Three years after having rebuilt its college football schedule around the largely neglected noon ET broadcast window, Fox can now lay claim to Saturday’s most-watched TV showcase.
Over the course of 13 Saturday afternoons this fall, Fox’s “Big Noon Saturday” package averaged 5.76 million linear TV viewers, which marks a 13% improvement over its inaugural run in 2019 (5.11 million). Fox’s early Big Ten slate edged CBS’ 3:30 p.m. SEC window by about 100,000 viewers and topped ABC’s primetime Saturday Night Football broadcast by around a half-million viewers.
Putting Fox over the top was the Nov. 27 resumption of the fabled Ohio State-Michigan rivalry, which last year was scrapped for the first time in more than a century. (Prior to 2020’s COVID cancelation, the last time The Game® had been scuttled by global catastrophe was in 1917, the year the United States entered World War I.) Jim Harbaugh’s long-deferred first win over the Buckeyes averaged 15.9 million viewers the Saturday after Thanksgiving, making it the most-watched regular-season college football game since Nov. 9, 2019, when LSU and Alabama duked it out in a 46-41 thriller on CBS that drew 16.6 million viewers.
Fox originally mapped out to its plans to plant its flag in the noon time slot back in March 2019, when it gathered a group of advertisers and media-agency execs at New York’s City Winery to discuss its fall broadcast schedule. Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports’ head of strategy and analytics, told the network’s partners that the shift to the early Saturday window would dissolve a lot of the competitive overlap with the late-afternoon CBS SEC showcase and ABC’s primetime spectacle.
“In the college space, we’ve adjusted our thinking a little bit and we’ve started to think of ourselves as counter-punchers,” Mulvihill told the assembled throng at that 2019 upfront confab. “It’s dawned on us that we don’t have to always put our best game every week on primetime. In fact, last year our five most-watched games were at noon, where we faced an easier competitive scenario.”
Mulvihill had analyzed the HUT levels and the overall consumption of TV on Saturdays and came to the conclusion that noon was ripe for the picking. “We’re committed to always having our best game in the noon slot where it’ll face softer competition than it would during the CBS and ABC windows. … With our much stronger noon schedule, I think we’re going to be able to convince college football fans that Saturday starts on Fox.”
In addition to the blockbuster Wolverines-Buckeyes broadcast, Fox also carried the season’s third-biggest outing. On Oct. 10, Michigan State beat their rivals from Ann Arbor by a four-point margin, and in so doing, they drew a crowd of 9.29 million viewers. (The No. 2 game was CBS’ coverage of the arrhythmia-inducing Iron Bowl, which was decided after four overtime periods. Alabama’s victory over Auburn averaged 10.4 million viewers in the hours following the Ohio State-Michigan game.)
All told, Fox’s noon window accounted for three of the season’s biggest TV draws, while ABC’s primetime package put up four top-10 deliveries. The ESPN broadcast sibling noted its largest college football audience of the fall with the Georgia-Clemson opener on Sept. 4 (8.86 million viewers). Three of CBS’ SEC games charted, although one of these outings (Alabama-Texas A&M) aired in primetime.
While ABC and CBS slug it out at 3:30—for example, when the Tiffany Network hosted Georgia-Tennessee on Nov. 13, ABC countered with Purdue-Ohio State—Fox can rest easy knowing that the only competition it faces will come from the basic-cable side of the tracks. Per a recent Disney filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, ESPN and ESPN2 are now in 76 million homes, which marks a decline of 9% year-over-year from 83.5 million customers and effectively gives broadcasters like Fox an 18 million-home head start.
Today, Mulvihill says he feels that his gamble on the noon window has been vindicated, and that the gains made on the early side of the afternoon have been additive to college football as a whole. “It is gratifying to not only see it all come to fruition, but also to have exceeded our earlier expectations,” Mulvihill said. “We saw that the relative softness of the noon schedule presented an opportunity for us to establish a clear identity in the college game, and so we took advantage of it. From the executives to the talent, the whole company got behind the idea pretty quickly, and our advertisers were onboard from the jump.”
Mulvihill wouldn’t presume to speculate as to whether Fox’s rivals might look to crash the noon party now that it’s been made clear that more than a few college football fans may be characterized as early risers. “The way Saturdays play out now, it seems as if everyone’s found a window where they can flourish,” he says. Given the outsized deliveries CBS makes at 3:30 and ABC racks up in prime, the requisite urgency needed to counter-program Fox in the early window doesn’t seem to have materialized. Moreover, once 2024 rolls around and the Texas- and Oklahoma-enhanced SEC package moves over to Disney, ESPN/ABC will effectively control every must-see college football game from 3:30 through to the end of primetime.
If nothing else, the overall consumption of college football would suggest that are more than enough high-volume windows to go around. As Flora Kelly, VP of ESPN’s brand strategy and content insights team noted earlier this week, Americans gobbled up 12.4 billion minutes of college football on Rivalry Saturday, making it the single most-watched regular-season day in TV history. In other words, impressions are at an all-time high despite all the cord-cutting and a younger demographic that’s getting harder to reach by the day. That’s not the sort of trend that’s likely to coincide with a whole lot of time-slot gate crashing or aggressive attempts at viewer-poaching.