analytics.

The increase underscores the sustained popularity of Stamford-based NBC Sports Group’s flagship NFL program, the most-watched primetime show for a record seven straight years. NBC Sports officials view the top ranking as a major accomplishment, but some media experts question the value of ratings supremacy.

“There’s a fight for audience every minute of every day, but the NFL is very popular content,” Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Broadcasting & Sports, said in an interview last week. “We produce and prepare every game like it’s the Super Bowl, and I think fans and audiences flock to that.”

While SNF continues to dominate, it is not competing with other heavyweights on Sunday night, said Daniel Durbin, director of the University of Southern California’s Institute of Sports, Media and Society.

“In many respects, SNF is king of an empty castle,” Durbin said. “Being No. 1 for a decade meant something back in the days of ‘Gunsmoke’ and ‘Perry Mason.’ It means considerably less in a world where your competition can only muster a million or so viewers, often less, for the latest home makeover or antiques dumpster-diving or 600-pound life-crisis show.”

Last season, SNF claimed the No.1 spot by finishing more than 4 million viewers ahead of the No. 2 show, CBS’ “Thursday Night Football.” But it saw its audience decrease 9 percent from the 20.3 million average in the 2016 season. The audience had shrunk at a similar rate between the 2016 and 2015 campaigns.

This season’s higher ratings could partly reflect the abating controversy surrounding players who protest during the national anthem.

Dozens of players knelt or sat during the anthem in the past two seasons to demonstrate against police brutality and other racial injustices.

At the same time, President Donald Trump repeatedly stoked the controversy by excoriating players who protested and the league’s handling of the demonstrations.

But only a handful of players have demonstrated this season, and Trump has redirected his ire to other controversies.

“In spite of the (NFL) owners’ best efforts to screw this thing up, the national anthem controversy has faded back into a murmur,” Durbin said. “It’s no longer front-page news every weekend.”

SNF also is benefiting from a number of compelling storylines, including the success of division leaders such as the Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Rams, NBC Sports officials said.

The Bears and Rams will face off Sunday night at Soldier Field in Chicago. SNF did not originally plan to carry that matchup this season, but “flex scheduling” allowed NBC Sports to pick up the game, to take advantage of interest in those teams.

“The NFL really wanted to make Sunday nights their destination night, and they give us a great schedule every year,” said SNF Executive Producer Fred Gaudelli. “Flex scheduling really meant we’d never have a bad or undesirable game.”

To help attract more viewers, Lazarus said NBC Sports wants to see games’ average elapsed time reduced to less than three hours. Full-game viewing time now averages slightly more than three hours, he said.

“We talk about how we can help, by creating different patterns with commercial breaks or creating a faster pace as we come in and out of commercials,” Lazarus said. “We do our best to work with the NFL. And they are very cognizant of that and have done a great job over the last few years of modernizing the pace of play.”

pschott@scni.com; 203-964-2236; twitter: @paulschott

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