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NFL reverses ratings decline, as game audiences grow 3% through week 5

Entering the sixth week of its 2018 campaign, the National Football League thus far has stemmed the audience erosion of the past two seasons.

Across all windows and networks, NFL games through the first five weeks averaged 15.6 million viewers according to data from Nielsen Holdings PLC, a 3% gain from the corresponding point of the 2017 season.

The pro football league, which sustained an 8% drop to 16.5 million average audience per game in 2016 and a 9.7% decline to 14.9 million per contest in 2017, remains the top property on TV.

Prior to the last two seasons, the NFL had remained largely immune to linear trends that have seen live entertainment audiences erode in the face of delayed viewing options and commercial-free subscription video-on-demand services.

This season, several of the NFL’s carriers have registered audience advances, led by CBS (US). CBS said its NFL audience grew 7% to 15.9 million viewers on average from 14.9 million a year ago.

The overall improvement perhaps can be attributed to factors including record scoring. According to Pro Football Reference, teams averaged 24.0 points per game through week five, which ranks as the highest-ever clip.

The kneeling controversy that may have been off-putting to some fans and viewers has waned, with the networks veering away from televising the national anthem. Moreover, the outcry about roughing-the-passer penalties, which left players and fans shaking their heads as the league emphasized rules to protect its meal-ticket quarterbacks, has also subsided over the last couple of weeks.

Still, a dozen regular-season weeks remain and on-field and scheduling variables will no doubt come into play. The five-year, $3.3 billion rights deal for "Thursday Night Football" is a critical play for New Fox, the company that will emerge following the close of Walt Disney Co.’s purchase of most of 21st Century Fox Inc.'s assets.