Jan 7, 2024 - Business

NFL dominates what's left of live TV viewership

100 most-watched U.S. TV broadcasts
Data: Spotico, Nielsen; Chart: Axios Visuals

The NFL made up 93 of the top 100 broadcast programs last year, according to a Sportico report citing Nielsen ratings. That's up from 82 last year and 72 in 2020.

Why it matters: As on-demand content moves to streaming, live TV events — especially sports — are the only thing left that can draw huge swaths of Americans together at the same time.

Driving the news: The NFL had an explosive year for live TV viewership in 2023, with off-the-field drama like Taylor Swift's romance with Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce helping to boost ratings.

  • ESPN's 2023 Monday Night Football season was its most-watched ever since ESPN began airing NFL games on Monday nights in 2006. MNF ratings last year were up 33% year-over-year.
  • Amazon's exclusive NFL Thursday Night broadcasts were up 24% year-over-year in 2023.
  • The NFL's Thanksgiving games set an all-time viewership record last year.

Between the lines: Last year also saw major viewership increases across many of the country's biggest live TV moments outside of sports.

  • Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve, hosted by Ryan Seacrest, was up 35% in primetime on ABC last year. The program's late-night segment drew a whopping 18 million total viewers at 11:30 p.m. and 22.2 million total viewers in the midnight block.
  • The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade drew a record 28.5 million viewers on NBC and its streaming service Peacock.

The big picture: Publicly traded media companies have grown more risk-averse to spending on new programming as technology and production costs have ballooned, Axios' Hope King writes.

  • One season of a scripted show on linear television requires writer's rooms and production sets with untested audiences.
  • By contrast, the primary costs for football are sports licensing fees, which, though skyrocketing, are for content with a predictable slate of recurring characters who bring a different kind of drama week after week.

What they're saying: "When so much of industry thinking is designed by risk aversion, the second best thing that you can do is make money. The first best thing that you can do is not lose money," Walt Hickey, author of "You Are What You Watch," tells Axios.

  • "Nobody ever got fired for cutting a deal to air some NFL games. People get fired all the time for taking a shot on a pilot that might or might not work."

Be smart: Live sports, especially football, are increasingly becoming a larger portion of the most-watched broadcast programs in the country, replacing news programs and some award shows, especially in non-election years.

  • Some award show ratings began to rebound last year from their pandemic-era lows, with The Oscars and The Grammys rising 8% and 30% year-over-year, respectively, in 2023. But others, like The Golden Globes and the CMA Awards, saw viewership declines.

What to watch: Aside from sports on ESPN, the vast majority of live television viewership is happening on broadcast, not cable.

  • Pay-TV subscriptions shrunk at the fastest pace ever recorded in the third quarter of last year, per media analysis firm MoffettNathanson.

Go deeper: Sports is saving linear TV

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