NFL's ratings fumble: Is it time to panic?

Twitter: A whole new way to watch the NFL

The NFL is used to crushing the TV ratings game. But this year, it's in a serious slump. Four weeks into the regular season, the league's ratings are down 11% across FOX, CBS, NBC and ESPN. And everyone in the industry is starting to take notice.

Were this some other kind of programming, it might not be such a big deal. But for a large part of the year every year, the NFL is TV -- beating everything else that's on by millions of viewers and consistently delivering huge ratings that networks and advertisers have come to count on.

For years, the league seemed impervious to the problems that have been affecting other offerings hurt by the move to streaming and the Millennials' turn away from traditional fare. But now the people who depend on pro football for their businesses can't be blamed if they're wondering: Is it time to panic?

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The industry's Chicken Littles can't have been calmed by the performance of the Thursday night game this week, which saw overnight ratings that were down 17% compared to the same game last year. It's easy to dismiss that as a product of a matchup between the Carson Palmer-less Arizona Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers that was never going to excite audiences.

Last year's game wasn't a great matchup either, though, as it was between the Houston Texans and the Indianapolis Colts, who were playing without star quarterback Andrew Luck.

And Thursday Night Football isn't the only issue.

Viewership for NBC's "Sunday Night Football," the premiere game of the week, is down 13% compared to last year. ESPN's "Monday Night Football" is down 17%. The Sunday afternoon games on Fox and CBS are down 3-4%, according to Nielsen data.

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Still, it may be too soon to think of this as a real, permanent problem for the NFL and its broadcasters.

It's still early in the season, and the matchups in the marquee games, like this Thursday night's, have been lackluster. And viewership for the Monday night game that coincided with the first presidential debate cratered because the debate itself was the most-watched in American history.

Indeed, the whole presidential election, and all the attention it's gotten, could be a big factor. That's one reason the NFL itself has been saying it's not worried. An internal memo sent around the league on Friday and obtained by ESPN's Darren Rovell attributed the overall drop to several factors, including the dearth of marquee pairings and the presidential race.

"The NFL continues to be far and away the most powerful programming on television, and the best place for brands and advertisers," the letter said.

But the league needs to start getting concerned if ratings are still down in late November, when the election is over and fan interest should heat up in anticipation of the playoffs.

It's possible they will have reason to worry then. Brian Hughes, a senior vice president at Magna, which monitors audience trends, thinks the issues that have affected the broader industry are now being seen in NFL viewership and isn't optimistic ratings will rebound.

"It impacted entertainment programming first, but now it has started to affect live events and sports as well -- previously thought to be the last bastion," he said.

But he said networks and advertisers would likely continue to view the NFL as a "prestige brand."

"[W]e believe they are willing to lose money on it," he said. "With the rights fees being what they are, it's hard to imagine them turning a profit. Those agreements are locked in until 2022, so we don't see a lot changing in the near term."

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