Like the green bean casserole your self-medicating cousin whipped up in a Thanksgiving morning frenzy, the Raiders-Cowboys game wasn’t exactly a thing of beauty, but it turned out to be a real crowd-pleaser nonetheless.
CBS’ Thursday afternoon broadcast averaged 37.8 million viewers, making it the second most-watched Thanksgiving NFL game since Nielsen kicked off the People Meter era back in 1987 and the league’s biggest regular-season outing in 28 years. The day after the game, CBS had projected that the final deliveries would reach a record 38.5 million viewers, a discrepancy caused by the network’s slightly inflated out-of-home estimates. (Given the relative lack of precedent—out-of-home data wasn’t officially integrated into Nielsen’s national TV currency until September 2020—the initial stab at the Thanksgiving Day audience was pretty solid.)
While the game itself wasn’t always a pleasure to watch, given the 28 penalties issued by Shawn Hochuli’s crew, the Raiders’ 36-33 overtime victory now stands as the fourth biggest draw of 2021, trailing only CBS’ presentation of Super Bowl LV and the NFC and AFC Championship Games. The last time a non-NFL broadcast drew a larger audience was on Nov. 2, 2016, when the Chicago Cubs took Game 7 of the World Series in front of 40 million Fox viewers.
CBS made a small fortune on Thursday’s broadcast, booking scatter units at above $1.5 million per 30-second increment, while maintaining an average price of around $1 million a pop. Thanks to the bonus advertising opportunities that materialized in OT, the network’s overall in-game haul topped the $100 million mark, an estimate that does not include provisions for pre-determined ADUs/make-good offerings.
Retaining the top slot on the all-time Tryptophan Bowl list is NBC’s broadcast of the 1993 Dolphins-Cowboys game, arguably the most memorable sports-related event to happen on Thanksgiving this side of Tiger Woods’ adventures behind the wheel of his Cadillac Escalade in 2009. Between the revelation that they get snow down there in North Texas, and a game-changing blunder by a gaffe-prone Leon Lett, Miami’s improbable 16-14 win served up 38.4 million viewers.
Earlier in the day, Fox averaged 26.7 million viewers with its Bears-Lions coverage, down just 344,000 from the analogous game in 2019. Chicago’s two-point victory now ranks as the season’s third-biggest draw, edging NBC’s Brady Homecoming broadcast by some 2,000 viewers, and currently occupies 10th place on the list of 2021’s top TV attractions.
Long relegated to the kids’ table on Thanksgiving, the Lions now account for just one slot on the NFL’s all-time holiday ranker.
In primetime, NBC’s coverage of the Bills-Saints blowout scared up 19.4 million linear TV viewers, down 7% versus to the 2019 Saints-Falcons game (20.8 million). A COVID outbreak in the Baltimore camp sidelined last year’s scheduled Ravens-Steelers clash to the following Wednesday afternoon (kickoff time: 3:30 p.m. ET), making a hash of any viable comps. The makeup game drew 10.8 million viewers against the likes of Judge Judy and Ion TV’s never-ending loop of weekday Blue Bloods repeats.
While Buffalo’s 31-6 demolition of the home team didn’t present NBC with its lowest Turkey Day turnout (with an average delivery of 16.9 million viewers, the Giants and Skins earned that dubious distinction in 2016), this year’s outcome was on equal footing with the network’s 2012 broadcast, a 49-19 Patriots-Jets laugher best remembered as the Butt-Fumble Game. All told, Thursday’s game ranks as NBC’s third-lowest holiday production.
The network put up stronger numbers earlier in the day, as its coverage of the 95th Annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade drew 22 million viewers. The annual event now stands as the year’s most-watched entertainment broadcast, topping the episode of The Equalizer that led out of CBS’ Super Bowl LV coverage. The National Dog Show lead-out drew a little more than half of its parade precursor (11.4 million).
Lastly, MLS took advantage of its own massive lead-in, as the league’s afternoon playoff semifinal between Portland and Colorado scared up 1.89 million viewers on Fox and Fox Deportes. This marks the eighth-largest draw for a postseason MLS match and tops 19 of the 25 MLS Cup Final broadcasts on the books.