Sports Media

In ratings game, NFL scoring lopsided win

By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / January 14, 2011

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Historically, the formula is not complicated when it comes to how the NFL fares in the Nielsen ratings: Big games and/or big rivalries equal big numbers, no matter what is on other networks.

This season, however, the formula may be even more rudimentary. Because, so far, the ratings across the board, from network to network and market to market, have been so spectacular that it’s not an exaggeration to say virtually any game is sure to get big numbers.

The highlights, courtesy of Nielsen, are so impressive that it’s a wonder the networks don’t scroll them across the bottom of the screen along with the scores and injury updates:

■ The NFL reached 207.7 million unique viewers in 2010, the most in history.

■ Games were watched by an average of 17.9 million viewers, the most since 1990.

■ An NFL game was the most-watched show among all programs in each of the season’s 17 weeks.

■ Fox, NBC, ESPN, and NFL Network each had their most-watched regular seasons ever, while CBS had its best season in two decades.

■ NFL games accounted for the 19 most-watched TV shows among all programming last fall.

And on it goes, almost to the point of redundancy. If you want a reason to believe there won’t be a lockout next season, there’s some pretty compelling evidence right there. Players and owners would be foolish to risk damaging such success.

During a conference call this week, Sean McManus, president of CBS News and Sports and executive producer of “NFL on CBS,’’ politely declined to answer a question about how a 2011 lockout might damage ratings, but he was more than willing to offer his opinion on how things got to such lofty levels this season.

“I think it was a combination of things,’’ said McManus, whose network averaged 18.7 million total viewers on its NFL telecasts, a 9 percent gain over last season’s 17.2 million. “There were so many story lines that continued throughout the season.

“Whether it was Michael Vick, whether it was Brett Favre, whether it was Tom Brady, there seemed to be so many stories that kept building throughout the year and generated interest throughout the regular season.

“It’s almost become a self-fulfilling prophecy. More people are watching, more people are captivated by the games. There’s nothing better on a Saturday or a Sunday afternoon than watching NFL football.’’

McManus noted that the Ravens’ 30-7 thumping of the Chiefs last Sunday was the highest-rated AFC wild-card game in five years despite an anticlimactic second half. So one can just imagine the visions of boffo ratings dancing in his head when it comes to this weekend’s intradivision, high-profile, rivalry playoff games: Patriots-Jets and Ravens-Steelers.

“The NFL has just been on fire this year,’’ McManus said. “Fan interest seems to be at an all-time high, and we’re just excited about riding the momentum into two games that have enormous appeal to our viewers.’’

When asked if the trash-talking, Patriot-baiting Jets have reached the stature of a national team, McManus took a spin at analysis.

“The answer to that is probably yes,’’ he said. “I think there has been so much stuff swirling around the Jets both on and off the field that I think they have generated a lot of interest outside of the New York market.

“I think the way that they won on Saturday night, and the fact that they have a coach who has won three playoff games in his first two seasons, and a second-year quarterback who even though he had some lapses on Saturday night, this season, when he has really had to get something done, he has figured out a way to get it done.

“So yes, I think there’s a lot of interest around the Jets, I really do.’’

No matter who wins this weekend, there’s little doubt that the interest will be there, with enormous viewership numbers once again.

Rematches help Phil Simms has broadcast enough Patriots games over the years that it wouldn’t be a surprise if he’s on a first-name basis with everyone from owner Robert Kraft to Pat Patriot.

Simms, the analyst on CBS’s No. 1 broadcast team alongside play-by-play voice Jim Nantz, will call his eighth Patriots game of this season Sunday. He said he loves that both of this weekend’s AFC games are matchups of longtime rivals because the broadcast is enhanced by the history and back stories.

“We have more to go on,’’ Simms said. “We’ve already had games before. And there is so much to it, the X’s-and-O’s part, but it also involves more emotions.’’

But he doesn’t understand why the Jets seem intent on providing bulletin-board material for the Patriots.

“Just reading some of the comments from players, I mean . . .’’ Simms said with a sigh. “And no one’s afraid to say anything nowadays. It’s incredible. If we said words back when I was playing, we’d have to stand up in front of the team and take about a one-minute berating from the coach. Now, it’s coming from the coaches.’’

Vitale a slam dunk We wouldn’t go so far as to say the news that ESPN and Dick Vitale have agreed to a four-year contract extension through 2014-15 is awesome, baby, but it is a no-brainer for both sides. Vitale has been at ESPN since 1979, and his catchphrase-happy shtick developed parallel to the network’s emergence. Like Bob Ley and Chris Berman, he is forever associated with ESPN, and it’s where he belongs. The funny thing is, if you ever get a chance to catch one of his early gigs on ESPN Classic or elsewhere, you may not recognize the voice immediately. His early approach was practically understated, just another ex-coach giving it a shot as an analyst. All these years later, of course, he’s a campus-friendly icon who has long teetered on caricature, though his genuine love of the sport still comes through loud and clear. Mostly loud . . . There was some subtly good news for Red Sox fans and NESN viewers this week when the network announced that Tom Caron had signed a multiyear contract extension. As the studio host for NESN’s pregame and postgame Red Sox programming, Caron is enthusiastic and poised in a role that requires not only the ability to react instantly and coherently in the hectic immediate moments after a game ends, but also to bring out the best in a diverse group of analysts, from energetic Dennis Eckersley to laconic Jim Rice. Caron makes it look much easier than it is.

Chad Finn can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.

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