In a year marked by a pair of ratings-hogging quadrennial events and a whole lot of Beltway intrigue, the NFL in 2021 effectively swallowed TV whole, accounting for 41 of the top 50 most-watched programs, and 75 of the top 100. In doing so, the league not only silenced the torrent of uninformed hooting and clucking that greeted last season’s COVID-related ratings declines, but it also justified the huge rights-fee increases it brokered with its legacy partners.
The NFL’s Kung Fu Grip on the American psyche is as crushing as it’s ever been, with overall deliveries across the regional and national TV windows up 9% versus the year-ago period. Bear in mind that those increases are being notched as overall TV usage continues to fade; per Nielsen, the number of people tuning in to linear TV over the course of this season is down 10% compared to the analogous time frame in 2020.
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That downturn coincides with the ongoing erosion of traditional pay-TV customers. Given that the number of homes that subscribe to the cable/satellite bundle had dropped 9% to 69.7 million at the end of the third quarter—just seven years ago, the count was north of 100 million households—the 11% lift ESPN served up with its Monday Night Football package is all the more impressive.
While the NFL’s ratings have been strong out of the gate, with NBC getting an early lift from the Tom Brady Homecoming Game (26.9 million viewers), it wasn’t until the Thanksgiving Day numbers rolled in that advertisers’ jaws really started hitting the floor. After a late adjustment, CBS’ coverage of the Raiders-Cowboys overtime battle wound up delivering 40.8 million viewers, making it the most-watched Tryptophan Bowl of the modern Nielsen era. The holiday broadcast claimed the No. 4 slot on the year (see chart), trailing only Super Bowl LV and the two division championship games.
If the NFL’s ratings dominance effectively crowded out almost everything else on the tube…