The narrative that linear television is dying continues to be fueled by the drop in household subscribers. Viewership has fallen from a peak of 103 million households in 2013 to 63.4 million at the end of Q3 2022, with cable losing roughly 7 million subscribers each year.
However, the viewership totals for several recent sporting events support a very different story. The Cowboys-Giants game on Thanksgiving Day was the most-watched regular-season telecast in NFL history. The FIFA World Cup match between the United States and England on Black Friday was the most watched men’s soccer game in U.S. television history. And Michigan-Ohio State on Saturday Nov. 25 was most-watched regular-season college football matchup since 2011.
“The whole business is receding around us, and the sports part of [the industry] is as resilient and powerful as ever,” Mike Mulvihill (head of strategy and analytics, Fox Sports) said.
The high-stakes matchups between rivals, the holiday weekend timing and legalized sports betting’s continued expansion across the U.S. contributed to the record-setting viewership totals. Additionally, the stats reflect a change in calculation methodology; Nielsen began counting out-of-home (OOH) viewers in its measurement in 2020. And all of the above games aired on an over-the-air television network.
“A lot of the positive stories that we’re seeing, we’re seeing them because these games [were] available in 120 million homes,” Mulvihill said. “All it takes is an antenna or a pay-TV subscription to have perfect picture clarity and uninterrupted presentation of the signal.”
The over-the-air networks’ ability to reliably deliver reach and powerful promotion is expected to continue driving rights owners to move content from national cable back to broadcast.
“I’ll bet there has been a 30% jump in live sports on over the air television in the last 18-24 months,” George Krieger (co-founder, Fox Sports) said, “and I think [that trend] is going to continue to increase” as rights packages come up for negotiation.
JWS’ Take: Nielsen’s decision to include out-of-home viewers in its TV ratings data helps to explain how sporting events can be setting viewership records at a time when cable/satellite/telco-TV penetration has declined nearly 40% from its peak. Of the 42.1 million viewers who tuned in for the Cowboys-Giants game, 39% of them reportedly did so from outside their home.
That doesn’t mean 16.6 million people spent Thanksgiving at a commercial establishment. A panelist watching at a family member’s house—or anywhere else—could be counted as a viewer as long as audio from the game was detected by the Nielsen OOH fob.
TV executives had long suspected a large number of OOH viewers were going unmeasured. But advertisers would push back because bars and restaurants were not the ideal environment for ads to run, since it would often be without audio.
Nielsen’s method of tracking OOH viewership solves that problem. “The ratings we had for decades were deflated. The true sports audience wasn’t being fully measured,” Mulvihill said. “What we have now is a more accurate representation of an audience that was there all along.”
The accessibility of an over-the-air linear television cannot be ignored when analyzing these numbers. CBS, NBC and Telemundo all posted strong viewership numbers over the holiday weekend, too. The Bills-Lions (CBS) and Patriots-Vikings (NBC) games were the most watched and second-most watched Thanksgiving Day games all-time in their respective windows, and the Argentina-Mexico game on Nov. 26 was the most watched Spanish-language group stage World Cup broadcast in U.S. history.
The value of promotion on an over-the-air network in the days/weeks leading up to a marquee sporting event also cannot be ignored. “When you promote on NBC, CBS, Fox or ABC, you’re getting an enormous reach,” Krieger said.
The pay-TV universe has shrunk, and TV usage is down overall. But sports have taken an increased share of the audience that remains. Season-long viewership for the NFL and college football has increased YoY, and the 2022 World Cup viewership numbers are expected to meaningfully outpace 2018. “It’s the best programming on television, and as people are looking for more distractions and more entertainment, they are gravitating more and more to sports,” Sean McManus (chairman, CBS Sports) said.
Sports betting may be part of the reason why; nearly half the country now has the ability to legally wager on games. ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro believes the increased efforts teams, leagues, athletes and broadcasters have put into reaching young fans where they are is also starting to pay off.
“The amount of attention that is being dedicated to the sports industry, not just on linear television but across these digital platforms, is creating this rising tide,” Pitaro said, referring to the native content being created specifically for social channels, like SportsCenter on Snap. “The idea is that you grow awareness, you grow affinity on these third-party platforms, and then what our research shows us is that they end up spending more time on our owned-and-operated platforms; linear television [through a traditional provider or MVPD], ESPN.com and the ESPN app.”
While media observers wait for a streamer to take a rights package the linear players want, Krieger is convinced rights owners will instead look to move more of their content from cable to over-the-air television in the years ahead. “Over-the-air television is going to start to look a lot more like cable, without cable.”