Here is the complete picture for the Week 1 NFL television ratings, compared to last year. All data is via Showbuzz Daily (here, here, here, and here); numbers are in millions of viewers for average minute audience:
Here are my observations:
1) With the exception of Fox, this is a rough start for NFL viewership. The numbers would, in all likelihood, be even worse but for the fact that out-of-home viewership now counts in the 2020 numbers and did not factor in immediately before.
2) That’s a big win for Fox to be up in this environment. For the late slate, there was clearly considerable interest in Tom Brady’s debut with the Buccaneers; that game represents a bulk of those 25.8 million viewers. Fox’s early window actually did a tick worse than CBS’s this year, but was up as opposed to down because CBS’s was higher in 2019.
3) In my opinion, cable news competition is the biggest reason for the primetime declines. Here’s viewership (in millions) on the first night of Monday Night Football this year versus last year:
On the margins, sports and news are substitute products. Thus, while NFL football is still crushing cable news shows — and everything else on television, save for very special events like the Oscar’s — in overall reach, it’s easy to point to the gain in primetime news coming from a drop in football.
I do think that there is a slice of viewers that does not tune in over distaste for social justice demonstrations embedded in the games, but it’s a lot more difficult for me to quantify than cable news viewership where there’s hard data.
4) Two plausible explanations for the Thursday NFL kickoff game between the Chiefs and Texans being down from Packers-Bears last season were that football snuck up on people with no preseason and that Rockets-Lakers grabbed a couple million viewers away. The football sneaking up on people argument is nullified by the great Fox numbers, and the NBA argument is nullified that Sunday and Monday night were down year-over-year with no NBA competition.
5) I expect Sunday afternoon football to hold up better than primetime football versus last year for the duration of the season. This is partly due to the fact that the games aren’t going up against the A-list opinion hosts on cable news, and partly due to there being so much more stimuli — multiple games going on, which means channel surfing and more relevance with bets and fantasy.