While the NFL’s seasonal ratings declines have been met with the usual blend of uninformed hooting about backlashes and boycotts and the performative gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, the league’s hegemonic stranglehold on American TV consumption showed little sign of abating in 2020. In a year marked by a fractious presidential election which created a historic appetite for cable news and a pandemic that has disrupted nearly every aspect of our day-to-day lives, the NFL still managed to account for more than half of the 50 most-watched broadcasts, leaving little doubt that football’s outsized influence over the culture remains unassailable.
The NFL delivered 33 of the year’s 50 biggest TV audiences, a tally that includes 14 of the top 20 programs, of which three were games that aired during the current season. As was the case in 2016, politics insinuated itself into the Nielsen mix, as the Biden-Trump debates knocked the AFC and NFC Championship Games from their customary No. 2 and No. 3 perches, while the socially-distanced presidential conventions displaced a number of high-rated national NFL broadcasts on CBS and Fox.
Stretch the parameters to include the year’s top 100 broadcasts and the NFL appears on the list no fewer than 71 times. Toss in the Jan. 13 Clemson-LSU title tilt as well as the Rose Bowl (Oregon-Wisconsin) and the Citrus Bowl (Michigan-Alabama), and sporting events take a grand total of 74 spots. That’s down from 88 a year ago and 89 in 2018, a decline that can be attributed to the loss of the Summer Olympics on NBC and a frenzied fall sports slate that contributed to a significant contraction in viewership for the NBA Finals, World Series, Kentucky Derby and Masters Tournament. (While none of the aforementioned events managed to pull a big enough crowd to earn a spot on this year’s list, Game 6 of Fox’s Fall Classic came within shooting distance, finishing at No. 118.)
A different sort of upheaval played out for the NFL in 2020, as the power balance between the two conferences began to even out. After years of enjoying disproportionate representation on the ratings chart, the NFC lost some of its clout, accounting for 29 of the year’s most-watched broadcasts, compared to the AFC’s 24. (Last year, the NFC held a 13-game advantage over its rival.) As cross-flexing becomes more commonplace, interconference meetings have flourished; year-to-date, AFC vs. NFC broadcasts have filled 16 of the 100 top slots. Naturally, the biggest draw among these was Super Bowl LIV.
Among the 71 NFL broadcasts that charted in 2020, 28 aired in primetime. The majority of these were Sunday Night Football games on NBC (15), although Fox’s Thursday Night Football broadcasts and ESPN’s Monday Night Football each claimed three spots of their own. Meanwhile, among the NFL teams that appeared in the top 100 with the greatest frequency were the Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints, Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers, Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles and Buffalo Bills.
In a less convulsive year, the Olympics likely would have elbowed a number of the higher-rated political events out of the upper reaches of the chart. In 2018, NBC’s coverage of the PyeongChang Games laid claim to six of the top 50 programs and 15 of the 100 most-watched broadcasts, while the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio accounted for 11 of the top 50 and 17 of the top 100 airings. Also conspicuous by its absence was the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, which was canceled on March 12.
Despite the ongoing erosion of the advertiser-coveted demos—on a prorated basis, the Big Four broadcasters this season are averaging on the order of 5.6 million adults 18-49 per night, down 21% from the year-ago 7.1 million—sports have managed to remain a source of fascination for the TV-watching population at large. The same can no longer be said for scripted programming, which continues to lose ground to the capriciousness of a commercial-avoiding audience of Veruca Salts whose media diets have been scrambled by the everything-on-demand model.
While one episode of scripted TV managed to hang on to a spot in the top 100 through Christmas Day, the release of the Dec. 27 NFL ratings shoved NCIS out of the running. The March 31 installment of CBS’s long-running procedural now stands at No. 102 on the list, making this the first year in which a single drama or comedy failed to rank among the upper echelon. Last year saw a scripted series nearly breach the ranks of the upper 50, although that was an outlier event, given that the episode in question was the two-part season finale of The Big Bang Theory. Leonard, Sheldon and the rest of CBS’s nerd herd averaged 18.5 million viewers in their swan song, good for No. 55 on the year.
Over the last few seasons, the gap between the reach of the NFL and even the most popular scripted series has grown only wider; while NCIS remains the most-watched entertainment program with an average draw of 9.71 million live-same-day viewers—a figure that nearly doubles the overall primetime average of 5.04 million viewers per night—that pales in comparison with the numbers football puts up each week. The league’s top TV property, the national Sunday afternoon window shared by Fox and CBS, is currently averaging a staggering 22.7 million viewers, while NBC’s Sunday Night Football eclipses everything in primetime with its average draw of 16.7 million viewers.
Setting aside the Season 3 opener of Fox’s The Masked Singer, which benefitted mightily from its Super Bowl LIV lead-in, only three episodes of unscripted entertainment programming managed to make their way onto this year’s top 100 list. In what is ultimately a fitting tribute to the late Alex Trebek, three of the four installments of ABC’s January primetime tournament Jeopardy!: The Greatest of All Time were among the year’s most-watched broadcasts, finishing at Nos. 77, 86 and 93. Also earning a place at the table were three episodes of CBS’s 53-year-old newsmagazine, 60 Minutes.
(This story has been updated with ratings data through Dec. 27.)