Fox is on pace to finish third in total viewers among the broadcast networks this season, with an average primetime audience of about 4.7 million viewers.
The network can thank its various sports rights packages — the NFL and Major League Baseball chief among them — for that position. Stripping out sports from Fox’s primetime ratings for the season would put the network at under 3 million nightly viewers — 2.96 million, to be precise.
Fox is something of an outlier among its fellow broadcasters, Nielsen data from the last two seasons show. NBC also owes a sizable portion of their viewership to sports, while ABC likes to tout its viewership independent of it. CBS occupies something of a middle ground. Nonetheless, the outsized effect sports can have on network audiences speaks to why rights to such programming have skyrocketed in recent years. With live sports consistently the most reliable way to get people to watch linear TV (and the commercials that come with it), networks pay hefty premiums to secure those rights and the audiences that tend to follow.
Through May 1, Fox has pulled nearly 37 percent of its primetime audience for the season from sports viewing. Thursday Night Football, which improved by more than a million viewers over last season, is a big driver of that. The World Series, while at the low end of its historical numbers, was still up about 20 percent from the pandemic-altered fall classic in 2020.
Fox also has the highest number of primetime telecasts coded as sports: 159, or about 28 percent of its total in primetime. In addition to the NFL and baseball, WWE Smackdown, which the network airs every Friday, is considered a sports program.
That’s partly by design. When Fox’s corporate parent sold its studio and cable entertainment assets to Disney in 2018, part of the pitch for the newly independent network was that it would use Fox Sports to attract viewers to live events.
Below are the number of sports telecasts on each of the big four broadcasters through May 1, along with the percentage of primetime viewers driven by those programs.
|network||Primetime viewers (all programs, in millions)||Prime time viewers excluding sports||Sports telecasts (% of total)||% of viewers from sports|
The number of sports programs on Fox in primetime has increased slightly vs. the 2020-21 season, when it aired 154 such telecasts (24 percent of its total) over the full September to May season. The percentage of the network’s audience attributable to sports, however, has risen much more — from 21.7 percent last season to 36.9 percent in 2021-22.
NBC has the second largest share of both viewership and total telecasts coming from sports — no surprise in a season where it ran both the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics. Its 125 primetime sports broadcasts through May 1 are just under 20 percent of NBC’s total, and they account for 28 percent of the network’s 6.25 million viewer average this season.
The Olympics skew those figures somewhat. In 2020-21, NBC ran 96 primetime sports broadcasts (13.6 percent of its total), and they made up 14.7 percent of the network’s average audience for the season, second to Fox in both measures.
At the other end of the spectrum, ABC’s 50 primetime sports broadcasts this season — mostly college football and NBA games — brought in just 1 percent of the network’s 4.2 million viewers. Last season, sports were actually a drag on the network, pulling its average audience down by a couple percentage points.
ABC also ranks first in the key ad demographic of adults 18-49 with non-sports (and news) programming. “We’re so proud of everyone who contributed to the stellar programming that secured ABC’s place as the No. 1 network in entertainment for the third consecutive year, and we’re looking forward to continuing to build on this momentum,” Hulu Originals and ABC Entertainment president Craig Erwich said.
CBS has aired the fewest primetime sports telecasts in each of the past two seasons — 42 this season and 45 in 2020-21 — of any of the big four broadcasters (The CW has no national sports rights deals). Most of those, however, are big-ticket items like the NFL and the men’s college basketball tournament. So despite sports making up just over 5 percent of the number of telecasts in primetime, they’ve delivered 11 percent of the audience over the past two seasons. The 2020-21 figure of nearly 14 percent of viewership is perhaps slightly skewed as CBS aired the Super Bowl last year.
Fox will — by necessity — be a little less reliant on live sports next season as Thursday Night Football decamps to Amazon’s Prime Video. ABC, conversely, might be a little more sports-heavy with a couple more Monday Night Football games on its airwaves, and in a non-Olympic year, NBC will look more like it did in 2020-21. In an era of overall ratings declines for on-air entertainment programming, however, some tinkering around the margins won’t change the fact that sports remain big drivers of viewing for multiple networks.