Another Day of Super Firsts?

It’s Super Bowl Sunday, and that always means a day devoted slavishly to watching TV.   And for many of my onetime friends and colleagues at FOX Sports, who are carrying today’s event, they are especially eager to see this day come.

It’s the first-ever post-season matchup of Philadelphia and Kansas City, two teams with only four prior appearances apiece in the previous 56 games, teams that share passionate fan bases as well as Andy Reid.  It’s the first-ever matchup of starting African-American quarterbacks.  It’s the first-ever matchup of brothers facing off against each other. And it’s the first time that Kevin Burkhart and Greg Olsen will call a game–and depending upon what Tom Brady decides he’ll do down the road, it may be the only time just these two talented gentlemen share a Super Bowl broadcasting booth.

But at least they may make history doing so.  If you believe someone like my onetime colleague Mike Mulvihill–and, frankly, you should, since he knows WAY more about sports television than you or even I ever will–the confluence of all of these firsts, as well as other mitigating factors, may make today’s game the most-viewed television event ever.  As Stephen Battaglio of the Los Angeles Times wrote:

If you’re thinking about betting on the size of the TV audience for Super Bowl LVII, take the over.

That’s the advice of Mike Mulvihill, executive vice president and head of strategy and analytics for Fox Sports, which is airing Sunday’s contest between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Philadelphia Eagles in Glendale, Ariz.

Mulvihill believes the match-up and the ratings performance of the NFL this past season point to a game that will top the current audience record of 114.4 million set in 2015 with NBC’s telecast of the New England Patriots’ 28-24 win over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. The game — in which Patriots quarterback won his fourth of seven Super Bowls — ranks as the most watched TV program of all time according to Nielsen data.

“We have a lot of reasons to be optimistic,” Mulvihill said in an interview. “If we have an increase over last year, we have a great shot at setting the record.”

NBC’s number includes 11.3 million who watched on streaming platforms. This year, the game will again be available to stream for free on the Fox Sports app and Fox Now. Ordinarily they require users to have a pay TV subscription, but Fox lifts the paywall for the Super Bowl, allowing anyone with an internet connection to watch.

Incorporating accurate measurement of viewing that occurs outside the typical at home and main screen environment is integral to Mulvihill’s optimism, and being deemed exceptionally important to FOX and all of the other networks and platforms investing billions in the NFL.  As Jack Neff of Advertising Age reported earlier this week, that concern is heating up, and based on recent events Mulvihill and his peers appear ready to be more aggressive about proving it, and have the alliances and data to support it.

Earlier this month Disney Advertising, which operates ESPN among other properties, helped facilitate an unusual three-hour, closed-door and Nielsen-hosted meeting with key players from across industry segments, according to people familiar with the matter. The meeting included executives from Disney rivals NBCUniversal, Paramount, Fox, Amazon, Google and Apple, plus the NFL, NBA and NHL sports leagues, and agencies including Omnicom Media Group, Publicis Media and WPP’s GroupM. The topic of conversation: live sports measurement.  

Nielsen One, the measurement giant’s new cross-platform offering, was also a topic of discussion. There was a desire by some in attendance to receive two years of historical data prior to using Nielsen One as currency for dealmaking in 2024, an issue network executives have raised previously, this person said. 

Nielsen One is expected to be part of that future, Geoffrey Calabrese, global chief investment officer, Omnicom Media Group, said after an appearance with other JIC members at NBCU’s One23 developer conference, which took place earlier this week. While Calabrese did not attend the meeting, he said having meetings where Nielsen is engaged in the conversation is welcome.  

“There’s been a lot of Nielsen bashing” at other industry events where Nielsen has less of a voice, he said.

Not surprisingly, that bashing comes largely from networks, and a look at how recent NFL playoff games were measured by Nielsen and rival helps illustrate why. It’s common for Nielsen and alternative measurements to differ, and the audience numbers are almost always higher from rivals such as iSpot and VideoAmp than from Nielsen, said another media agency executive. While that might make agencies more reluctant to trade on non-Nielsen numbers, it also raises questions about why.

It would seem likely that for events with massive audiences, such as the Super Bowl and NFL conference championship games, differences in audience data would not be meaningful. But there can be substantial divergence even in these big audiences. 

Nielsen reported a total audience of 53.1 million for the evening AFC Championship game on Jan. 29 on CBS, and 47.5 million for the afternoon NFC Championship game on Fox. For the evening AFC game, iSpot reported 53.3 million average viewers, and for the NFC game a somewhat higher 53.9 million.

The difference in the AFC game was negligible, less than 0.4%. The difference in the NFC game was much bigger—13.5%. 

A big part of the difference may be in measuring out-of-home viewers. Though a Nielsen spokesman declined to provide a breakdown of out-of-home viewing in its championship game numbers, iSpot did. It reported 9 million OOH viewers for the Fox game and 5.8 million for the AFC game. A lower Nielsen number on OOH viewers for Fox could explain some—though not likely all—the difference between the two in the afternoon game.

And that makes all the sense in the world, more than ever as technology and a return to normal life enter into the picture.   Look at today’s U.S. weather forecast, at least as of 8:36 AM ET:

Looks pretty nice, right?  And after a couple of years where millions of people inexplicably avoided social contact, more and more people will likely be watching out of home, or even on a device.  Some might even watch inside State Farm Stadium.   Or from a park, a boat or a tailgate in the parking lot of the participating teams; stadiums.  The fact they’re not part of Nielsen’s current panel doesn’t dimnish the chance they may be watching the broadcast. or the commercials whose advertisers are paying a reported $7M a pop to be included in FOX’s potentially record-breaking day.

I’ve personally worked with iSpot and its executives, and I’m impressed by their ability to measure commercial activity more effectively than Nielsen.  They’re clearly making inroads on those that matter, and if they’re gonna give Mulvihill and his boss Eric Shanks more of a chance to make history, at a time when FOX sorely needs any audience of consequence given that they’re not exactly killing it in prime time on most nights, don’t think they won’t hesitate to source them, and not Nielsen, if and when they come within striking distance of that 115M.

FWIW, I’ll be watching out of home for the first time in ages.  Nothing like the time I actually was at  The Game, the 2009 SB43 in Tampa where Santonio Holmes and the Pittsburgh Steelers denied the Arizona Cardinals a title in the Birds’ first-ever Super Bowl with a late score.  My spouse and I were cheering Holmes like crazy, but not for the reasons that many diehard Pittsburgers in attendence thought.  I’ll save the real reason for more private discussions, but suffice to say neither of us had much emotional investment in either team.  When a reporter from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sidled up to my overly enthusiastic spouse to ask who we were rooted for, I whispered to her,  “Tell him we were rooting for Springsteen”.

She took the bait.  He took the quote.  She went viral–at least in the 412–with that response, attributed to her  I did something nice for my spouse, and my spouse didn’t bite my head off in the process.   That was kind of a first in its own right.

I don’t have quite as much affinity for Rihanna, so I’ll probably use halftime for some fresh air.  But I’ll have my phone with me, and I’ll have the game on when I do.  I strongly suspect I won’t be alone in that process.  My viewership deserves to be counted, and I’m excited that the industry is pressuring Nielsen, along with its competitors, to do a better job in achieving that goal.  There’s too much at stake, and too many people losing jobs as a result of underdeliveries, for anyone not to be held fully accountable when they don’t address those concerns at such a crucial time.

I really hope Mulvihill is proven prescient yet again.  And I sure hope it’ll result in some opportunities opening up for me and others in the process.  Or at least some phone calls being returned.

Now that’s a first (at least for this year) I REALLY want to see.

Until next time…



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