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NFL ratings are down again this season. Is it time to panic yet?

Posted September 20

The NFL's TV ratings are down so far this season and if that news isn't distressing enough for the biggest ratings driver on TV, the latest slump follows a 2016 season marked by unstable ratings that had pundits and analysts scratching their heads.

So is it time for the league and its TV partners to panic once again? The answer is that it's simply too early to tell.

Brian Hughes, a senior vice president at Magna, which monitors audience trends, believes Hurricane Irma impacted viewership during the NFL's first week. There's also not enough of a sample size of games to make an true assessment of the league's viewership so far, he said.

But the ratings slump could also be a sign of disruptive media trends on the horizon.

"In general people's attention spans have changed," Hughes said. "There's evidence that people are intensely interested in fewer things and generally interested in more things, and I think that's a function of deluge of content that we are finding ourselves in nowadays."

Related: NFL kickoff ratings take a hit, but is Hurricane Irma to blame?

NBC's "Sunday Night Football" in the first two weeks of the regular season is down 7% in viewership compared to last year; ESPN's "Monday Night Football," is down 5%; and the averages of Sunday afternoon games on Fox and CBS are down 11% and 19% respectively, according to Nielsen data. Also, CBS hasn't yet had a 4:25 p.m. national game this season, which usually brings in the biggest viewership of the weekend.

But the league could still stage a ratings comeback like it did last year when the election ended and the playoffs approached.

"It's early yet. No need to snort a Xanax," Anthony Crupi of Ad Age tweeted about the early NFL.

Some marquee games have already performed better than they did last year, such as NBC's "SNF" opener between the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys, which was up 6% over the comparable game last year.

And let's not forget that the NFL is still the biggest show in town when it comes to ratings.

"The ratings, even while down, are still pretty much the highest on TV, and I think it remains very valuable as a promotional platform for other shows," Hughes said. "I don't think the NFL is in trouble or dead or anything like that."

Yet, if the NFL's ratings don't get back to square soon, the league and its partners will run out of excuses for why fans aren't tuning, and may need to figure out what to do next rather than what to blame.

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