If there’s very little evidence to suggest that gravy plays a fundamental role in hastening the American consumer’s journey through the sales funnel, the heady blend of tryptophan, carbs and surreptitious rambles around the neighborhood with the cousins—the sudden depletion of Nonna’s Visine reserves is always a dead giveaway, Skyler—sure seems to create an ideal environment for binging on holiday football fare. Watching the Dallas Cowboys with a belly full of bird meat is as integral a part of Thanksgiving as are crudely-traced hand turkeys and the A1C-spiking practice of serving marshmallows on sweet potatoes. While the sudden boost in the Nielsen ratings is a bit of a ruse, the NFL’s 56-year-old tradition remains one of the smartest buys on TV.
Dallas’ 45-10 blowout of NFC East rival Washington is in keeping with the team’s seeming disinterest in competing in close contests; through eight national broadcast appearances, the average margin of victory/defeat for the Cowboys is 25.3 points per game. (The league average through Week 12: 11.2 ppg.) And yet, CBS’ Thanksgiving Day deliveries were massive, as the middle layer of the holiday tripleheader averaged 41.76 million viewers. Not only does this give CBS bragging rights to the second-biggest Turkey Day TV turnout in history, trailing only last season’s analogous Giants-Cowboys broadcast on Fox, but Dallas’ 35-point victory also ranks as the NFL’s second-biggest regular-season game. As in, ever.
While a glance at the ratings chart below would seem to support the notion that the NFL’s popularity is surging in the face of our nation’s ever-atrophying TV habit, it’s no coincidence that the most eye-popping numbers were generated within the last three years. The addition of out-of-home deliveries to Nielsen’s national sample in September 2020 has unearthed legions of ghost fans–stealth viewers who for decades went uncounted by the service that provides the transactional data underpinning the $86.4 billion TV ad market.
As much as “out-of-home” deliveries are generally associated with the bonus eyeballs that accumulate in public venues such as bars, restaurants, airport lounges and other public venues, Nielsen’s portable data-harvesting tech also allows it to measure viewership that occurs in other people’s residences. As such, the adoption of OOH data has completely transformed the way advertisers think about the NFL’s Thanksgiving feast. Think about it: The whole over-the-river-and-through-the-woods travel dynamic means there are always anywhere from 25-to-40 coats on the bed during the fourth Thursday in November. Under the new-ish methodology, most of the people who’ve shed those coats are now being credited for their holiday football consumption—which has led to the overstuffed numbers we’ve been seeing in recent years.
For example, out-of-home deliveries accounted for 17.25 million of CBS’ total Commanders-Cowboys audience, or more than two-fifths (41%) of the network’s overall viewership. Eliminate those impressions as a sort of pre-2020 thought exercise, and the turnout for the Thanksgiving showcase drops to 24.51 million viewers—or well out of the top 20. A similar dynamic played out last year, as out-of-home deliveries accounted for 39% of the 42.06 million souls who tuned in for Fox’s record-smashing Giants-Cowboys centerpiece. Erase those 16.41 million viewers who took in the action from a friend or relative’s sofa sectional, and the 2022 blockbuster gets busted down to just another decent NFL outing.
None of which is to say that the networks are placing a beefy thumb on the scale with OOH. As it’s blended in with the vanilla in-home ratings of old, OOH is now an inseparable part of the official ratings currency. Tens of millions of would-be consumers who weren’t counted under the legacy ratings system are no longer being overlooked, and the more inclusive tally (and the obvious adjacency to the start of the holiday spending season) has been instrumental in enhancing the value of each in-game ad unit.
Media buyers with skin in the game said they paid around $1 million a throw for a 30-second spot in the CBS broadcast, while Fox’s early game priced at about $900,000 a pop. Units in NBC’s primetime showcase (Seahawks-49ers, 24.78 million viewers) went for more than $1.1 million; all told, the three networks on Thursday booked an estimated $78.3 million in NFL ad revenue.
These are bargains, given the size of the holiday audience; for advertisers, the average cost of reaching 1,000 Commanders-Cowboys viewers in the 18-49 demo worked out to an extremely manageable $64.98. That’s not too far afield of the average primetime broadcast CPM, which is now a hair over $50. (Probably goes without saying that you’d have to buy an awful lot of time in 10 p.m. cop shows and cloying laugh-track sitcoms in order to scare up 42 million viewers. Fifteen units should do the trick.) And while the NFL’s biggest backers tend to gobble up much of the Thanksgiving inventory during the spring upfront bazaar, marketers looking to take full advantage of the holiday’s convivial, free-spending spirit have been known to make a splash. Alongside the usual suspects like Verizon, State Farm, Honda, Amazon and AT&T, Diageo’s Crown Royal was hard to miss this year, as the whisky brand poured nearly $8 million into the coffers of Fox, CBS and NBC.
If you happened to overlook all the ads for the little purple bag of forgetfulness, you probably didn’t miss more than a few table-setting spots for retailers such as Macy’s, Kohl’s, Target and Walmart—all of which made the NFL bonanza an integral part of their holiday sales strategy. And while you can’t tell how much an ad cost just by staring at the tube, the networks have shown little signs of doing away with the tradition of soaking streaming rival/industry-collapsing nuisance Netflix. While the going rate for a 30-second spot across the three NFL broadcasts was around $1.03 million, Netflix paid about $1.55 million for each of its in-game units. That works out to a 50% premium, which still probably doesn’t make up for all the damage that’s been done to the legacy TV model.
Of course, the OOH inflation works in both directions, which is to say that it’s just as easy to apply the bonus impressions to the historical record. While we’ve already demonstrated that the elimination of the bonus OOH eyeballs would shrink this year’s overall ratings numbers, the retroactive addition of OOH to the pre-2020 games would put those earlier deliveries completely out of reach of just about everything this side of a conference championship game. Back in 2016, when Fox was still kicking the tires out of the OOH metric, the network’s research team calculated that its Thanksgiving Washington-Dallas game (No. 6 on our list) would have scared up a grand total of 48.72 million viewers if the unofficial out-of-home deliveries had been included in the Turkey Day tally.
Through Week 12, OOH deliveries have boosted overall NFL ratings by nearly 12%, with fans who’ve extracted themselves from their own living rooms accounting for an additional 1.8 million impressions per window. This is worth keeping in mind whenever you hear any rumblings about multi-year ratings gains. As an accredited component of TV’s ratings currency, OOH numbers are going a long way toward making up for the under-counting of yesteryear, but they still make a hash of any yams-to-sweet-potatoes comparisons between the present day and pre-2020 results.
Despite its passive role in undermining past headcounts, OOH is neither a grift nor a stealthy means of cooking the ratings books. And when it comes to comparing the NFL with everything else on the dial, football doesn’t really need a boost one way or the other. For example, if you were to cancel out the 8% audience lift NBC sees from OOH during its primetime NFL broadcasts, the network is still serving up some 6.9 million adults 18-49 per window. That’s more than 13 times the size of the demo delivery for the average primetime entertainment program (523,169). Keep OOH intact and the advantage works out to a factor of 14.2.
Season-to-date, the NFL’s TV and digital deliveries are up 8% versus the year-ago period, both of which include bonus OOH impressions. The enhanced metric may pose a bit of a headache for ratings historians, but no matter how you slice it, the NFL’s ratings domination is very real, and showing no sign of losing its flavor.