The NFL’s television ratings through three weeks mostly are flat compared to last season, something that until recently would have been of interest primarily to people in the industry and the small group of journalists who follow such things.
But lately the league’s degree of popularity has gotten tangled up in larger matters, ranging from presidential politics to the future of television itself as live and scripted programming follow diverging paths.
Starting Thursday night, Fox and the NFL will add another wrinkle to the discussion, with the hope one of the league’s ratings weak spots can be shored up with a better schedule and a more consistent television home.
After two years of shuttling among CBS, NBC and the NFL Network, the package will begin a consistent run on Fox with the Vikings-Rams game, followed in the first two weeks of October by Colts-Patriots and Eagles-Giants.
“Given the schedule of games we have, we’ve put ourselves and the league has put us in the best possible position to grow the package,” said Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports’ executive vice president of research. “I think that in my opinion, and I think the consensus opinion is, this is the best schedule of Thursday night games that has ever been created.”
Mulvihill also believes that having one broadcast network home for the package will reduce viewer confusion.
“We’ve made program discovery and content discovery so difficult and so complicated,” he said. “There are so many traditional TV channels and so many streaming services, so much content that you can watch online, and it’s really difficult to keep track of just where your favorite programming is.
“We’re really incentivized to simplify. If we can just make it easier for consumers, we can take something that has been hopscotching around to various networks for the last couple of years and just very simply say, hey, you’re going to find this on Fox every Thursday night for the next couple of months.”
Mulvihill is not an unbiased observer when it comes to all of the above, given his job. But he has a reputation for straight-shooting, and his Twitter feed is a popular source of voice-of-reason information about sports ratings.
Again, that used to be mostly of interest to ratings geeks. But as NFL ratings slid over the past couple of seasons, a debate raged over whether it was related to resentment of some players kneeling in protest during the pregame national anthem, an act for which Donald Trump publicly and repeatedly has criticized them.
“It’s amazing to me,” Mulvihill said. “It’s always really striking to me that if I tweet out something positive about NFL ratings, which I feel like is part of my job — that’s partly what I’m here to do — it’s stunning how many responses, no matter how innocuously I might try to phrase it, all the responses will reference the President.
“I’ll say, ‘Hey, 10 of the 10 highest-rated shows of the season to date are NFL games.’ That’s just a pretty simple statement of fact. And I’ll get all these responses that single out the President or make a political issue out of it. So there definitely are people that are putting a political twist on it that may or may not be there.”
Mulvihill said that he has noticed so far this season less political talk surrounding the NFL.
“I think most of the conversation this year has been about roughing-the-passer penalties and the catch rule or Baker Mayfield,” he said. “We’re talking about things happening on the field, which is a really healthy thing.”
Mulvihill said Fox’s NFL ratings are up about 1 percent so far this season, and likely would have been up by more if not for interest in Tiger Woods’ first PGA Tour victory in five years late Sunday afternoon on NBC.
“I feel like we’re on our way to this being maybe a stabilization year, which is sort of what we were anticipating and hoping for,” he said. “After two years of declines that were much-discussed and well-documented, we kind of hoped this would be a year where we would be up a little or down a little but hopefully stabilizing and seeing kind of a new normal. I feel like that’s basically where we are.”
One of Mulvihill’s most consistent themes on Twitter, in interviews and in public appearances, is putting in context the state of the NFL in particular and live sports in general compared to scripted entertainment programming.
In short, even as live sports has slipped compared to the broadcast television glory days of the late 20th century, it has slipped far less than non-live programming, a gap that continues to grow, enhancing the value of sports TV.
“When I sit here and say we’re up 1 percent and the whole league is down 1 percent, on its face that can sound like sort of a mediocre story,” he said. “When you start contrasting the sports trend and the entertainment trend, that 1 percent up or down for the NFL starts to look pretty healthy.
“I’ve talked a lot about this idea that the whole video marketplace is separating into live content and on-demand content and that our live content marketplace is pretty stable, and we’re about as effective a vehicle for advertisers as we have ever been. Whereas the advertising marketplace in the on-demand world is really disappearing.”
So while the sports divisions of Fox, CBS and NBC, along with ESPN, always will consider themselves competitors, the reality is that they have more in common with each other than with their own networks’ scripted entertainment divisions.
“Even though we and ESPN are competitors in some obvious ways, I really think our interests are much more aligned and in common than they are in opposition,” Mulvihill said. “The reason we’re going to be successful over the next five years or the next 10 years are pretty similar . . . To the extent we’re going to grow our business, I really believe that growth is more likely to come at the expense of other types of programming than it is likely to come at the expense of other sports television brands.
“We’re still competitors. We’re still going to take friendly shots at each other from time to time, I’m sure. But I really think ESPN, Fox, NBC Sports, I feel like we’re a lot more likely to grow in tandem than we are to take shares from a zero-sum pie.”