Michael Mulvihill, EVP of Research, League Operations, and Strategy at FOX Sports, joined the podcast! We had a very interesting discussion — which is transcribed in full, with minor edits for clarity below — that touched on how and why NFL ratings are up across the board, FOX’s decision in renewing the World Series, how ad sales work for the ‘Own the Fall’ strategy, baseball’s stunning dominance in regional TV ratings, looking on the bright side of the cable bundle, why social media companies should be regulated, and how FOX and ESPN handle the ‘drafting’ of college football games in the Big 10, Pac 12, and Big 12. Hope you enjoy! (In disclosure, The Big Lead’s editor-in-chief Jason McIntyre is an on-air personality for FS1.)
Ryan Glasspiegel: The NFL is off not just to a hot start now — we’re at the 3/4 pole of the regular season. Everything’s up across the board. All the networks, all the windows. That’s even more impressive when you consider that the rest of TV is by and large down. Can you contextualize how much it is up versus how much everything else on TV — especially scripted entertainment — is suffering?
Michael Mulvihill: Sure. First of all, thanks for having me on the podcast. I think everything that you just said is what I would probably say myself about where we are basically 2/3s through this season. If you look at viewership across the entire league, the whole league is up 6% across all networks, all windows.
You’re exactly right: this is a moment in our business where scripted primetime entertainment is really struggling. Shows [are] off by double-digit and in some cases high double-digit percentages. We’ve seen ratings declines frankly for some other sports properties as well. I know it’s early in the season, but NBA numbers are down a little bit. College football numbers across all networks [are] down by a single-digit percentage — we were actually up 3% for our regular season, but the sport in general is off a little bit.
We definitely feel like the NFL trend is bucking the trend of the industry in general, which is great news because it really is probably the most scrutinized and hotly debated ratings story and viewership story in TV and all of media. There is more attention paid to NFL ratings than there is ratings for anything else, and with good reason because obviously the advertiser marketplace there is as large as it is. So it’s great to have the story be as positive as it’s been 2/3s of the way through.
RG: How much of it is star QBs that are a) not injured, and b) popping up like Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield, Jared Goff, etc? How much is NFL rules helping scoring? How much is the protests in the rear view? And how much is just fatigue with the news, which is a substitute produce?
MM: I’ll try to take those in the order you brought them up. I think more than anything it’s the quality of the product on the field. I think we’re in what could fairly be called the year of the QB. Every major statistic that is tied to QB play and the passing game across the entire league is tracking at a record high rate, whether that’s completion percentage, yards per game, touchdowns per game. I don’t think there’s ever been a time across the 32 teams the level of QB play as been this high, and related to that when the quarterbacking in this good scoring is inevitably going to be up, which it is.
This isn’t inevitable and isn’t necessarily driven by QB play, but it’s just a fact that we’ve had more close games this year than we’ve had in quite a few years. We have more games being decided by one possession. We have more games being decided by three points or fewer. That obviously is going to be something that’s going to impact viewership. Something that we noticed over here is that coaches are going for it more on fourth down than they have I think in nine years.
So, if scoring’s up, if the passing game is the most prolific it’s ever been, games are closer, coaches are taking a more aggressive approach to their play-calling and decision-making — I think that all adds up to something that’s a little more entertaining than we’ve had the past couple seasons.
At the same time, you talk about metrics on the field that are down. Penalties are down. Replay challenges are down. So, the elements that can add a little bit of tedium and interrupt game-flow — those are actually less intrusive than they’ve been the last couple years. So I feel like all of it has contributed more to just a more entertaining television show.
You look at just the average time a viewer is spending watching per game, it’s up by a couple minutes. We always like to look at reach of the league — how many people are watching any football at all, how frequently do they tune in, and then how long do they stay tuned in when they’re with us? Well, what we’re seeing this year is that the reach is actually down a little bit. Not in any alarming percentage, but a few percent fewer people are watching the NFL. But those that are watching are watching more frequently, and those that tune in are staying tuned in for longer, which I think probably has something to do with the game itself being more compelling. So that’s the first part.
The player protests of last season, I do think that early last year when the President made his infamous comments about the player protests, that elevated that story and controversy to a place where it hadn’t previously been. And I think we’re grateful that this season the conversation has been more about the game on the field, and some of those QBs that you mentioned, and that the games are closer, and that we’ve got good division races involving some of the bigger brands in the league. So it just feels like that story has faded away a little bit, and probably to our benefit.
The last part of your question — I’m not really convinced that there’s a decline in interest in news coverage. The news cycle is as fast as it’s ever been. It’s the fastest I think it’s been in our lifetime. We’re still seeing an increase in total consumption of cable news. It’s now very, very likely that news will again be the most watched genre of TV programming for this calendar year.
