Will this be the year Super Bowl ratings get hit for a loss?
This season saw NFL TV regular season numbers drop around 10 per cent overall. The season before, there was an eight per cent drop in viewers.
Plenty of theories as to why. All those concussion reports — and the NFL’s slow response to the medical news — have turned off some viewers. Others tuned out over kneeling during the national anthem. Some fans simply got bored with too many dull games in a season slowed by countless reviews of receptions. Then there’s Patriot burnout; these cheating bastards again?
A bigger factor is how splinted network TV has become. Cord-cutting has definitely lowered ratings for all broadcasters as viewers (especially younger audiences) embrace less expensive steaming options such as Netflix. Running backs aren’t the only ones going Over The Top.
Until now, none of these factors has touched TV’s No. 1 showcase, the Super Bowl. Look at the last four championship numbers: Fox drew 111.3 million viewers for an exciting, overtime game and a thrilling, come-from-behind drive by The Patriots. Super Bowl 50 in 2016 did slightly better for CBS, pulling 111.8M. NBC saw a record 114.4M watch in 2015. Fox had their best-ever audience in 2014 with 112.2M.
Fred Gaudelli, executive producer of Sunday Night Football and this year’s Super Bowl coverage on NBC, and veteran play-by-play man Al Michaels, sat before reporters last month in Pasadena, Calif., at the winter TCA press tour. Both managed to duck around (or just didn’t face) the question of declining NFL ratings.
Gaudelli seemed to anticipate a decline in the broadcast numbers by stressing that NBC will be using a total delivery audience measure this year. That will measure not just broadcast viewers but also streaming viewership on tablets and other digital devises. NBC plans to have the same data in place for its Olympic Winter Games coverage when that begins next Friday.
Michaels has called 10 Super Bowl broadcasts; this will be his fourth at NBC. The 73-year-old obviously has a vested interest in selling the game and pretty much restricted his thoughts to positive musings during the press conference.
“I’ve always said the NFL is the greatest unscripted television show out there,” he told the TCA gathering. “Our theory has always been let the game break out, as John Madden used to say, and then follow the game, try to embellish, try to educate people along the way. It’s a very diverse audience.”
As for the kneeling, “It’s certainly possible it could happen again,” said Gaudelli. “So we would cover it the same way we’d cover it on a Sunday night game or a Thursday night game. We’d show it. We’d identify the person. We would probably try to, in a very concise manner, mention why it is this person is kneeling or why they’re kneeling and then get on with the game.”
P!nk, by the way, is singing the anthem this Sunday.
Gaudelli suggested there were many factors in declining attendance at various stadiums this past season. There’s the weather, he argued, or the fact some key teams had horrible seasons.
He singled out the New York Giants. “I know in New York in week 17, the Giants played a game; it was 4 degrees outside. Why would you go sit outside when the Giants are 2 and 13 at that point in the season and sit in 4‑degree weather? So I think there are a lot of factors that play into the ‘why.'”
Michaels blamed the appearance of no-shows on fabulous new stadiums that come with their own distractions. In Atlanta, he said, behind the lower bowl exists what is essentially a 100-yard mall.
Baseball has the same issue, he argued, singling out LA’s Dodger Stadium — a beautiful — if relatively old (and mall-less) — facility. During the regular season games, said Michaels, “almost nobody is there except for Larry King, Burt Sugarman, and Mary Hart.”
Super Bowl game coverage, including the anthem, begins at 6 pm ET Sunday night on NBC and CTV; kickoff will be at 6:30 pm. A special 90-minute This is Us follows around 10 pm, and then a special Sunday Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon comes on after that.