NFL Ratings Keep Sliding, Even With Kid-Friendly Telecast

The National Football League saw its audience decline for the past weekend’s first round of postseason games despite TV networks trying to extend their broadcasts to new audiences.

ViacomCBS Inc. drew the most -- and least -- NFL viewers last weekend. On Sunday, about 30.6 million people watched the Chicago Bears take on the New Orleans Saints on CBS and the kids channel Nickelodeon. Saturday’s CBS matchup between the Indianapolis Colts and Buffalo Bills drew 20.1 million viewers. Both were down from the 31.42 million viewers who tuned in to CBS’s wild-card game broadcast last year.

The league expanded the wild-card round to six games this year from four last year.

Saturday’s contest pitting the Los Angeles Rams against the Seattle Seahawks drew 23.9 million viewers on Fox Corp.’s flagship network, down roughly 20% compared with about 30 million viewers for Fox’s game a year ago. A Fox spokesman said a better comparison would be to last year’s game in the same time slot, which aired on ABC and ESPN.

On Comcast Corp.’s NBC, 21.4 million viewers watched the Tampa Bay Buccaneers play Washington on Saturday and 24.8 million watched the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, both down from the 35.1 million who watched NBC’s wild-card game last year.

About 24.8 million tuned in Sunday to watch the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans on Walt Disney Co.’s ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes and Freeform. That was down 6% from 26.3 million on ABC and ESPN last year.

The results for Saturday and Sunday’s wild-card games marked a continuation of a regular-season ratings decline that occurred all of last fall.

The 2020 NFL regular season averaged 15.4 million traditional TV viewers, down 7% from the previous year, according to Nielsen data. That represented the first year of viewership decline since 2017.

In a bright spot, the simulcast of the Saints-Bears game on Nickelodeon became a sensation on social media. The broadcast used graphical overlays, including virtual “slime cannons” for touchdowns, and a real slime bath for winning coach Sean Payton after the game in an attempt to reach a younger audience.

NBC also used its Sunday game to experiment with new platforms, marking the first time a NFL broadcast could be seen on its Peacock streaming service.

The wild-card round ended three ignominious streaks. The Browns won their first playoff game since the 1994-95 season, the Bills their first since since the 1995-96 season and the Buccaneers their first since the 2002-03 season.

The marquee matchup during the coming weekend’s divisional round will see Drew Brees’s Saints hosting Tom Brady’s Buccaneers. Both quarterbacks are ancient in football terms -- Brees’s 42nd birthday is Friday, and Brady is 43 -- and the loser could be playing in the last game of his career.

This season faced a number of challenges, none larger than the global pandemic, which forced teams to play in largely empty stadiums. The contentious presidential election as well as competition for viewers with other sports that played their seasons later than normal also likely affected TV ratings.

Despite the headwinds, NFL games remained some of the most-viewed events of the year. Other sports, including professional baseball, basketball, golf and tennis, saw much steeper viewer declines than football.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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