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NBC sticking with XFL despite ratings disaster

NEW YORK — NBC insists it is sticking with the XFL despite a ratings free-fall in which the football league came uncomfortably close to a dubious milestone last week.

The fourth game of the XFL season, played on Saturday, had a 2.6 rating, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Only a handful of prime-time evenings have ever scored lower in the ratings on the big three networks. NBC had a 2.2 rating last Christmas Eve showing two movies and a 2.4 rating on April 15, 2000, a Saturday night split between an NBA game and a "3rd Rock From the Sun" rerun.

"I certainly hope it has bottomed out," NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker said. "We will stick with it and give it a chance to grow."

If the XFL were a comedy or drama on NBC's schedule, it would be long gone. But since NBC and the World Wrestling Federation are co-owners of the league, the rules are different, said Scott Sassa, president of NBC West Coast.

Sassa said NBC is committed to showing the XFL in prime-time for the rest of its two-year contract.

He said he wasn't aware of any affiliate complaints about the low ratings, or any talk that NBC could dump the XFL on another network with which it has a business relationship, like CNBC or Pax TV.

It's difficult for any network to build an audience on Saturday night, particularly NBC — which generally appeals to a younger, more urban viewership that is more likely to be out or renting videos on Saturday, he said.

NBC hopes to build an audience by developing personalities and stories about people in the league, a strategy the WWF has successfully followed with wrestling, Sassa said.

After 13.9 million people watched the XFL's debut on Feb. 3, NBC's audience has steadily declined to 3.9 million people on Saturday. Its Nielsen rating last week was half of what NBC had achieved for its Saturday night movies before the XFL started.

A rating point represents 1,022,000 households, or 1 percent of the nation's estimated 102.2 million TV homes.

"I think it's over," said media analyst Paul Schulman, who owns his own advertising firm. "I don't think there's any hope for this thing, and I don't think they can change it unless they take the uniforms off and have them wrestling."

If a stock performed as badly as the XFL broadcasts, "you'd sell," Schulman said. "I think they have to sit down and seriously think about what they have to do to replace it."

A polling expert said she believes a young audience attracted to extreme sports and high-tech gadgetry was looking forward to the XFL but was disappointed in the product.

"They have to overcome a brand that they've created that doesn't meet the market needs," said Nadine Gelberg, executive director of sports and entertainment at Harris Interactive. "The potential market is still out there — it didn't go away — but they're skeptical of the brand."

Neal Pilson, a sports television consultant and former president of CBS Sports, said NBC should consider moving their broadcast into daytime hours, where their viewership levels would be more acceptable.

Sassa said no time change is in the works. NBC's prime-time platform was one of the most valuable assets it brought to the partnership, he said.

One bright spot for the XFL: The TNN network reported that viewership for its third week broadcasting the XFL was up slightly over its second week.

One NBC rival, CBS chief executive Leslie Moonves, said he had watched the XFL and was impressed by some of the camera work. There were ideas that CBS could potentially use for its own NFL broadcasts, Moonves said.

But don't expect CBS to offer a job to XFL announcer and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura.

"I hope he's a better governor than he is an announcer," Moonves said.