For all the alarm about cord-cutters, mobile viewers, Aereo, Netflix, fast-forwarding and the other perceived challenges to television, the broadcast industry’s biggest threat may be hiding in plain sight: the country’s unsustainable fixation with football.
Football is the single most important programming component of the television schedule. The upcoming Super Bowl will be — by far — the most watched show of the year, and it could very well set the record as the most watched program in television history. On weeks when NBC airs “Sunday Night Football,” the network routinely wins the week; on weeks when it doesn’t, not so much. Football is an important reason that ESPN can command the highest carriage fees in the industry. The lack of football is the reason that ABC has a prime-time audience that’s 60% female.
And the importance of football goes beyond the sheer number of its viewers. It has the right kind of viewers – those elusive young men who can’t be easily enticed to watch prime-time programming. Better yet, because football is primarily watched live, there is no skipping through the commercials.
So no wonder the networks are in thrall to football. It brings huge audiences and attracts hard-to-reach consumers who actually watch the ads. And the sport seems as popular as ever. Together, the five networks that carry the games averaged 17.4 million viewers during the 2013 regular season, higher than any regularly scheduled prime-time broadcast series except “NCIS.”
But if football is the golden goose, its immense value is threatened by a growing perception that the gridiron too closely resembles the Coliseum and that the players are basically killing each other for our pleasure. Recent revelations about the impact of concussions and a few well-publicized suicides by former players have started to leave viewers feeling queasy and morally compromised.
And it’s not just fans. President Obama told The New Yorker that if he had a son he wouldn’t let him play pro football, and both Brett Favre and Bob Costas have said the same thing. More crucially, suburban moms have started to push back. The number of kids playing Pop Warner football and USA football declined 9.5% and 6.7% respectively between 2010 and 2012. It might not be long before middle-class parents conclude that letting their sons play football is a form of child neglect.
In the 1950s, boxing held the position that football maintains today, with as many as six prime-time fights and more than 50 million regular viewers a week. The sport eventually became overexposed, but more important, it got a reputation for corruption and brutality, especially after the prime-time death of the fighter Benny Paret in 1962. Today boxing is a niche sport, rarely if ever seen on prime time.
Football is more firmly embedded in American culture than boxing ever was. And the fans’ connection to football goes deeper than watching the NFL on Sunday. High school and college football teams are the primary bonding agents for many small towns and university communities, and millions of fans participate in fantasy leagues or play videos games. The sport is not going away anytime soon.
Having said that, the steady drumbeat of news about concussions has led many viewers to notice how much time is spent each game on injury timeouts, as players stand around and watch one of their recently clobbered teammates being carried off the field. Just as baseball fans once saw – but didn’t quite comprehend — what was happening to players’ bodies during the steroids era, so too are football fans now beginning to comprehend the consequences of the injuries they have so passively observed for more than 50 years. Nor does it really help that the dinosaur announcers who call the games, many of them ex-players from a more primitive era, routinely second-guess whether a head-to-head collision that leaves one player dazed and sprawled on the ground should really be called a penalty.
The truth is, with a fan base now sensitized to the dangers of the sport and primed to react on social media, football is far more vulnerable to a high-profile injury than it was even 30 years ago. Back in 1985 fans were sickened when the New York Giants snapped Joe Theismann’s leg in two, but they didn’t question whether that was the way the sport needed to be. If a similar injury — or, God forbid, a death — happened on TV today, the impact would be devastating. It would set off a firestorm of debate about what we, as a culture, are requiring of our athletes.
The NFL seems to know this, since they keep fiddling with the rules to reduce the chance of injuries. But violence is baked into the essence of football, where play ends only when one player is thrown violently to the ground, and it’s only going to get worse as players get bigger and stronger.
The irony is that given the high cost of their NFL contracts, most if not all networks lose money on football. If football were to go the way of bear-baiting, cock-fighting, and public executions, the networks might actually improve their bottom lines. But the cost would be shrunken audiences and decreased prestige. Unfortunately for them, there’s little the networks can do about this situation but hope the inevitable decline of football’s popularity happens on someone else’s watch.