From its inception up until 1992, the Super Bowl was never actively counter-programmed. NBC and CBS swapped Super Bowl duties from 1968 until ABC was added into the mix in 1985. There was silent agreement amongst the networks that the off-year network(s) would not air anything of substance at the same time as the Super Bowl to steal viewership away. Up until this point, the half-time show was not nearly the spectacle that it has become today, so in 1992 FOX capitalized on this.
FOX decided to air a special live episode of "In Living Color" titled "Half-time party" during the half-time of CBS's broadcast of Super Bowl XXVI. The viewership for the entire game was reported as 79.6 million with a 40.3 HH rating, but the half-time only managed 62.9 million viewers and a 32.8 HH rating. This is even worse when looking at viewership for the first-half which averaged 84.1 million viewers. Going into half-time, CBS lost 21.2 million viewers from the first-half of the game, and in looking at the data, it seems that most of those went over to FOX. "In Living Color" delivered a strong 28.9 million viewers with 13.4 HH rating and opened the door for counter-programming to be a viable option going forward.
After FOX's success in 1992, the NFL began putting more effort into their Super Bowl half-time shows and shaping them to become the "event within the event" that they are today. The following year, for example, they courted Michael Jackson to be the performer and show had the second-highest rated half-hour of the game at 45.5/65 (versus 45.1/66 for the whole game). Since 1992, it has become rare for a broadcast network to program against the Super Bowl. The last real example of this happening was in 2009 when ABC aired a Super Bowl-themed episode of 'Wipeout' at the same time. In recent years, counter-programming has come from cable networks, and most notably from premium cable networks HBO, Showtime, and Starz. This makes sense.
I'm somewhat arbitrarily looking at 2014 first, but I think this is a solid example of the impact that the Super Bowl has on the Live+SD ratings for everything else airing. In 2014, HBO aired new episodes of 'Girls' and 'Looking' on Saturday and re-aired those episodes in their regular timeslot on Super Bowl Sunday. 'Girls' did 278,000 viewers on Saturday and 264,000 on Sunday - both down heavily from the week prior (655,000) and from the average episode was pulling that season (851,000). The same was the case for 'Looking' which managed 118,000 on Saturday & 183,000 on Sunday - down from the week prior (286,000) and the season average (422,000). Because HBO opted to not air the first-runs of their programs on Sunday, Showtime decided that they would. The results were not as bad for 'Shameless,' 'House of Lies,' or 'Episodes' which all did lose viewership, but not nearly to the extent that HBO's programs did.
Premium cable networks are more willing to air their content against the Super Bowl because they are not advertiser-supported. This means that they are relatively unconcerned with the number of viewers who tune into their program at the time it airs. Programs on HBO, Showtime, and Starz are available to stream at any point on their platforms after their airdate (and in some cases even prior to it), so as long as people are watching at some point, it doesn't really matter when.
Despite this, premium cable nets still generally opt to not air their highest-rated (linearly) programs against the Super Bowl. In examining the chart below, it's notable that in the last 8 years, only 1 scripted program that regularly averages above 1-million viewers has aired against the Super Bowl; that being 'Shameless'. And even then, the last time Showtime aired 'Shameless' against the Super Bowl was back in 2016, instead choosing to take that week off in both 2019 and 2021 (its seasons did not align with the Super Bowl in 2017, 2018 or 2020). Showtime also did the same with 'Homeland' in 2017 (season average: 1.28 million), and 'The Chi' in 2018 (season average: 705,000). HBO also notably did not air a new episode of 'True Detective' (season average: 2.33 million) during the Super Bowl in 2014, and Starz chose to not air 'Power' (season average: 1.19 million) against it in 2020.
The data to back this up isn't readily available, but it's possible that with these higher-viewed programs, the vast majority of the audience comes from live viewing. That's the only reason I can think of why these nets have consistently aired their lower-rated content against the game, but held back the higher-rated content. 'Shameless' - with a season average above 1 million viewers - potentially losing ~200K-300K viewers against Super Bowl LIII must matter much more than 'The Circus' - with a season average below 300K - losing 50K viewers against the game. Naturally, in 2019 'The Circus' aired while 'Shameless' did not.
In 2022, for the second year in a row, all three nets counter-programmed the Super Bowl. HBO aired 'Euphoria,' 'The Righteous Gemstones,' & 'Somebody Somewhere;' Showtime had 'Billions' & 'We Need to Talk About Cosby;' and Starz had 'Power Book IV: Force.' 'Euphoria' was the only one of those programs to have a streaming figure released from the Super Bowl episode, so I'll focus on it first.
