The long-awaited return of SEC football has had an immediate impact on the college game’s TV deliveries, as fans flocked back to the tube to watch powerhouse programs like Alabama and Georgia raise the level of play in a season that’s been largely dominated by lackluster national broadcasts.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, SEC teams have appeared in three of the top five most-watched games thus far in this coronavirus-scrambled 2020 season. Leading the charge last weekend was ‘Bama, which in CBS’s big-ticket 3:30 p.m. ET window roughed up Texas A&M in front of an audience of 4.76 million viewers and a 2.8 household rating. While that was down quite a bit compared to the 6.43 million viewers/3.9 rating CBS served up with its year-ago window (Auburn-Florida), the Crimson Tide’s broadcast debut now stands as the season’s biggest draw, edging CBS’s Mississippi State-LSU showcase (4.44M viewers, 2.5 rating) from the previous week.
The third SEC game to grab a top five slot was Saturday night’s Auburn-Georgia mismatch on ESPN. In the season’s first meeting between two Top 10 opponents, the No. 4 Bulldogs limited the No. 7 Tigers to a pair of field goals in a 27-6 victory that averaged 4.22M viewers and a 2.2 rating. To date, that Oct. 3 telecast ranks fourth on the year, sandwiched between NBC’s afternoon Duke-Notre Dame broadcast on Sept. 12 (4.32 viewers, 2.4 rating) and ABC’s all-ACC Saturday Night Football presentation featuring Miami and Louisville (3.80M viewers, 2.1 rating, Sept. 19).
The networks that carry the premiere college football packages are beginning to see a change in their collective fortunes now that the SEC is back in action, and the TV turnout should only continue to surge once the Big Ten steps onto the field on Oct. 24. The initial run of ACC and Big 12 games hasn’t done any favors for the networks, as ratings have been down across the board in the absence of the nation’s top-drawing schools.
Here’s how things break down at the network level:
Through the first four weeks of the season, ABC’s Saturday Night Football tentpole is averaging 3.48 million viewers and a 2.0 rating, down 42% compared to the year-ago 5.93 million/3.5. It’s not even a fair comparison; while ABC this season has had to make do with a batch of three ACC games and a Big 12 matchup, its analogous broadcast windows in 2019 included a 45-38 LSU-Texas throwdown that scared up 8.63 million viewers and a 5.0 rating and two consecutive Ohio State games that topped the 6 million-viewer mark.
ABC’s not alone in feeling the burn; Fox’s big noon window is down 38% to 2.39 million viewers and off 44% in the ratings (1.4). Again, the comps are ungenerous, to say the very least. Last year at this juncture, Fox had already enjoyed the privilege of broadcasting Army’s near-upset of Michigan in the Big House (4.72M viewers/3.1 rating), and the Wolverines and the Ohio State Buckeyes played a part in five of the network’s first six noon games.
Lest we be mistaken for some sort of rabid Big Ten booster, here’s a gentle reminder that the conference not only pumps up the TV ratings, but it also generates a whole lot of cash for its network partners Fox and ESPN.
ESPN is also looking forward to a Big Ten lift, as its top TV windows are down 25% year-over-year to 2.43 million viewers and a 1.4 rating, a slowdown that’s only been exacerbated by the fact that overall TV usage since the start of the 2020-21 season is down 11% vs. the analogous period last fall. Broadcast usage is in an even more dire state of emergency, as the Big Four networks have seen their audience shrink 35%—a drop that has much to do with the pandemic-related postponement of new and returning scripted series.
While CBS thus far has only aired three of its signature 3:30 p.m. games—the staggered start to this season has contributed to yet another rough comp for the networks that carry college football—its SEC-heavy schedule is bearing up nicely. Per Nielsen, CBS’s triad of afternoon broadcasts is averaging 4.6 million viewers and a 2.7 rating, down just 6% and 10%, respectively, compared to the 4.91 million viewers/3.0 rating it average during its first five marquee broadcasts in fall 2019.
Bucking the trend entirely is NBC, which thus far hasn’t had much exposure to the turbulence of the fall football season. Deliveries for the network’s aforementioned Duke-Notre Dame showcase were up 131% compared to the 1.87 million viewers it averaged over the course of three Fighting Irish broadcasts in the year-ago period.