As the NFL season reaches its annual apex, stories of the league’s declining TV ratings are almost as endless as the penalty flags and replay reviews that pepper its games. Conventional wisdom, confirmed by data from companies like CivicScience and others, have attributed fleeing NFL fans to some combination of anthem protests, head injuries, poor officiating, and the overall declining quality of the on-field product. Seems pretty straight-forward, right?

On second thought…

The NFL Ratings Fallacy  

Recently, new TV viewership data has turned some of these assumptions on their head. Even as NFL ratings have slid, the gap between the highest-rated NFL games and non-NFL TV programming has only widened. People seem to be fleeing the NFL (-8% ratings YoY) LESS than they’re fleeing other TV (-9% YoY). Anthem protests and concussion fears surely aren’t helping the NFL but the league is still king, if ruling over a shrinking kingdom.     

It’s no secret that TV content of all kinds is suffering as an explosion of channels, streaming services, and other entertainment options have fragmented the media landscape. Still, the number of U.S. adults who watch Netflix on a weekly basis climbed only 2% from 2016 to 2017 (per CivicScience). That can’t explain all of TV’s woes.

Some portion of ratings declines may be attributable to the fact that it’s much harder to measure viewership across so many different platforms and devices. Nielsen, ComScore, and others are working feverishly to solve this problem but nobody’s perfected it yet. Measurement issues, however, are marginal in the grand scheme of TV’s ratings problems.

In the end, content is about competition and, for the most part, it’s a zero-sum game. So, where is everyone going?

Trump is Sucking the Oxygen Out of the Room

It was a common refrain in 2016 that NFL ratings were dragging because of everyone’s obsession with the presidential race. Surely, those lost viewers would return to their regularly-scheduled programming post-election. Some idiot in the Sports Business Journal even said, “it is reasonable to conclude that a lot of the NFL’s ills will dissipate after the election season.”

I was that idiot.

I should have been suspicious of that prediction as the Super Bowl approached last February when our data showed lower-than normal interest in the Pats-Falcons game. Sure enough, ratings for Super Bowl LI fell compared to recent years, despite being played three full months after the election. It was a harbinger of things to come.

For as long as media measurement has existed, news and political outlets have experienced huge viewer gains during national election years and a reversion to the norm in off-years. Like seemingly everything else in America, Donald Trump changed that.

Viewership spikes enjoyed by CNN, Fox, and MSNBC during the election cycle only accelerated throughout 2017. Google “Cable News Ratings 2017” and you’ll see countless articles like CNN has Most-Watched Third Quarter Ever and Fox News Posts +25% Ratings Growth.  

More than ever, people on all sides of the octagon are glued to the political cage match, shifting their finite attention away from everything else. With a perpetual stream of new political scandals, maneuvers, and Beltway drama of all kinds, who has time to watch trite things like football or sitcoms?

It’s Not Just a TV Phenomenon       

My colleagues and I get really tired of writing about Millennials all the time. But most of our clients are obsessed with them, so we focus more of our research on 18 to 34-year-olds than anyone cares to. We have payroll to cover.  

I picture every newsroom in America facing a similar conflict. An editor of a well-known U.S. newspaper once told me they struggle deciding how much to write about Trump on a given day. They worry that by covering every tweet, statement, or gaffe, they’re playing right into his hands – feeding the frenzy. But, when they do report on Trump, traffic goes up, page views and ad impressions increase, and the cash register rings.

In a world where media outlets are fighting like hell for every visitor, click, and CPM just to keep the lights on, what choice do they have? Editors don’t set the news agenda anymore. Algorithms do.

The Rise of Tribal Media

Making things worse, mainstream media outlets are under assault by political-only publishers, nearly all of whom tailor their coverage and narratives to biased audiences or “tribes” of readers who seek out and share content that reinforces their existing beliefs. Traditional news orgs are allergic to this kind of political pandering, either because they’re principled about objective journalism or because they’re trying to serve (and not alienate) mass audiences of diverse readers, who attract large advertisers who, in turn, fund large newsrooms. Growing tribalism in America is placing traditional media publishers at a significant disadvantage.  

Look at the results of this CivicScience tracking question about political website and blog readership over the past four years:

political websites or blogs
Source: CivicScience


The percentage of U.S. adults who say they read political websites or blogs “Daily” has been climbing like crazy. The fact that this trend continued after an election year (rising from 33% in 2016 to 38% in 2017), is troubling news for mass media. For the first time ever, in 2017, more people read political websites/blogs at least weekly, than those who didn’t read them at all.

And that’s not even the half of it. This trend is happening across virtually every segment of the U.S. population. Young or old, male or female, liberal or conservative – everyone is reading more political websites than they did in 2016. Eyeballs that a year ago might have been fixed on sports or fashion or gardening or video game content have turned their gaze toward the likes of HuffPo, Breitbart, or a million ‘pop-up’ political sites that didn’t even exist in 2015.  

Pity the Advertisers

Our nation’s political fixation – and the tribalism it exacerbates – is creating a complete mess for advertisers. Dying are the days of mass-appeal content juggernauts like Seinfeld, American Idol, or the NFL, where advertisers could buy stockpiles of rating points and reach nearly everyone in America, while offending no one. Even the New York Times and Washington Post, once seen as the stalwarts of objective media, are now viewed as biased and divisive in some circles.

Today, audiences are disbursing across an expansive landscape of increasingly niche and political content, making it not only more difficult for advertisers to find large audiences but to reach them with a message (and alongside content) that won’t offend entire segments of a market. Brands who align with the wrong content may pay a steep price. Over 39% of U.S. consumers in 2017 had boycotted a brand because of where it advertised.

And now, mass-marketers are faced with a big, ugly double-edged sword. Do you take Door Number One: Shift your dollars to where the eyeballs are moving and risk being associated with a political viewpoint that ticks-off half of your customers?

Or do you take Door Number Two: Nest your money with safe, mainstream media outlets that are losing eyeballs and have little emotional connection with their remaining audience?

Playing it safe might bring larger absolute numbers but it won’t create the kind of loyalty modern brands need. People don’t trust ‘information’ anymore. They trust their outlets, reporters, or friends – the ones in their ideological tribes – who filter, endorse, and deliver that information to them. If it comes from anyone outside that tribe, it’s ‘fake news.’ In our new socio-political paradigm, brands will win when they pair with the media their customers’ trust.

Where Do Advertisers Go from Here?

Our company is spending more time than we can calculate helping different clients cut a path through this jungle. The only absolute truth we’ve learned is that there are no absolute truths. Every brand, every product, and every media campaign needs to contemplate these forces differently at different points in time.

One thing we do know is that the era of stodgy, demographic-based “customer segmentations” is over. People are changing too fast and being jolted by too many influences to assume that what consumers did yesterday is indicative of what they will do tomorrow. The companies who succeed in this new world will have a lot of sophisticated data, agility, and a fair amount of risk tolerance, all sprinkled with a little bit of good luck.

Or maybe this is all just a bump in the road. Maybe we’ll elect a more conventional President in a few years, the socio-political environment will settle down, and people will unite again around common TV shows, newspapers, sports, and other interests.

But I wouldn’t bet on it.