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TV's Next Headache: Football Is Flat

NFL games are more popular than anything else on TV -- but that doesn't mean they're getting more popular. Last year, ratings dipped.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

TV industry truism: Even if the rest of television is undergoing seismic change, everyone still loves sports. And they really love football. And they love the NFL’s version of football the most.

That’s the logic that has gotten the big TV networks to shell out billions to air NFL games, and digital powers like Google, Amazon and Yahoo to take an interest too. And that reasoning seems to be routinely supported when weekly TV ratings come out: NFL games crush everything in their path — even unwatchable preseason games get more eyeballs than anything else on TV.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that more people are watching the NFL — it just means the NFL’s importance has inflated as TV audiences everywhere else have shrunk. In fact, aggregate viewership for NFL games has remained steady for the last several years, hovering around 200 million people over the course of a season.

Last year, the NFL said viewership actually dipped a bit, with 202 million people tuning in, down from 205 million during 2013. Regular season ratings were up, but that’s only because eight games that had previously run on the cable-only NFL Network aired on CBS last season instead.

Exclude those and you get the numbers in this chart from Barclays analyst Kannan Venkateshwar:


That’s definitely not an end-of-the-world decline, and it’s certainly possible that the numbers will perk up again, based on the vagaries of match-ups, storylines, etc.

But at the very least, it should remind the TV Industrial Complex that Americans don’t have an infinite appetite for the NFL — they seem pretty sated. So if you’re looking to stop TV’s slide, you’ll need to do it with something else.

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