For years and years, scripted drama was the most watched genre of national TV. That changed last year for the first time, and the percentage of TV viewing that is attributable to news will go up even further this year. So I don’t feel like there’s any general lessening of interest in news and primarily events coming from the White House, but because the interest in the player protests has sort of — I don’t want to say died down, but it’s at least plateaued — and because the quality of the game itself is so good, that seems to be adding up to a pretty favorable scenario for us.
RG: This is your first season having Thursday Night Football. You’ve done a big marketing campaign around it — ‘Now it’s a Game’. I used to really dread TNF, but it feels like it’s been better this year. What do you attribute that to? Is it matchups? Is it the fact that you’re really trying to brand it as more meaningful? How do you think that the reputation of TNF has elevated this season?
MM: Well first of all, I really appreciate you saying that because it’s obviously our intention to elevate the Thursday night package, and in the words of our president Eric Shanks, what he said all along is that we just want to make Thursdays as good as Sunday afternoons. That’s why Joe Buck and Troy Aikman are out there calling the games every week, and that’s why we’ve got our pregame guys — the same guys you’ve seen on Sunday mornings for 24 years — now doing the Thursday night show in New York as well. Hopefully just in terms of game presentation we’ve been able to take it to the same level people are accustomed to seeing from us at 4:25 on a Sunday afternoon.
I do think that the quality of the matchups this year has been the best it’s ever been. When you have games like Saints-Cowboys last week, Packers-Seahawks a couple weeks ago, Vikings-Rams which kicked off our package, and the Chargers-Chiefs game that we’re going to have in two weeks to close out TNF — those are all games that would not be out of place at all on Sunday night.
I think that quality of matchup has really been elevated, and the NFL has really been a fantastic partner to us to produce the best schedule possible. Now, hand in hand with that, the reality is that not all of our games have been close games. That’s the one thing we simply can’t control. We’re always at the mercy of events on the field. It’s just the nature of our business.
As of two weeks ago, we have had an average margin of victory of 20 points in Thursday night. Now the Saints-Cowboys game was close, so that obviously helps. But in a year where the league generally has had closer, more competitive games, the first eight weeks of TNF were kind of going in the other direction. We had the great game last week and we actually set a record for the most watched game in the history of the Thursday night package, so I think we demonstrated what’s possible when you have a great matchup and the game is actually close — and boom we’ve got 22 million viewers. Hopefully we can do something approaching that for that Chiefs game in a couple weeks.
Everything has really gone brilliantly for our first year of Thursday night, except that in some cases the margin of games hasn’t been what we would wish it to be.
RG: For the last couple years, you guys have had an ‘Own the Fall’ campaign. It’s Thursday Night Football. Friday is going to be WWE Smackdown. Saturday you guys have the Big 10, Pac-12 [and the Big 12], Sunday of course you have NFL, and you’ve got the World Series thrown in there. From a marketing perspective, from one night to the next I notice that you guys preview what’s coming in future days. From ad sales, do you bundle all these packages together, or are they distinct by sport?
MM: There’s a lot of variability in that. You can’t really say that it’s all one thing or all the other. Obviously we’re in the business of selling as much content as an advertiser is interested in buying, so if we’ve got a client that wants to buy across all of those properties and do business with us in a really aggressive way, we’re equipped to do that. We’re also prepared to do business with people that have a particular interest in one property. I don’t want to speak for our salespeople, but I think across all the networks we really have to be as flexible as possible and be ready to accommodate our clients in any way that they want to do business, however narrow or broad that may be.
RG: That makes a lot of sense. I also wanted to ask you about renewing the World Series. Now, ratings were down a little bit this year which was a little bit surprising given that it was a pretty good matchup between the Dodgers and Red Sox. That’s not Yankees-Cubs, but it’s probably one of the six or seven matchups you guys can have. Can you talk to me about what gave both sides the confidence to renew this partnership for the long run?
MM: Well, I think from our end it’s that the ratings history has been as strong as it has. For the last three years, if you go back to the Cubs-Indians Series in 2016, the ’16 Series, ’17 Series, and this year’s Series — even though the rating was down a little bit, as you point out — in each of those years the World Series has delivered a higher average audience than every entertainment program in TV.
So put aside the NFL, but if we just compare to NCIS, Big Bang Theory, and everything that’s out there in primetime that our advertisers can buy in the scripted world, the World Series has beaten all of it. And that’s something that’s been true for a long time.
I was actually taking a look at an analysis earlier today where we were looking at the World Series every 10 years, starting this year and going all the way back to 1978. Obviously because of channel proliferation and ratings being splintered across dozens and now hundreds of channels, that raw World Series rating is a fraction of what it was 30 or 40 years ago.
But when you look at it in terms of the competition, and everything that’s out there in the entertainment marketplace, the World Series this year rated 8% higher than the number 1 scripted show in TV. 40 years ago, the 1978 World Series, which did a 32 rating, also rated 8% higher than the number 1 show in TV that season.
