Viewers sag but live sports still rule night

By Austin Karp
Malika Andrews of ESPN (left) and NBA Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks both had a starring role in ABC’s coverage.getty images

The start of the Summer Olympics has led to another chorus of dire predictions for network viewership compared to years past. But NBC executives can take solace in the fact that even as fewer Americans are watching live TV, marquee sports telecasts have continued to deliver prime-time viewership wins for a number of networks this year.


Case in point: the recently concluded NBA Finals. While average viewership for the six games between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns was down 34% from two years ago, and marked the fourth-lowest NBA Finals audience on record, ABC still trounced all of broadcast and cable TV on nights when it carried those NBA games. In winning all six nights, ABC averaged close to 7.5 million viewers in prime time, up 127% compared to No. 2 NBC and 228% against No. 3 CBS. The closest any network came to ABC while going against the NBA Finals was on July 6, when ABC’s coverage of Game 1 beat NBC in prime time by only 15% (NBC carried “America’s Got Talent” that night).

Two years ago, when the NBA Finals were in the traditional early June time frame, ABC was 192% higher than No. 2 CBS on the six nights of the Raptors-Warriors series, and up 302% compared to No. 3 NBC. Last year, when the Lakers-Heat NBA Finals series was moved to October due to the pandemic-shifted calendar, ABC did not win every night in prime time, as it had to go up against NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” on two occasions.

ESPN and Fox also benefited from the continued pull of live sporting events this summer. The Home Run Derby on July 12 (ESPN) and the MLB All-Star Game the next night (Fox) won the night and saw average audience gains compared to their last iterations in 2019. NBC had prime-time winners for several nights with the U.S. Olympic trials despite sharp drops compared to 2016. And earlier this spring, the ABC-only portion of the first round of the NFL draft and CBS’s coverage of the NCAA men’s basketball championship were other examples of telecasts that saw year-over-year declines, but still delivered prime-time wins for the networks.

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