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CBS CEO Les Moonves says NFL ratings may be down because there’s too much NFL

Is there simply too much football?

Mike Windle / Getty

The NFL dominates television. It’s why major broadcast networks NBC and CBS and cable giants ESPN and Fox together pay the league more than $5 billion a year for rights to their games.

But NFL ratings are down for the first time in a long time, even for prime-time games, like Sunday and Monday Night Football, which are at record lows. And that’s bad.

Les Moonves, the head of CBS, which pays an average of about $1 billion a year to the NFL for rights, suspects the reason is that there’s now too much NFL on TV — it may have finally saturated the market.

“Have they sliced it and diced it too much? Is there too much product out there?” Moonves asked onstage Wednesday from the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit in San Francisco. “I really don’t know.”

He did mention a few other theories, the most popular of which is that the 2016 presidential election is stealing everyone’s attention. Other potential culprits: Injuries to and suspensions of popular players, and channels like the NFL Red Zone stealing the attention of fantasy football fans, he added.

“What happens with every failure in television, a motion picture, magazines — everybody has a hundred reasons for why it failed,” Moonves said.

This is an important thing to figure out, of course. Tech companies like Twitter and Facebook and Amazon are thinking about streaming rights, and leagues are trying to figure out how to balance their existing TV deals with digital distribution deals, too. Knowing where and what the audience is watching is obviously key.

In the meantime, Moonves is being patient.

“I’ve been surprised that the numbers are down,” he said. “I will have a better assessment in early December as the league develops, as the better teams come forward, but I really don’t know.”

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