So, while so much has changed in TV, and our marketplace of consumers has fragmented drastically over many years, we’re still in a place where the relative position of the World Series versus everything else that’s available to marketers is as good right now as it’s ever been, if not even better. So we actually feel really good about where the World Series hits as a premium live event, and I think fundamentally we’re in the premium live events business.
RG: You mentioned NCIS and those other primetime scripted shows. You guys have done research that shows that baseball on the regional sports networks outrates the top 10 primetime shows in regional markets combined. Can you go through those numbers for the ‘baseball is dying’ crowd?
MM: Yeah, I like to say that I’d love to die the same death that baseball is dying, because people have been saying it’s on its way out for 100 years. And yet here it is, it’s more valuable at this proposition than it’s ever been before.
We do like to take those RSN numbers and frame them in terms of primetime numbers in their individual markets, and there are a couple ways we can come at that. One is what you just mentioned: In a market like Cleveland the total viewing of Indians games on their RSN, if you just take minutes of consumption, it adds up to I think 2.6 billion minutes of viewing just in the city of Cleveland over the course of the season.
That’s sort of a hard number to conceptualize, but if you take the 15 highest rated shows in entertainment primetime, and add up all the minutes of viewing that go to those shows in the city of Cleveland, it’s 2.1 billion minutes of consumption.
So you’re talking about Indians games delivering more time spent — and in the end, that’s really the field that we’re competing in right? It’s a competition for the time and attention of consumers — and that Indians baseball package on the RSN is amassing an enormous amount of time spent. About 20% more than the 15 biggest shows in entertainment TV combined.
Similar thing in New York. You look at consumption of Yankees games on YES. It amounts to about 6.6 billion minutes of consumption. The top 11 shows in entertainment TV amount to about 6.1 billion minutes of consumption. So, I feel like it’s a way of framing the numbers for baseball that takes into account the day-in-day-out nature of the sport.
I think that baseball is sometimes disadvantaged when it’s compared to sports that aren’t played every day for six months of the year. Simply because of the volume of games, a baseball game is never going to do the same kind of rating as a football game where it’s only on once a week and they play 16 times and a team might do a 30 rating locally. Whereas a baseball game in the same market is doing a 5 rating six nights a week, the 5 rating doesn’t sound as good as a 30. But when you account for it being six nights a week instead of one, the total time fans in that market are spending with it is equivalent. We see that in a lot of markets.
That’s one way to look at the RSN numbers. Another that’s probably a little more simple and straightforward is to say, okay, where would a team rank among all networks in primetime in its market? If the Kansas City Royals were a network in primetime, where would they rank compared to ESPN, FOX News, ABC, CBS, whatever?
There are 25 American MLB markets — 30 clubs, one in Canada, four markets have two teams. Of the 25 US markets, baseball is number one in cable prime in 24 of them, and number one in overall primetime in 12 of them. That’s pretty powerful. There really is no other sport that has that type of night-in-night-out consistency of winning primetime.
RG: I have a random analogy that I want to run by you if that’s alright.
RG: I liken the cable bundle a little bit to the tobacco companies. Not in the sense of how bad they are for you, but if you look at the tobacco business over the last 40-50 years, even as their user base has decreased their profits have gone up because they raise prices quicker than people die or quit. I read a story from John Ourand last year about ESPN had raised its affiliate fees, and I’m wondering if you see that type of raising prices faster than [subscribers] leave happening in that industry.
MM: Yeah, that’s a delicate topic and it’s a hard question for me to answer with real specifics. But I would say more or less agree with the premise. I think I agree with where you’re coming from.
If you look at the numbers that we’re seeing for subscribers to our sports networks — FS1 and FS2 and I’ll expand that to include ESPN, ESPN2, NBCSN — you know, decline in subscribers there at least according to Nielsen is pretty mild. I wouldn’t say that it’s none at all, but it hasn’t been the dramatic, drastic migration away from paying for bundled sports content that I think some people have predicted.
There are other networks that have been more severely impacted, but I’m just talking about what we consider our competitive set — the national, 24-hour sports networks that are part of larger media conglomerates. Their trend of subscribers has been pretty healthy. If you’re looking at a decline in subs of 1-1.5% per year, and your premise that is more than offset by increases in affiliate fees, again without getting into too many specifics about revenue and pricing I would say that fundamentally I think that’s pretty accurate. I think that’s been the experience to date of all the big companies in national sports.
RG: Thank you, I appreciate that thoughtfulness. A couple more quick questions. You’ve been pretty vocal on social media that you would like to see social media networks like Twitter and Facebook regulated like TV and radio. Can you explain your premise?
MM: Yeah, that’s a really rich topic and it’s one that I find absolutely fascinating. I think you have to think of that question in two ways: 1) as a person who’s involved in this business, and 2) just as a citizen in a functioning democracy.
