NFL Ratings Beat New Network Shows

The biggest thing on broadcast TV this fall is the NFL. It's beating the shiny new network shows and, get this, 13 of the top 15 broadcasts this fall were NFL games — the other two were Two and a Half Men. The NFL is killing on cable, too. AMC's The Walking Dead shattered records for a cable drama this year, with had an audience of more than 7 million viewers for its premiere. But another cable series that nearly doubles that number week in and week out is ESPN's Monday Night Football, averaging nearly 14 million viewers per game. It's not news that the NFL rocks the other sports in TV ratings, but for the past few years its ratings dominance has spread to all of TV. So why the rise? Are more women watching? Is it because it looks good in HD? Maybe it's because sports are made to be watched live?

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The biggest thing on TV is the NFL. Of the 15 most watched broadcasts this fall, 13 were football games. NPR's Sami Yenigun explains how the league has jumped to the top of the TV ratings pile.

SAMI YENIGUN, BYLINE: "American Idol" is a ratings juggernaut. This year, its debut brought 26 million people to their TV screens. But the NFL is bigger. A week before, the Jets and Patriots playoff game brought more than twice that number.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTBALL GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Touchdown!

YENIGUN: Right now, the networks are pushing their shiny, new fall series. The most watched drama, "Once Upon A Time," got almost 13 million viewers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "ONCE UPON A TIME")

JARED GILMORE: (as Henry Mills) I know you like me. I can tell.

YENIGUN: But 11 million more people watched the Packers and Vikings that same day.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTBALL GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Unbelievable!

YENIGUN: That was the day Matthew Corator was watching the games at Buffalo Billiards in Washington, D.C. It's a sprawling bar teeming with buzzed football fans in their NFL jerseys. His team, the Buffalo Bills, had the day off, but he was still glued to the screen.

MATTHEW CORATOR: Well, I basically watch the 1 o'clock games, and I watch some of the 4 o'clock games - and then watch Sunday night, too.

YENIGUN: That's roughly 10 hours of pigskin, not including the pregame shows or the postgame highlights. This year, the NFL is averaging about 18 million viewers a game. And their success has to do with the fact that they have a lot of fingers in a lot of pies.

TOR MYHREN: Within their business, they have dot-com, which is separate than their NFL shop, which is separate than their fantasy league and their women's apparel.

YENIGUN: All of those subsidiaries generate more interest in watching games on television, says Tor Myhren. He runs Grey New York, the NFL's advertising agency, and says that in recent years, the NFL has made it a point to reach out to new audiences.

MYHREN: What we've all realized is that women are incredibly interested in this sport, and they really haven't been spoken to much in the past. And so we've made a real large effort over the last couple years.

YENIGUN: Which means, ladies, there are now NFL ads in your issues of Vogue and Seventeen. The NFL has also scored points with Latinos. Check this out: More Hispanics watched last year's Super Bowl than the last World Cup final. One big reason everyone's watching is because the games look better than ever on TV, says Michael Oriard. He's a former player with the Kansas City Chiefs and author of the book "Brand NFL."

MICHAEL ORIARD: Watching it at home is so extraordinary - you know, with the slow-motion, instant replays with all these camera angles.

YENIGUN: Angles that zoom you in to bone-crunching hits and fingertip grabs, which look even better on HDTVs. By now, over half of all households have an HDTV. That's not the only new technology that's helping the NFL's cause. Almost half of all Americans with a TV own a DVR player. That worries networks because they lose business when their viewers fast-forward through commercials. But NFL watchers aren't fast-forwarding through anything because they're tuning in live, says the NFL's chief marketing officer, Mark Waller.

MARK WALLER: You need to know what's happening when it happens. It doesn't have the same meaning to you if you're finding out about it a day later.

YENIGUN: This year, the NFL's biggest commercial event, Super Bowl LX, drew 111 million viewers to the most visible show in the country's history. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The most recent game was Super Bowl XLV (45), not LX (60.]

Sami Yenigun, NPR News.

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Correction Oct. 31, 2011

We incorrectly said that the most recent Super Bowl was LX (60). It was actually XLV (45).

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