NFL games dominate prime time

September 25, 2010|By David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun

There's a new king of prime time this fall, and for the first time in television history it's not a sitcom, drama or reality show.

It's football: " NBC Sunday Night Football," which debuted two weeks ago to record ratings that placed it atop the Nielsen standings.

The franchise that bills itself as "Football Night in America" and opens each week with Faith Hill singing that she's "been waitin' all day for Sunday night" is the most valuable property in prime time, having finished last fall as the No. 1 show with young viewers, beating such competition as "Dancing with the Stars."

The success is fueled by a larger phenomenon, analysts say: a surge in ratings for football on all the networks and cable channels, signaling a shift in lifestyle and viewing away from increasingly contrived reality-TV fare.

As the Ravens come before network cameras today in their home opener against the Cleveland Browns, football on TV keeps getting bigger — even as entertainment programming gets smaller with network cutbacks in scripted drama and comedy.

"There is very little left on television that is live and unscripted that we don't know the end to," says Richard Deitsch, senior editor and media writer for Sports Illustrated. "Sports really is the ultimate reality programming, because unlike a lot of the so-called reality programming, which is absolutely faux and staged, we truly don't know how football games will end. And when you think of all the things going on with TV football these days, I think it really is the signature programming in American television right now."

"NBC Sunday Night Football" is averaging an audience of 25.3 million viewers through its first two weeks. That's up 16 percent over last year and 52 percent better than 2008 — and one of its games this year, between the Indianapolis Colts and New York Giants, was a blowout. The nearest competition, last week's season opener of ABC's "Dancing with the Stars," drew 20.99 million viewers. Last fall, "Dancing" edged out "Sunday Night Football" as the highest-rated series in prime time.

And NBC is not the only network enjoying a great football-fueled start to the new season. ESPN's "Monday Night Football," which debuted Sept. 13 with a battle royal between the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets, also set a new viewing record, as have Sunday afternoon games on Fox and CBS. Last Sunday's CBS game between the New England Patriots and New York Jets was the highest-rated game on CBS since 1994, when it reacquired rights to NFL games.

In Baltimore, more than 400,000 TV homes, 41 percent of all homes in the market, were tuned to the game between the Ravens and Jets. No prime-time entertainment series — not "American Idol," not "NCIS" — will draw nearly that large an audience in Baltimore this year.

In fact, no entertainment program in Baltimore is likely to top even the 220,000 Baltimore TV homes that tuned in for the Washington Redskins game against the Dallas Cowboys on Sept. 12.

"Last year, the only thing that would have come close to football in Baltimore prime [time] was the Olympics," says Jordan Wertlieb, general manager of WBAL-TV, Baltimore's NBC affiliate and the broadcast channel for local Olympics coverage. "This year, there's nothing in prime [time] that will come close."

Typical of the way football viewing is trending this fall: The Thursday night season opener Sept. 9 between the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings was watched in more homes in New Orleans than last year's Super Bowl, which was won by the Saints.

"With all the splintering that's going on in the country and the technology-driven niches that are separating even family members one from the other in the home at night, there are very few events that bring people together anymore," says Mike McCarley, senior vice president for marketing at NBC Sports. "We're very conscious of trying to build an inclusive broadcast. To us, 'Sunday Night Football' is a communal gathering place for families and friends."

TV's big night

Sunday night is still the night of the week with highest viewership, according to Nielsen Media Research. And NBC is trying to create a big-event sensibility that goes beyond the games themselves, with highlights of all the other games played earlier in the day, super-slick production values, halftime concerts and interviews with newsmakers — all packaged under the banner "Football Night in America." Last year, NBC swamped the competition in 15 of the 16 Sunday nights that it had NFL games.

"Every night of the week feels a little different," McCarley says. "But Sunday night has a really special feel to it. It's the last moment in time before the crazy workweek begins and everyone is off to the races Monday morning. Sunday night is the only night that has that feeling of everyone being at home. And we're trying to program to that with a TV event."

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