On linear TV, the show has been averaging 292,000 viewers over its 6 episodes (including Feb. 13th) and when adding in the 2 same-night re-airings, it has averaged 436,000. On Super Bowl night, the show logged 283,000 viewers in its time slot premiere and 461,000 for the whole night. While the 9pm episode was down quite a bit from the week prior (353,000), it was down only slightly when taking into account the 2 re-airings (vs. 493,000 on Feb. 6th). So, there was a mild impact on linear ratings, but its total audience numbers flourished. HBO reported that the Super Bowl episode garnered 5.1 million multi-platform viewers on premiere night - an astounding rise from the previous week (~4.3 million) and especially from the Jan. 9th premiere (2.4 million). Using HBO's numbers, about 86% of the show's reported weekly audience has been coming from same-night streaming, and that rose to nearly 91% on Super Bowl night. This consistent rise in total audience actually does make sense: HBO reports that viewership of the second season premiere has now reached 17 million - so people seem to be catching up with the episodes and then watching them live once they do. To a lesser extent, this pattern can also be seen in the TV-only viewership. Viewership has climbed 100K viewers from the season premiere to the most-recent non-Super Bowl episode, so it'll be interesting to see what the Feb. 20th episode brings in when the numbers are released on Wednesday.
Over at Starz, 'Power Book IV' aired its second episode against the Super Bowl, but it's hard to really glean anything meaningful from the ratings. The show premiered Feb. 6th with 648,000 viewers for its time slot premiere and 735,000 total for the night when taking into account the re-airing (87,000). On Super Bowl night, its regular time slot episode tumbled to 311,000, but re-airings added an additional 332,000 viewers, bringing its linear total to 643,000. There is always an expected drop-off in viewership from a show's premiere to its second episode, so it's impossible to know how much of this drop-off is due to the Super Bowl and how much is due to loss of interest. The picture will become clearer when the ratings for the Feb. 20th episode are released. Additionally, the show's premiere episode was reported to have logged 3.3 million same-night viewers on all Starz platforms. Starz didn't release multi-platform figures for the Super Bowl episode, but just from the premiere numbers, it's clear that (just like 'Euphoria'), the vast majority of people are choosing to stream the show rather than watch on TV.
Finally, let's look at Showtime's line-up of 'Billions' and 'We Need to Talk About Cosby.' Linearly, 'Billions' lost about 100K viewers on Super Bowl night, pulling in just 219,000 viewers versus the 322,000 it averaged in its first 3 episodes. And same-night re-airings also weren't enough to cover this difference: totaling 341,000 versus the 447,000 it has averaged in the prior episodes. Showtime's other program 'We Need to Talk About Cosby' was also impacted linearly, but not as badly. It had 126,000 viewers for its premiere and added 121,000 in same night re-airings for a total of 247,000. Versus the 293,000 from Feb 6th, it was down less than 50K. It's likely that - in the same vain as 'Euphoria' & 'Power: Book IV' - the vast majority of viewership is coming from streaming, but Showtime hasn't released any multi-platform viewership figures for either show this season. Showtime's most recent two programs: 'Dexter: New Blood' and 'Yellowjackets' both saw about 70% of their audiences coming from streaming near the end of their seasons, so my guess is that 70% would be the ceiling for what 'Billions' is pulling in with streaming, but considering that Showtime hasn't said anything, it's probably less.
In conclusion, linear ratings for programs that air against the Super Bowl are still clearly negatively impacted by the game, but because these programs come from premium cable networks, it doesn't really even matter to them. We are in an era where appointment-TV is no longer the norm and non-advertiser-supported networks have been and are going to continue to thrive because of this.
|Notable Super Bowl counter-programming (2014-2022)|
|House of Lies||Showtime||0.646||0.746||-13.4%|
|House of Lies||Showtime||0.441||0.606||-27.2%|
|2017||The Young Pope||HBO||0.392||0.607||-35.4%|
|Curb Your Enthusiasm||HBO||0.577||0.673||-14.3%|
|Our Cartoon President||Showtime||0.092||0.167||-44.9%|
|2021||The Lady and the Dale||HBO||0.114||0.171||-33.3%|
|In the Long Run||Starz||0.017||0.078||-78.2%|
|The Righteous Gemstones||HBO||0.280||0.282||-0.7%|
|We Need to Talk About Cosby||Showtime||0.126||0.175||-28.0%|
|Power Book IV: Force||Starz||0.311||0.648||-52.0%|
*Season averages exclude the episodes that aired against the Super Bowl. Additionally, season averages for 2022 programs only include the episodes up until the Super Bowl while season averages from 2014-2021 include both episodes that aired on weeks prior to and after the Super Bowl.
Source: Nielsen Media Research via ShowBuzzDaily, The New York Times, & USA Today