NBC Sports executives and on-air talent fell all over themselves in a recent conference call, gleefully celebrating the fact that “Sunday Night Football” finished the 2011-12 season as TV’s No. 1 show.
What they never mentioned is that the number of viewers who tuned in to “SNF” actually fell last season versus the season before — down an average of 284,000, according to the Nielsen Co.
So how did it go from No. 4 to No. 1? Simple. The number of people watching “American Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars” fell a lot more.
The folks at NBC can be excused most of their enthusiasm. Since the network regained a piece of the NFL pie in 2006, “Sunday Night Football” has been one of the most-watched show in prime time.
And it returns with a special edition — the Dallas Cowboys at the New York Giants on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. on Ch. 5. When those two teams played last year in Week 17, it drew 27.6 million viewers.
Still, all the self-congratulations pretty much ignored the fact that this has a whole lot to do with the NFL and a great time slot and not much to do with NBC itself.
That’s not criticism of NBC Sports. They’ve done a great job with “SNF,” making it a weekly event in addition to being a weekly football game.
And there are some surprises inside those ratings results. That “SNF” is the No. 1 show in all male demographics is hardly a shocker.
But it is a bit eye-opening to learn that it’s the No. 3 show among women 18 to 34, trailing only “American Idol” and “The Voice.”
Being No. 1 “doesn’t just happen by bringing in core football fans,” said NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus. “We have attracted men, women, children.”
Play-by-play guy Al Michaels said it was their goal to make “SNF” No. 1. “Which we did. And it gives us a new goal this year, and that is to retain that top spot,” he said.
“We think we can do it because the NFL is king.”
That’s the important point right there. The NFL is No. 1 by such a huge margin it’s not even worth debating. Just look at the numbers:
• “Sunday Night Football” averaged 20.7 million viewers over 16 games last season.
• The 2012 NBA Finals averaged 16.9 million viewers over five games.
• The 2011 World Series averaged 16.2 million viewers over seven games.
• The 2012 Stanley Cup Finals averaged 3 million viewers over six games.
And that comparison is unfair to the NFL. It’s regular-season football and the biggest basketball, baseball and hockey games of the season.
The 2012 Super Bowl averaged 111.3 million viewers — three times the NBA Finals, World Series and Stanley Cup Finals combined.
This is far from being just an NBC phenomenon. Fox averaged 20.1 million viewers and CBS averaged 18.5 million for their afternoon games.
NBC’s lead can be largely attributed to the fact that there are more viewers watching TV in prime time than there are in the afternoon.
The average viewership for every NFL game in 2011 — on NBC, CBS, Fox, ESPN and the NFL Network — was 17.5 million viewers. And the NFL Network isn’t available in about half of American homes.
When it comes to the NFL, it’s hard to screw it up. The best thing NBC, CBS, Fox and ESPN can do is put the games on the air and get out of the way.
The ratings will take care of themselves.
Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.