Last year, after the NFL Draft aired on broadcast for the first time ever, I wrote a blog post looking at the resulting ratings and what it meant for the NFL’s desire for “presidential election”-style coverage of the draft on every major network. This year, ESPN agreed to air all three days of the draft on ABC, with the first two days being college-focused coverage from College GameDay that aired on ESPN2 last year. This was somewhat surprising to me, because last year Grey’s Anatomy significantly outpaced Fox’s coverage in the 8 PM ET hour, and ABC was hosting what amounted to side coverage alongside the existing coverage on ESPN and NFL Network. I figured the league would want to repeat last year’s experiment another year, and if ESPN did decide to put the draft on ABC they would put it on only ABC, making pre-empting Grey’s more palatable and allowing both ESPN and ESPN2 to air NBA playoff games on Friday if needed. Still, it is understandable; ESPN is desperate to maintain their relationship with the league entering contract renegotiations, including pumping up ABC as a broadcast outlet for the league, while still preserving whatever impact the draft still has on their carriage fees.
Did we learn anything more about the future of the draft on broadcast? Let’s find out. This is going to be significantly shorter than last year’s analysis, and I’m going to assume, for the most part, you already read last year’s post for context.
Day 1: The first day’s coverage of the draft was down only slightly from last year and marked the third-largest Day 1 audience on record, almost entirely due to ABC. ESPN and NFL Network were both down double-digits, with NFLN seeing its lowest audience since 2013 (and that’s with last year’s numbers not including the Fox simulcast) and ESPN drawing its lowest household ratings since 2004. ABC’s coverage nearly pulled even with ESPN, drawing identical household ratings and coming within about 320,000 viewers, although ESPN had a much bigger lead in the key 18-49 demographic. Was this because ABC’s college-centric coverage was more appealing to a broader audience, the result of ESPN’s promotion machine highlighting ABC’s coverage to a greater degree than any other network could, or simply more people being used to the draft being on broadcast compared to last year?
Last year, I noted that Fox’s ratings actually went up late in the night, with the network posting consistent 1.1s in the demo until jumping to a 1.3 at 10 PM, then crashing back down to a 1.0 at 10:30. I wondered if ratings would start higher if more people were aware of the draft being on broadcast to begin with. This year, ABC’s demo ratings bounced between 1.2 and 1.4 for the first two hours, then actually crashed to 1.1 at 10 PM and .9 at 10:30. This does seem like familiarity and promotion had as much to do with ABC’s numbers as anything else; if I wanted to be smug about it I’d suggest the decline from Fox last year in the 10 PM hour, despite the higher numbers earlier in the night, suggests the more human-interest-focused, college-centric coverage is more of a liability than anything else. (I tried to watch it from the lens of being more “Olympic-ified” coverage more along the lines of what a broadcast network would do with their own production, but it was so substance-free I never watched more than a handful of minutes. I suspect a broadcast network handling a main draft production would try to stake out some middle ground.)
ABC edged out CBS for the night’s demo crown with CBS taking the total-viewer lead; The Big Bang Theory had a substantial lead in the demo in the 8 PM half-hour, while its spinoff Young Sheldon only barely edged it out at 8:30. Last year I suggested CBS would only be willing to pre-empt BBT for the draft if they had exclusivity, without sharing it with ESPN or NFL Network, and the only thing that could have changed that is the fact of BBT ending after this season. Young Sheldon is CBS’ second-highest-rated scripted series in the demo and it’s not clear it can maintain its current numbers without BBT as a lead-in. I still don’t think the networks would find there to be enough potential audience to justify “presidential-election” style coverage split between them, but without BBT CBS would have much less of an argument against the sort of split we’ve seen the last two years.
ABC’s own numbers, when isolated to the main primetime period only, improved significantly compared to last week, although the entire draft coverage declined slightly from last week’s primetime average.
Day 2: This is where any network that’s not ABC or Fox would still need some convincing to give up their primetime for the draft, and also the ultimate condemnation of the ABC production as any sort of harbinger for the future of draft coverage. Second-day coverage set a new high across all networks (thanks mostly to ESPN’s NBA Playoff game starting later than in years past, meaning draft coverage moved to ESPN2 later accordingly), but ABC’s coverage was down a tick in the demo compared to Fox last year, and came in a shade behind NBC at third across the broadcast networks. Fox’s slate is weak enough that ABC beat it fairly consistently, but the real point of comparison for Fox might be WWE SmackDown, which will take over Fox’s Friday nights in the fall and picked up a .7 in the demo the previous Tuesday, good enough to beat even Fox’s own year-ago draft numbers. Meanwhile, CBS beat ABC in the demo in every half hour, while NBC beat ABC in three half hours compared to ABC taking the edge in one. (Even in 18-34, where last year I noted Fox’s numbers would be more appealing to other networks, ABC isn’t clearly ahead of NBC or CBS.) NBC might be willing to air the draft with more traditional coverage and with ESPN and NFLN sharing the stage expecting a lateral difference in ratings from what they already have, but I doubt it’d be worth it for CBS. Even for ABC, the network added more total viewers compared to last week’s slate but may have declined in the demo. “Presidential-election-style” coverage of the second night appears to be a nonstarter, and even the status quo of a broadcast network sharing the night with ESPN and NFLN appears wobbly.
Day 3: Like last year, ABC simulcast ESPN’s coverage of the third day, and as such my analysis doesn’t change much. Both ESPN and ABC gained total viewers compared to last year with ABC’s demo gains outweighing ESPN’s demo losses; with NFLN also gaining ground in both measures, draft coverage averaged 3.161 million viewers across all three networks with 1.251 million of them in the demo, up a decent amount from last year. Across Saturday’s slate, ABC’s coverage alone trailed both of NBC’s NHL games in both measures, and was just barely edged out by CBS’ golf coverage in total viewers, but once again the total audience outpaced every non-NBA sporting event on the weekend except Sunday’s NASCAR race from Talladega. (Last year’s Xfinity Series race from ‘Dega was on Fox instead of FS1 and would still have drawn more total and demo viewers than ABC’s audience.)
Where does the NFL go from here? In the near term, I would expect something similar to this year’s setup to remain how the draft is broadcast in the foreseeable future, with the main question being whether ABC switches to a more conventional draft presentation, and if it does, if that comes at the expense of ESPN’s coverage, especially on the second day. As before, NBC might be convinced to give up its Thursday and Friday slates for draft coverage shared with ESPN and NFLN even if it would be a lateral move on Friday, but even with BBT ending Friday is pretty much the Achilles’ heel for CBS. One thing to consider if I’m the league: if I want to keep pick-tipping from becoming a thing again, I would want to minimize the number of draft productions that need to synchronize their ad breaks and general readiness for pick announcements, even if ESPN is otherwise okay with how ABC’s college-centric coverage did.
Longer-term, there probably aren’t enough viewers to go around to make “presidential-election” style coverage worth any network’s while; the bigger question is whether the league opts to take coverage away from ESPN and NFLN and give it exclusively to one broadcast network. My impression is that, despite the rumblings a year or two ago regarding ESPN potentially giving up Monday Night Football, the reality is that ESPN is desperate enough to maintain the league’s presence on its cable network that it will want to find some way to maintain its streak of draft coverage going back to 1980. If any changes come to draft coverage next year, that could be a sign of how much further those changes could go in the next contract, but if we get a replay of this year’s setup, that will probably remain how the draft is covered well into the next decade, barring any precipitous ratings drops.