NBC Sports will take over the “Thursday Night Football” franchise this week at a suddenly promising point in an NFL season that has seen viewership plummet by double-digit percentages in prime-time games.
The decline has concerned league and network officials and has prompted questioning over its causes. Had the contentious presidential election kept viewers away from football, especially when games competed with debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton? Were there too many bad matchups and too few star turns? Were fans fed up with long commercial breaks? Were they ignoring games for online highlights?
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suggested last week the league was considering ways to improve the pace of games, from running fewer advertisements to speeding up video reviews.
So, Sunday was a litmus test. If the election had diminished football audiences, then the conclusion of the campaigns might lure fans back.
The results suggested that a cloud had begun to lift, and that compelling games played by marquee teams would keep fans engaged.
Seattle’s exciting 31-24 win over New England on Sunday night on NBC drew an average of 22.5 million viewers, up 16 percent from the comparable game last season. Until then, NBC’s viewership had fallen 18 percent this season, to 19.3 million.
Fox’s late afternoon broadcast of Dallas’ 35-30 last-minute victory over Pittsburgh generated a preliminary overnight rating of a 17.8, the highest for any NFL game this season (although it fell 3 percent from the comparable game on CBS last year).
But CBS’ slate of games Sunday afternoon tumbled 28 percent from last year.
NBC takes over the Thursday night games starting with New Orleans playing Carolina, teams with sub-.500 records that might not give the network a boost to start its five-game schedule. But with the election over – as well as the baseball postseason that ended with 40 million people watching the Chicago Cubs clinch the World Series in Game 7 – NBC is hoping to fare better than CBS and NFL Network did this season. In five games through Oct. 20, CBS and NFL Network’s total viewership of 14.7 million fell 16 percent from a year ago.
CBS and NBC are paying the league a combined $450 million a year to carry five games apiece that they broadcast and NFL Network simulcasts. This is NBC’s first season on Thursday night games. CBS had carried eight games a season for two years.
“I think we have very good games,” said Sam Flood, executive producer of NBC Sports and NBCSN. “But we all know the back half of the season can be a bit of a crapshoot. You’re not sure who’s going to be great and who’s not going to be great. Who would have thought the Dallas Cowboys would be the best team in football right now, by their record? Minnesota started as the best team in the NFL and has lost a few (four) in a row.”
The Cowboys and the Vikings will play Dec. 1.
NBC’s Thursday night schedule is a bit different from CBS’, which took a break during Week 4. But NBC’s goes for six straight weeks because the Thanksgiving night game is part of its Sunday night package.
“Our excitement is to have this run until the end of the season and into holiday shopping,” Flood said Monday during a media gathering at a Manhattan restaurant, “which has a lot of advantages for our ad sales people.”
The NFL has tried hard over the years to turn Thursday night games into an attraction that would bolster NFL Network and rival the older Sunday and Monday night franchises. The league has increased the number of Thursday night over the years, but it has found its biggest success in selling some of the games, first to CBS, and now to CBS and NBC, because broadcast networks reach larger audiences than a league-owned channel like NFL Network.
But Thursday night games have been less attractive to players, who dislike the short week of preparation time after Sunday, and to fans who see that the mostly divisional matchups don’t generally rival those of other prime-time packages. The Thursday broadcasts have also become part of a discussion about whether the NFL is overwhelming fans with too many games.
Rodney Harrison, an analyst on NBC’s pregame show, said that he was looking less at the election as a factor for shrinking audiences than quality games. “The problem is you have to go back to earning the right to be on television rather than saying, ‘We have all these slots, on Sunday, Thursday, Sunday and Monday.’ ”
The remark was targeted largely at the Thursday night package. Twenty-nine teams play at least one game on the Thursday night package that is being carried by CBS, NBC and NFL Network. The other three play on Thanksgiving.