One of the most remarkable stories in pop culture is the power of the NFL as TV entertainment.
At the start of this scandal-plagued season, some analysts were predicting that ratings for Sunday, Monday and the new CBS Thursday night telecasts were going to suffer because of widely publicized cases of domestic abuse involving Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and other NFL athletes.
But halfway through the football season, the ratings are as good as — or better — than ever. And with marquee matchups, like Sunday's between the Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers on NBC, they are expected to rise even higher.
In 2010, I reported that for the first time, the highest-rated show on television was not a sitcom, drama or reality series. It was instead NBC's "Sunday Night Football." For the past three years, the telecast has been in a ratings struggle with entertainment series like "NCIS" on CBS to hold that top prime-time spot
This year, however, it's no contest. "Sunday Night Football" is TV's most-watched prime-time show, with an average of 21.8 million viewers a week, while "NCIS" comes in second with an audience of 17.8 million. (That's live and same-day viewing — the most representative metric for live sports events, which have relatively little replay appeal.)
In the cable world, ESPN's "Monday Night Football" is averaging 14 million viewers a week, up 7 percent from last year. And last week's game between the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys drew an audience of 18.81 million viewers, making it the ninth-most-watched game in cable history.
Meanwhile, CBS proved that even as the NFL colonizes every digital platform imaginable with its product, there is yet more audience available on the old-school medium of network TV. The network averaged 16.8 million viewers per game for "Thursday Night Football," despite having some less-than-stellar matchups.
Last week's game between the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers drew a TV audience of 20.2 million viewers and drove CBS to a first-place finish overall for the week.
"We launched the largest promotional effort for any program ever on the network to build awareness of Thursday Night Football on CBS and NFL Network and we produced each game like a mini Super Bowl, giving it a look and feel worthy of primetime," CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus wrote in an email to the Sun. "We are very pleased with the success of Thursday Night Football... The ratings have proven that there is a substantial appetite for football on Thursday night."
And that's only in prime time. If you add in the late Sunday afternoon games on Fox and CBS, the ratings story is even more remarkable. The 4:25 p.m. national games on CBS and Fox are averaging 25.4 million viewers through the first eight weeks of the season.
Fred Gaudelli, who will be in charge of the Ravens-Steelers telecast as executive producer of "Sunday Night Football," is the dean of NFL prime-time television. His resume stretches back to ESPN's NFL coverage in the 1990s.
"You know, what everybody refers to as the golden days of 'Monday Night Football' on ABC — the Howard Cosell-Frank Gifford-Don Meredith days in the '70s — that show was really like the 26th-ranked show in prime time," Gaudelli said last week
(Actually, the ABC telecast climbed as high as 16th in the Nielsen rankings for the 1977-1978 season, but on average for the decade, Gaudelli's recollection is correct.)
As for how his show made it to No. 1 and maintained that position for 31/2 seasons, Gaudelli says it's mostly about the NFL working hand in glove with NBC to make sure he gets the best matchup of the week.
That process includes flex scheduling, which enables the NFL to alter the schedule week to week so that the best game on a given Sunday can be moved to prime time, where the largest potential audience and most lucrative advertising opportunities exist.
"With the flex scheduling, you would never have an unattractive, dog matchup on 'Sunday Night Football.' And I think that got ingrained with the audience," Gaudelli said.
Robert Thompson, professor of pop culture at Syracuse University, refers to the cozy relationship between the NFL and the television networks as the "TV-football industrial complex." And he has no doubt that by carefully stacking the deck in favor of Sunday night on NBC, the league has enhanced its prime-time product tremendously.
But he thinks technology and culture also play a role in football coming to so dominate TV ratings, despite the PR problems the league finds itself mired in this fall.
"As so much of American culture has become fragmented with people watching when they want, how they want, DVR-ing, bingeing, and watching video versions of shows posted online after they air, one of the results is that we share very little of our TV culture in real time anymore," he said.
"Live sporting events, particularly NFL games, have become one of the few communal media events left in the culture. So much TV used to be live, even the taped shows, in the sense that you had to watch them when they aired with everybody in front of their TV sets at the same time. People say they want on-demand television, but they also miss the excitement of those live communal events. And nothing on TV today delivers that quite like the NFL."
Live, tribal, violent and, in the case of the prime-time games, skillfully and dramatically staged — that's a very compelling TV package. And there are hundreds of streams of information on dozens of other media platforms feeding and driving viewers throughout the week to the Sunday night TV game.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger seems to be on a roll after a record-breaking performance last week, and the Ravens appear to be especially vulnerable because of their deficiencies at cornerback. Is "Big Ben" going to shred the secondary, or will the ferocious pass rush the Ravens have displayed from time to time show up?
The notion that fans were going to give up all that media pleasure because of a video showing a player punching his fiancee or reports of another beating his child now seems a little naive.
"I think the one thing that's changed is that we all have a much greater awareness of domestic violence — that's a no-brainer," Gaudelli said of the predictions that viewers would tune out the NFL this year.
"But in terms of peoples' appetite for the NFL on TV, I don't think that's really been affected. I don't think people said, 'Oh, because this guy did something bad and plays this sport, I'm no longer watching this sport.' I think the general public was able to make the distinction between 'Here's a guy who really did a bad thing' and 'Here's a sport that he played and I enjoy for a million other reasons.' "
"Millions" is the key word — as in millions of viewers and tens of millions of dollars generated by a limited supply of games that the NFL and TV control.
"The NFL on TV is like the diamond market," Thompson said. "People pay tens of thousands of dollars for little pieces of stones, because it's such a limited resource. There are only so many diamonds, and the market is so tightly controlled to make sure they hold their value no matter what."