Fox’s National NFL Games Are the Biggest Draw on TV

Afternoon broadcasts up 24 percent versus prime-time showcase

Sunday Night Football may rule the prime-time roost, but it’s the late national games on CBS and Fox that boast TV’s biggest deliveries.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data (Sept. 5-Dec. 9), the 4:25 p.m. NFL broadcasts once again are eclipsing the formidable Sunday night franchise. With eight games on the books, including an early-afternoon Thanksgiving contest, Fox and its America’s Game of the Week broadcast is leading the pack, averaging a whopping 27.3 million viewers and a 15.7 household rating.

(Unlike the vast majority of general entertainment programs that are structured around the adults 18-49 and 25-54 demos, guarantees for NFL games and big-ticket sports in general are made against household ratings.)

With one final national game (Packers-Cowboys, Dec. 15) set to kick off before the NFC playoffs begin, Fox is up 9 percent in total viewers and 8 percent in the HH rating metric.

CBS’ late-game package is also putting up huge numbers, averaging 26.7 million total viewers over the course of eight broadcasts, while notching a 15.3 HH rating. When compared to the year-ago period, CBS is up 11 percent in overall deliveries and has improved its HH rating by 7 percent.

Taken as a whole, the 14 4:25 national games and two Thanksgiving afternoon broadcasts are averaging 27 million viewers and a 15.5 HH rating.

While Fox’s NFC markets tend to give it a slight edge over CBS—seven of the top 10 and 12 of the top 20 DMAs host an NFC franchise—the two networks are currently separated by some 600,000 viewers and four-tenths of a ratings point.

Fox put up its biggest numbers on Sept. 8, as its season opener featuring the Green Bay Packers and defending NFC champs San Francisco averaged 28.5 million viewers and a 16.6 rating. Last Sunday, the 49ers delivered again, edging Seattle in a 19-17 squeaker in front of a national TV audience of 27.7 million viewers. The game delivered a 16.2 HH rating.

Naturally, the eight-game regular season package and the Turkey Day broadcast are a mere prelude to the main event. Fox last week confirmed that it has sold out its in-game inventory for its Feb. 2 Super Bowl XLVIII broadcast.

For its part, CBS’ biggest game of the 2013 NFL campaign was its Oct. 6 match-up between the league’s two biggest draws. In an instant classic, Denver’s Peyton Manning threw for 414 yards and four touchdowns, while Dallas’ Tony Romo’s 506-yard aerial assault led to five TDs. (Denver prevailed 51-48 on a 28-yard field goal.) The game was watched by 28.3 million viewers and notched a 16.6 HH rating.

CBS’ key “home” markets include New York, Oakland, Boston, Houston, Miami and Denver.

Fox is now nearly three full ratings points ahead of NBC’s Sunday Night Football, although that may be something of an apples-to-hand grenades comparison. Late national games don’t have much in the way of competition, whereas NBC’s NFL showcase vies with everything from basic cable (AMC’s The Walking Dead) and premium cable (HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, Showtime’s Homeland) to broadcast standouts like Fox’s Animation Domination block and CBS’ The Good Wife.

Through 15 broadcasts and the Turkey Bowl, Sunday Night Football is averaging 21.9 million viewers, up 5 percent versus the year-ago period, and is up 3 percent with a 12.9 HH rating. In terms of sheer reach, this marks the highest average viewership for an NFL prime-time package since 1996.

NBC has benefited from hosting the high-flying Broncos four times (the Nov. 17 Kansas City-Denver game was flexed in per NFL fiat), and its three Cowboys broadcasts have helped scare up big numbers in a season that largely has been blighted by mediocrity. (With three weeks left in the regular season, exactly half of the league’s 32 times have posted a record of .500 or worse; among these are the once-promising Atlanta and Washington squads. Meanwhile, perennial powerhouses like the Giants, Steelers and Packers are queuing up to pay their January greens fees.)

The Broncos accounted for NBC’s three most-watched, highest-rated SNF games this season. On Oct. 20, Denver and the Colts drew 26.9 million viewers and a 15.9 rating, deliveries it would nearly match against the Chiefs and on the road against the Patriots (26.5 million viewers/15.5 rating).

The NFL’s two cable packages are also up versus a year ago, as ESPN’s Monday Night Football is averaging 13.6 million viewers (up 3 percent) and an 8.6 HH rating (up 2 percent), while NFL Network’s Thursday Night Football has improved 8 percent with 6.91 million viewers and 5 percent with a 4.3 HH rating.

In terms of overall reach, the only entertainment series that comes anywhere near the NFL are a pair of CBS properties. Per Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, NCIS remains the most-watched scripted series on television, averaging 19.3 million viewers over the course of nine episodes. The procedural is in its eleventh season on CBS.

The Big Bang Theory is averaging just under 18 million viewers per episode.