Fox is on pace to finish third in total viewership among broadcast networks this season, with an average prime-time audience of around 4.7 million viewers.
The network can thank its various sports rights packages – the head of the NFL and Major League Baseball among them – for this position. Removing sports from Fox’s prime-time ratings for the season would put the network at less than 3 million nightly viewers — 2.96 million, to be precise.
Fox is something of an outlier among its fellow broadcasters, according to Nielsen data from the past two seasons. NBC also owes a significant portion of its viewership to sports, while ABC likes to brag about its viewership independently of it. CBS occupies an intermediate position. Nevertheless, the outsized effect sports can have on network audiences is why rights to such programming have skyrocketed in recent years. With live sports still being the most reliable way to get people to watch linear TV (and the commercials that come with it), networks pay high premiums to secure those rights and the audiences that tend to follow.
Through May 1, Fox pulled nearly 37% of its prime-time viewership for the season from sports viewing. Thursday night football, which improved by more than one million viewers compared to last season, is one of the main drivers. The World Series, while at the bottom of its all-time numbers, was still up about 20% from the pandemic-altered Fall Classic in 2020.
Fox also has the most primetime TV shows coded as sports: 159, or about 28% of its primetime total. In addition to NFL and baseball, WWE Smackdown, which the network airs every Friday, is considered a sports program.
This is partly by design. When Fox’s parent company sold its studio and cable entertainment assets to Disney in 2018, part of the newly independent network’s pitch was that it would use Fox Sports to lure viewers to live events.
Below is the number of sports broadcasts on each of the big four broadcasters through May 1, along with the percentage of prime-time viewers driven by those programs.
|Network||Prime time viewers (all programs combined, in millions)||Non-sport primetime viewers||Sports broadcasts (% of total)||% of sports viewers|
The number of primetime sports programs on Fox increased slightly from the 2020-21 season, when it aired 154 such shows (24% of its total) for the entire September-May season. The percentage of the network’s viewership attributable to sports, however, has grown much more – from 21.7% last season to 36.9% in 2021-22.
NBC has the second-largest share of total viewership and television coverage from sports — no surprise in a season when it hosted both the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics. Its 125 prime-time sports shows through May 1 represent just under 20% of NBC’s total, and they represent 28% of the network’s average of 6.25 million viewers this season.
The Olympics skews these numbers somewhat. In 2020-21, NBC aired 96 primetime sports shows (13.6% of its total), and they accounted for 14.7% of the network’s average viewership for the season, second only to Fox in both measures.
At the other end of the spectrum, ABC’s 50 prime-time sports shows this season — mostly college football and NBA games — drew just 1% of the network’s 4.2 million viewers. . Last season, sports actually acted as a drag on the network, causing its average viewership to drop by a few percentage points.
ABC also ranks first in the key 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 #1 entertainment network for the third year in a row, and we look forward to continuing to build on that momentum.” “, Hulu Originals and said Craig Erwich, president of ABC Entertainment.
CBS has aired the fewest prime-time sports shows 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 agreements). Most of them, however, are big ticket items like the NFL and Men’s College Basketball Tournament. So, although sports account for just over 5% of the number of prime time broadcasts, they have delivered 11% of the viewership over the past two seasons. The 2020-21 figure of nearly 14% of viewership may be slightly skewed as CBS aired the Super Bowl last year.
Fox will – out of necessity – be a little less dependent on live sports next season because Thursday night football off to Amazon’s Prime Video. ABC, on the other hand, could be a little sportier with a few more Monday Night Football games on its airwaves, and in a non-Olympic year, NBC will look more like it did in 2020-21. At a time when overall ratings are falling for on-air entertainment programming, however, a few tweaks around the margins won’t change the fact that sports remain big viewing drivers for multiple networks.