The hopes of an NFL ratings comeback in the season's opening week were washed out by hurricane coverage on Sunday.
According to Nielsen data, the overall audience for the first week's games was down 13% over last season, when interest in the 2016 presidential election campaign was blamed for cutting into numbers.
NFL ratings are being watched carefully by media companies and Wall Street analysts to determine whether last year's 8% downturn in audience over the full season was a blip or if changing viewing habits are taking a toll on what is television's biggest and most-durable ratings franchise.
This weekend, the NFL was competing with extended coverage of Hurricane Irma, a deadly storm that engulfed the Caribbean and the entire state of Florida. The extraordinary circumstance puts off any determination on whether the ratings are on a downward trend for another week.
CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and the Weather Channel had a combined audience of 11.6 million viewers from 1 to 7:30 p.m. Eastern on Sunday during the height of the storm. The figure is more than four times what those channels accrued on the first Sunday of the 2016 season and likely cut into the regional and national NFL games airing on CBS and Fox.
Regional CBS games took in 13.4 million viewers, down 17% from last year's opening week. Fox regional contests scored 11.3 million viewers, a 28% drop. Fox's national game averaged 22.8 million viewers, down 17%.
There was one bright spot for NBC's "NFL Sunday Night Football," as the Dallas Cowboys' 19-3 win over the New York Giants was watched by 24.2 million viewers, an increase of 5% over the first Sunday game last year. But that game faced unusual competition with the Weather Channel and news networks as well.
NBC's NFL season opener between the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs on Sept. 7 averaged 21.8 million viewers, down 13% from a year ago.
Preliminary ratings for the two games shown on ESPN's "NFL Monday Night Football" also show declines from last year, according to Nielsen data.