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Ratings Slip From the Grip of Stalwart NFL

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Not even the National Football League, television’s longtime dominant sports property, finds itself immune from declining ratings.

As the league begins its final regular season weekend today, four of the five networks carrying its games are experiencing lower ratings than last season, according to figures complied by the A. C. Nielsen Co.

Through 16 weeks, CBS’ National Football Conference telecasts are averaging a 13.1 rating (just over 12 million households), down 3% from the similar period last season. NBC’s American Football Conference telecasts, which historically have trailed CBS because they generally involve teams from smaller markets, are averaging a 10.8 (about 9.9 million households), 1% off last season.

ESPN and Turner Network Television--the two cable networks that carry NFL games--are experiencing a steeper drop then their broadcast brethren. Turner Network Television, which has Sunday night games during the first half of the season, was down 8%. ESPN, which airs Sunday night games during the second half of the season, is down 6%.

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Val Pinchbeck, the NFL’s director of broadcasting, expressed concern over the decline, but stressed that it was part of a wider trend.

“Ratings over the last decade--whether they be for sports, prime time, whatever it might be--have been down each and every year (as) the (combined) network share has gone from 90 to the 60s,” Pinchbeck said. “The positive thing about football is that it is the best way by far (for advertisers) to reach men 18 to 49 (years old).”

Jon Mandel, senior vice president with Grey Advertising, said the ratings are not a surprise to advertisers. “We expected some decline,” he said, noting that ABC and CBS also showed decreases last year. “There are more viewing options.”

ABC’s Monday night games have escaped the trend. Buoyed by a season-best 19 rating for the New Orleans Saints’ 27-0 victory over the Raiders Monday, ABC is averaging a 16.8 rating, the exact figure it had a year ago through 16 games. (That still translates to a slight drop in viewers, however, since Nielsen decreased the value of a rating point from 931,000 homes last season to 921,000 this season.)

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“We had a terrific schedule and obviously some games turned out better than expected and some games worse than expected, but that’s what football is all about,” ABC Sports spokesman Mark Mandel said. “You never know until they play the games which games have real meaning.”

ESPN’s Sunday night football telecasts usually don’t face much sports competition, giving them a better chance to draw good ratings. But when its coverage began Oct. 27 with a New York Giants-Washington Redskins game, touted by the network as its most attractive matchup of the season, the Atlanta Braves and Minnesota Twins were playing the decisive seventh game of baseball’s World Series on CBS.

“That was not a good way to start, (but) we’ve been pretty fortunate with our schedule to date,” said Jack Bonanni, ESPN’s senior vice president of advertising sales, citing several close games that have helped boost ratings. “Six percent down is not all that bad considering we missed our estimate for the first game by four to five rating points.”

Despite the declining ratings, the NFL has not lost its attractiveness to advertisers, Mandel said.

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“NFL football looks good,” Mandel said. “The problem is that there are a lot of things out there that look good. There’s more programming out there, particularly in sports, competing for fewer dollars than in previous years. The pricing has been attractive from the advertisers’ side, unattractive from the network side, but it’s not necessarily a reflection on football. There’s a lot of sports out there.”

While no network executive or spokesman contacted for this story would discuss the NFL’s impact on their bottom line, increasing rights fees--a reported $3.5 billion among the five networks over four years--and sponsor resistance to pay higher advertising rates are believed to have caused all the broadcasters carrying the NFL to lose money on their telecasts.

Backer Spielvogel Bates, a New York City advertising agency, estimates that ABC, CBS and NBC each lose $20 million to $30 million annually on the NFL, except when they carry the Super Bowl. The firm put losses for TNT and ESPN at $5 million to $10 million a year.

According to Mandel, the depressed economy is even impacting on advertising sales for the sport’s most-watched event.

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“CBS is having trouble with the Super Bowl,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of budgets around where guys can spend $800,000 for 30 seconds of advertising.”


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