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From the couch: NFL sees huge ratings

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Brian Lowry

A media columnist and critic for Variety since 2003, Brian Lowry spent seven years at the L.A. Times and has contributed to both NPR and TV Guide Network. He writes weekly for FOX Sports. A UCLA alum, Lowry proudly attended the '95 title game. MORE>>
 
   
 

As my Texas relatives might say, y’all really were ready for some football. The season is a month old, and the NFL has roared back with huge TV ratings.

LET'S KICK IT

Your team may be painful to watch, but these cheerleaders are easy on the eyes.

Still, that’s not necessarily good news — even for those who might initially look like winners in this equation.

Network publicists have doubtless enjoyed writing press releases that can legitimately incorporate seldom-used words like “best,” “record” and “increased.” A “Monday Night Football” game drew the fifth-largest audience in cable history. “Sunday Night Football” posted its highest rating ever — the best for a primetime game since Bill Clinton’s first term as president. CBS delivered the strongest AFC ratings in more than 20 years, and FOX has set records for its coverage that began in the mid-1990s.

It’s a reminder that for all the talk about soccer as the world’s favorite sport and baseball as “America’s pastime,” nothing truly rivals football — especially the pro ranks — as a TV attraction in the U.S.

Before anyone starts popping champagne corks, however, it’s worth considering what might be responsible for this season’s ratings surge — and the hidden concerns underlying all those gaudy numbers.

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Recommended viewing: Six months and 162 games later, the baseball playoffs have finally arrived, and TBS kicks off the coverage with an Oct. 6 triple-header. Because Conan O'Brien's new talk show premieres on that channel in November, be prepared also for a glut of ads for the former NBC host’s program.

 

In short, there could be bad news buried in this season’s very good ratings, beginning with the NFL’s status as a barometer for the ailing U.S. economy. If people are staying home watching TV because they don’t feel they can afford to go out — and particularly, spend $150 on a pair of tickets in the so-so section — that has negative implications for fans and owners. The overpowering NFL numbers also raise some issues this year for baseball, too.

Here’s a breakdown of how all this could shake out for major players in football’s delicate but interconnected TV eco-system:

Fans. Sure, watching football on television is vastly better in the modern age — spectacular high-definition TVs, instant replays, computer-generated first-down markers. But Average Joes won’t necessarily have access to all the games they want — especially for local teams — if sluggish attendance leads to more TV blackouts.

Tampa Bay, San Diego and Oakland have all blacked out games in their markets already this fall, and more are expected unless the league relaxes its sellout policy. With money tight, expensive seats and HD sets are conspiring to make the NFL a more attractive in-home experience.

According to Bloomberg.com, there were 22 blackouts in 2009, up from nine the year before. If this trend keeps up, the NFL might have to create the crowds digitally — the way they do with the computer-generated crowds in a "Star Wars" movie — to create the illusion of excitement inside its football palaces for the couchbound viewers. And more fans could be shut out not only from attending games in person but also seeing home teams on the tube.

The NFL. Before owners start counting their Godzilla-sized TV money, they should consider the degree to which heightened tune-in is coming at the expense of attendance. This season is expected to mark the third consecutive decline in ticket sales, sinking to their lowest level in a dozen years.

 

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Owners will inevitably accentuate these mixed signals in upcoming contract negotiations with NFL players, in what promises to be the next battle of billionaires vs. millionaires, with the sports-watching public caught in the middle.

Networks. Because nothing else is defying ratings gravity quite like football, the networks — accustomed to pleading poverty in sports TV deals — will likely have little choice but to pay through the nose for future rights. That’s especially true because people tend to watch sports live and are thus less likely to zap through commercials, which they increasingly do with entertainment programs as digital video recorders, like TiVo, near 40 percent of U.S. homes.

On the plus side, football does give credence to a favorite network boast when courting advertisers — namely, no other medium can match TV in terms of reaching so many people simultaneously.

Major League Baseball. The NFL opted to schedule a Sunday-night game opposite Game 4 of the World Series. Judging by how well regular-season football has performed against even playoff baseball in the past, that threatens to take a bite out of FOX’s coverage.

So the next time you hear how buoyant NFL ratings are, just remember: There’s a potential dark lining — and perhaps a full-scale blackout — underneath those fluffy clouds.

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