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Ratings Sunday Night Football looks to continue dominance

September 4, 2018

Sunday Night Football is coming off another season as a top-rated TV show, even as doubts about its dominance linger.

The flagship NFL program of Stamford-based NBC Sports Group finished the past television season as the No.1 prime-time show for a record seventh straight year. As SNF returns this week for the start of the regular season, announcers and producers are maintaining a bullish outlook as they look to reverse the audience declines in recent years and weather political controversy clouding the league.

“Our people are phenomenal,” SNF play-by-play announcer Al Michaels said on a conference call last week. “You talk to some of our camera people, and they know as much about football as any of us do. They follow the game religiously, and I think that’s why the show sings every week. And we’re very, very proud of it and obviously want to keep it going, and hopefully on to an eighth year of No. 1 in prime-time television.”

Dominant, but declining

Sunday Night Football averaged 18.4 million viewers in the 2017-18 season, comprehensively beating the second-most-watched prime-time show, CBS Thursday Night Football, which averaged around 14 million viewers.

SNF accounted for eight of the 10-most watched prime-time telecasts between Sept. 7 and Dec. 25, 2017, compared with an equivalent of seven in 2016.

The program also ranked as the No. 1 show in the 18-49 age demographic for the eighth consecutive season.

But viewership decreased 9 percent from the 20.3 million average in the 2016 regular season. The audience had shrunk at a similar rate between the 2016 and 2015 campaigns.

This year’s Super Bowl, which was carried by NBC Sports, also experienced a drop-off. An average of approximately 103 million people watched the Philadelphia Eagles’ 41-33 victory over the New England Patriots. The viewership represented the smallest title game audience since 2009.

NBC Sports officials said they are adapting to digital disruption, pointing to the online viewing records set last season by SNF. About 6.9 million unique users consumed 689 million live-streaming minutes across NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports app and Verizon’s NFL Mobile service.

“Younger viewers continue, more and more, to get their sports content online,” said Daniel Durbin, director of the University of Southern California’s Institute of Sports, Media and Society. “These viewers don’t feel it necessary to supplement their online viewing with TV viewing. Barring a stunningly exciting game or season, I would expect fans to continue to drift to sports that don’t make such high maintenance demands on their time and attention.”

Anthem controversy

In May, the NFL announced a new policy that would prohibit on-field protests during the national anthem, but let players stay in their locker rooms during the ceremony.

Teams would be fined if players or other team personnel were to sit or kneel during the anthem. Then, in July, the league and NFL players union announced the new rules would be put on hold while the two sides negotiated an agreement.

Dozens of players have kneeled or sat during the anthem in the past two seasons, with many saying they have done so to demonstrate against police brutality and other racial injustices.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly fanned the controversy by excoriating players who have protested and the league’s handling of the demonstrations.

Last month, Trump lambasted ESPN for not regularly broadcasting the anthem before regular-season games.

In an interview this week with The Athletic, NBC Broadcasting & Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus said “we will be doing what we have always done: show the anthem on the opening Thursday (night game) and then when events warrant it.”

But the viewership decline largely reflects other programming issues, said USC’s Durbin.

“Some viewers were, no doubt, turned off by the controversy,” Durbin said. “But the slip of younger viewers to other, often global sports online, the grinding length of games, game times that are expanded to fit in more tedious TV commercials and a league that has a growing disparity between the top and bottom teams are all deeper concerns for the NFL moving forward than anything Donald Trump has to say.”

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

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