Football is becoming the new 'must-see TV'

NFL prime-time football is looking more and more like the new reality TV this fall — it's on several nights a week, and it's thumping the competition almost every time it airs.

And this week, the dominance will be further extended when the Baltimore Ravens kick off a new season of "Thursday Night Football" on the NFL Network.


With NBC's "Sunday Night Football" now the highest-rated show on TV, and ESPN's "Monday Night Football" leading all channels in young male viewers, the only question about the Thursday night franchise is how many ratings records it will set when it returns with the Ravens facing the Atlanta Falcons.

In September, I wrote about "Sunday Night Football" as the new king of prime time — explaining how, for the first time in TV history, a sports program, and not a sitcom, drama or reality show, was the highest-rated prime-time production.


The phenomenon, analysts said, is fueled by a shift in lifestyle and viewing away from increasingly contrived reality-TV fare, with football on TV getting bigger and bigger, even as entertainment programming gets smaller thanks to network cutbacks in drama and comedy.

"There is no form of TV programming — not reality, drama or scripted comedy — that makes for event viewing more often than NFL football," says Richard Deitsch, senior editor and media writer for Sports Illustrated. "NFL games have become our national weekly, communal viewing activity, no matter what night they are on.… They are the signature programming in American TV at this time."

Signature programming — the way Thursday night comedies like "Friends" and "Seinfeld" were for NBC in the 1990s. But those days are long gone.

In fact, last month The Wall Street Journal reported that prime-time TV was down 2.2 million young adult viewers year over year. And the networks have no sitcoms, dramas or reality series on the horizon likely to bring those coveted 18-to-49-year-old viewers back to TV anytime soon.

But Thursday night, the Ravens and Falcons game alone will likely bring more than that many young adults to prime time based on last year's Nielsen numbers. The growth of Thursday Night Football and the NFL Network has been that strong.

The cable channel is now in 57 million homes — that's up more than 30 percent from last year when "Thursday Night Football" averaged 5.5 million viewers a week. And about 55 percent of that audience — 3.02 million viewers a week — was between the ages of 18 and 49.

"I'm sure you've heard people talk about NFL football as the ultimate reality show," Kim Williams, the NFL Network's chief operating officer, says when asked for her explanation as to why NFL football is on fire as a form of TV programming this fall. "That's one factor, but it's never just one thing that's responsible for something like what we are seeing with the NFL and TV."

Williams says there are "some real practical aspects" involved in the NFL Network being cable TV's fastest-growing channel — like the fact that the sports channel and Comcast settled a long-running court case last year about how the channel would be packaged on Comcast systems.


"We had been in a dispute with Comcast for quite some time, and we resolved that dispute over a year ago," Williams says. "And so we have much broader distribution on Comcast. And that has been the big driver in that growth."

There are lifestyle factors as well: "Thursday is one of the higher HUT [homes using television] nights, so you have more people home watching television," Williams says. "So there's the communal aspect, whether with your family or friends, that plays into it."

And that makes Thursday a very good night for advertising products targeted at young adults, from fast food and movies to electronics and cars.

"What's great about Thursday night is that it's a great lead-in to the weekend," Williams says. "Our marketing slogan is 'Your Weekend Starts Here.' It's a nice way to kick off the weekend, which is what the NFL has always traditionally owned."

And never more so than this year, when it comes to televised games. One of the most startling facts of the new prime-time fall TV season is that 13 of the 15 highest-rated shows this fall have been NFL football games. The 14th and 15th top-rated shows were two episodes of ABC's "Dancing With the Stars."

That might be as much an indictment of the failed network TV season as anything. But it is also testament to the way NFL football has moved into the void and taken the lead in prime-time TV this fall as the reality genre has failed to provide any new hits.


Some analysts say the rise of the NFL on TV is mainly a matter of skilled marketing and savvy use of new media — the NFL going digital so that viewers can now watch games on a wide array of screens and platforms ranging from their computers to their smart phones.

Others say there are deeper sociological currents running beneath the story of the success of NFL football on TV. Some cultural analysts believe NFL football speaks to our economically troubled times like no other form of programming. (The thinking here: Watching and rooting for a winning team not only offers a few hours of escape from economic worries, it can also provide a sense of empowerment no longer found in the workplace.)

Whatever the mix of reasons, come Thursday night when the Ravens take the field, there will not be a hotter TV ticket to be had.

"The NFL on TV is a ratings juggernaut that just keeps rolling along, night after night, whenever there are games," says Deitsch of Sports Illustrated. "And the ceiling seems to be nowhere in sight this year."

Baltimore viewers who do not have the NFL Network on cable will still be able to see the game on WBAL-TV, thanks to an agreement that provides broadcast rights in the home markets of the two competing teams. WBAL's pre-game show will start at 7 p.m., with the game beginning at 8.