Play ball! With this past weekend’s World Series, baseball had its biggest audience in six years. It wasn’t enough to overcome NFL Sunday, though. Viewership was up to 43.5 million from 37.7 million for the Giants-Cubs matchup that was the lowest-rated since 2009.
Broadcast TV isn’t the only part of the media world with viewership numbers that aren’t reflecting a return to the massive numbers of yesteryear. Advertisers once only paid to reach the all-important 18-to-49-year-old audience, but now need people to watch ads, too. That shift made up part of the softer ratings during the major sports broadcasts, but analysts say it’s more complicated than that.
TV ratings “have a tendency to dip sometimes but the 9-, 10-, 11-year averages aren’t showing anything different from last year’s,” said Brad Adgate, senior vice president at Horizon Media. A similar dip was evident for this past Super Bowl season, where the Philadelphia Eagles (which didn’t have much of a marketing buzz) beat the New England Patriots, but Monday night’s “Monday Night Football” game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Indianapolis Colts, a blowout, logged ratings in the 44 million range.
Another factor in fall-to-spring numbers is that the World Series has been giving TV fans only snippets of a game. This year’s series, where the New York Mets won the title over the Kansas City Royals, lasted five games. Had that game been five games plus the previous three games, the Series ratings would have been close to the Super Bowl’s 47.2 million, last season’s second-best.
A new phenomenon is that viewers have so many high-definition options like Netflix and Hulu. Even when a live sporting event isn’t available in all of its high-definition cuts, it still gets viewers online to experience it in a way that wasn’t possible when it went on television in a “standard” viewing experience.
Still, Adgate notes that network sports ratings are “about that a tenth of a percent than a year ago” and points out the declining of viewership for things like “The Voice” and “Survivor.”
Nathan Olson, a partner at the digital firm GroupM, thinks Nielsen’s method of counting how many people watch TV is skewed. Nielsen’s numbers only include the people who happen to be watching it at the same time.
“If you were only working with a person of those exact same gender and ethnicity, you’d probably come out with a different result,” Olson said.
The drop in live ratings can mean it’s an unhealthier viewing experience, said Jeff Wlodarczak, a senior vice president of strategic intelligence at Nielsen. Just because there’s fewer people watching doesn’t mean people are sleeping more, he said.
“It’s not like people are sitting on the couch and playing Xbox while their buddies are talking over lunch,” he said. “It’s just not consistent with that way of viewing.”
The key for networks to keep programming relevant to people now is to offer more than the commercials they show after shows. Streaming services like Netflix and Hulu have more freedom to offer high-quality original programming; live sports can offer live, compelling content. This season, NBC is broadcasting that boxing match that for many Americans was similar to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. NBC also took the unusual step of offering a few additional hours of the World Series on social media.
“Audiences need a reason to stick around through the evening.