To take the first part of it, we are obviously competing in an advertising marketplace — a marketplace of attention as we sometimes say. When you are a regulated business, which we are, every piece of content that we air — every piece of content that any TV news network airs — is accountable to both very well established laws related to the honesty and accuracy of content. And we’re also accountable to our advertisers and our business partners.
And so I feel like there’s a lot of accountability in legacy media — and appropriately so — and in new media, and social media platforms, there isn’t the same level of accountability. And when you are competing for consumer attention, viewer attention, and marketing dollars and you’re a regulated media content business competing with an unregulated media content business, which is fundamentally what those platforms are, there’s just an unfairness there. We’re just at a sizable business disadvantage. And so as an employee of a legacy media company, I feel like there’s an inequity there.
And then putting that aside, even if I didn’t have the job that I have, just as a citizen I feel like what used to be a fundamental respect for the right to privacy has really been chipped at and eroded away. We have a circumstance now where some of the biggest and most well capitalized and most powerful companies on Earth are able to follow us around as we browse content in what should be the privacy of our own homes on devices that we have paid for and bought via private transactions. And it just feels like there’s something wrong with that.
What I like about the way we conduct our business on the traditional TV side is that the way we measure our audience — whatever objections people might have to the Nielsen ratings, and the Nielsen dataset — that’s a very transparent dataset. Everybody who participates in our marketplace has equal access to the information, and every person whose behavior is monitored and tracked by Nielsen opts into the sample. They’re compensated for their time and effort to be part of that ratings collection process, and I think that while the traditional Nielsen system has its limitations it’s ethical.
I don’t think there’s anything unethical about the way that we collect our data and the way the industry uses it, and it’s very different than what we’re seeing in the digital space where people are being tracked without their consent, without their knowledge, and without what I think has been a traditional respect for a basic respect for privacy. And again, putting aside the job that I have and the company that I work for, just as a citizen all of that has got to change.
RG: All of that makes sense. I want to get you out of here on this. I heard you explain on Colin Cowherd’s podcast a few months ago kind of broadly how the draft works with ESPN and Fox Sports for Big Ten college football games. Can you explain that again? I thought it was really fascinating.
MM: Yeah I can try to. It is a really interesting process. I think anybody who loves college football would like to be a fly on the wall when we conduct that draft with ESPN.
As you know, we share rights with ESPN for three of the five power conferences [Big 10, Pac 12, Big 12]. The way that those rights are allocated is that the conferences themselves don’t decide what games will be on what network. That’s unlike the NFL, where there’s an NFL broadcasting department that puts the schedule together and they decide that Packers-Patriots is going to be on NBC and Cowboys-Eagles is going to be on Fox at 4:25. That’s a collaborative process, but in the end the NFL makes those decisions.
In the college draft, the conferences put together a game schedule [with the dates] but then we and ESPN sit down and actually choose game windows in the Spring where we’ll say — and we have the number one pick in the Big Ten draft — we’re going to take the first selection on November 24th. We pick that date obviously with an eye toward it being Ohio State-Michigan, but we don’t literally take Ohio State-Michigan. We just take the right to have the first choice on November 24th.
And then ESPN will choose the right to have the first choice on a week in September. And we’ll come back and use our first pick in the Big 12 to take the number one pick in the first week of October which will be Texas-Oklahoma.
So you go through this pretty long process in the Spring where we determine who will have the first, second, third, fourth choice on any given Saturday, and then once we actually get to the season we designate those games 12 days out or in some cases six days out. So as the season goes on we’ll say, Okay we’re up to Week 7. We have the first pick. We’re going to use that first pick on Michigan-Michigan State. ESPN then has the second pick, and they [hypothetically] thought they were going to use it on Penn State-Iowa, but because events on the field are unpredictable they’re actually going to use it on Wisconsin-Northwestern.
Because you’re drafting windows and not actual games, once you get to the season in progress and you’re surprised by which teams are better than you thought and which teams aren’t as good as you expected, you can adjust and make sure that you’re getting the best game in the best window.
It’s a very complicated and very fluid process, but I think the benefit of it is because it’s as fluid as it is we’re able to react to events as they happen. It enables us to make sure that we’re putting the best games in the best possible windows. It should benefit the fan.
RG: That was a very interesting explanation. Is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you want to yell down from the mountaintops about on this platform?
MM: I don’t think so. I think we covered a lot of ground, actually. If I think of anything else we’ll have to come back and do this again. But, appreciate your having me on. Always love to talk about trends that our impacting our business. I think that, and this won’t come as any surprise to you, I think those of us who are lucky enough to work on the live sports end of this business are in the best and healthiest part of the business — the part that’s going to drive the future growth of the industry, and I just feel like things are going really well and hope it keeps going.
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