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.
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 (in a rare shutout, the World Series and NBA Finals failed to chart, while the racing portion of NBC’s Kentucky Derby coverage just missed the cut at No. 105), the shadow it cast over the network sitcoms, dramas and reality/competition series was as long and dark as it’s ever been. With an average draw of 18.2 million linear TV viewers per game, a haul that includes 6.67 million members of the 18-49 demo, Sunday Night Football effectively sucked all the air out of primetime. By comparison, the 66 primetime entertainment shows that have aired since the NFL season began are currently averaging a relatively meager 4.23 million viewers, of whom 732,371 are among the all-important under-50 set.
All told, live sports accounted for 94 of the year’s 100 largest TV audiences, as the NFL was joined by 10 Summer Olympics broadcasts, seven top-drawer college football games and a pair of NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship outings. That left very little room for a scripted series to make its mark; indeed, once political events, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and Oprah’s sit-down with the crown-dodgers did their bit, the only network show to land on the list was the premiere of CBS’ The Equalizer, which led out of the Super Bowl. The last time a scripted show cracked the top 100 without the benefit of a Super Sunday air date was in 2019, when the one-hour series finale of The Big Bang Theory scared up 18.5 million viewers on the Eye Network.
Predictably, the NFL’s broadcast partners appeared more often on this year’s chart than those unaffiliated with the league. NBC and Fox each accounted for 31 of the year’s most-watched broadcasts, while CBS secured 26 of the top slots. ESPN laid claim to 10 entries, two of which were given a boost by broadcast sibling ABC, while the two remaining programs were spread out across multiple networks.
Among the NFL teams that appeared in the top 100 with the greatest frequency were Green Bay, Dallas, Tampa and Kansas City. The NFC continued to enjoy disproportionate representation on the ratings charts, as intra-conference games accounted for 36 of the year’s most-watched broadcasts, while all-AFC meetings claimed 20 slots. AFC vs. NFC showcases filled 19 of the 100 top slots; naturally, the biggest draw among these was Super Bowl LV.
Of the 75 NFL broadcasts that charted, 29 aired in prime time. The majority of these were Sunday Night Football games, although five Thursday Night Football broadcasts and four Monday Night Football productions made the list.
As has been the case for more than a decade, the NFL’s national Sunday afternoon TV window remained the most valuable chunk of real estate for advertisers. Per Nielsen, CBS and Fox are currently averaging a staggering 23.8 million viewers in the 4:20 p.m. ET window, a tally which includes their two Thanksgiving broadcasts.