Wokeness isn’t hurting the NFL. The election is though.


The National Football league is losing viewers, ending two years of growth and bringing back the ghost of 2016.

That's the last time NFL ratings slipped, a two-year trend that spawned all sorts of theories. Pundits blamed concussions, players' off-field misconduct, quality of play and Colin Kaepernick.

This time is no different. It's only been a couple weeks and already network executives are preparing their talking points, and talking heads are spouting nonsense. Some say the league is too woke, while others note that the number of people who pay for TV is plummeting.

Pro football is the single most valuable property on TV, and any sign of weakness is cause of concern in the halls of media companies everywhere.

There are two unassailable facts: ratings are down, and none of the reasons I just listed is the primary cause. Wokeness hasn't crippled the NFL any more than it has journalism. And the decline in pay-TV households didn't hurt the league much the last couple years (though it is a long-term challenge).

Viewership is suffering because of the election, and the pandemic. The single biggest cause of the ratings collapse in 2016 was the election. Viewership of NFL games fell 14% that year in the weeks leading up to the election, and just 5% in the weeks after the election.

This year, even before the debates, we can see the elections' effect on football in the spike in cable news ratings.

Viewership of every cable news network is up double digits this year, in some cases triple digits. In week one of the NFL season, cable news ratings were up 42%, which came to more than 1 million viewers in almost every NFL window, per Fox's Mike Mulvihill.

Unlike in 2016, all six major sports leagues are happening at the same time this fall – an unprecedented moment in the history of televised sports. This is great news for diehard sports fans, and bad news for everyone else in their lives. It also means even the biggest fans may miss games they'd normally watch.

NFL games are airing against the NBA playoffs, tennis grand slams and the Stanley Cup playoffs – all on top of the normal competition of baseball and college football. While pro football is more popular than pro basketball, baseball and hockey combined, there is overlap in those fan bases.

Burke Magnus, who oversees programming at ESPN, compared his life this fall to an air traffic controller.

Viewership for almost every sports league is down this year due to competition, including the NBA and NHL. But viewership of all sports in the fall is up, which is also because there are more sports being played.

While you should expect the drop in NFL ratings to be a story all season, don't expect it to have a huge impact on the business of the NFL. If you want a sense of just how valuable and popular the league is, look at the current bidding for the rights to air NFL games starting in 2022.

Every single network that has rights now wants to keep or expand its package, and they are all willing to pay substantial increases to do so.  – Lucas Shaw

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It's boom time for podcasting companies

Wondery, one of the top podcasting networks, is on the block. The company behind "Dirty John" and "Dr. Death" has hired financial advisers to explore its options, and is hoping to fetch the biggest deal in the brief history of podcasting.

Wondery has been one of the fastest-growing podcasting companies, building out a slate of more than 50 original series and distributing shows for a much larger network.

It's trying to sell at a good time. The market for podcasting companies has exploded over the past couple years, driven largely by Spotify. The Swedish audio giant has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on podcasting studios, including more than $200 million apiece for Gimlet Media and the Ringer.

It's still not clear if any of these podcasting companies are worth that kind of money. Their only real value is in their shows, and even the most popular podcasts currently make $15 million to $30 million a year.

While Spotify bought Gimlet and the Ringer for their shows, it also wanted to bring in their founders to develop new shows and build out podcasting expertise at what has been a tech company.

Wondery will try to sell itself as an intellectual property factory not so dissimilar from comic books. It has already turned a couple of its podcasts into TV shows, and now has 16 different Hollywood projects in development.

That could make it appealing to a wide range of candidates, depending on their interest in making a splash in a growing medium with an unproven business model.

The list of potential buyers includes platforms trying to compete with Spotify (Amazon, SiriusXM, IHeartMedia), record labels eager to extend their dominance in music to podcasting (Sony, Warner, Universal) and media companies that want to use Wondery to develop ideas for film and TV (NBCUniversal, WarnerMedia, ViacomCBS).

And you can never rule out Spotify, which just announced plans to turn more of its shows into film and TV projects.

One man owns Hollywood news

When I started in journalism, Hollywood had four trade publications – two stalwarts (Variety, The Hollywood Reporter) and two upstarts (Deadline, TheWrap). Now three of those four outlets are essentially owned by the same person, Jay Penske. Penske, who just purchased majority control of THR, also owns Indiewire, Rolling Stone, Women's Wear Daily, and, with this new deal, a majority of Billboard.

Why does he want so many outlets that cover the same thing? Will he ever put them together? Is it a problem for one person to have so much control over the news from an industry?

China's box office might top the U.S. for the first time

Chinese war epic "The Eight Hundred" topped $431 million this week at the global box office, surpassing "Bad Boys for Life" as the year's top movie.

It's possible a Chinese movie could be the highest-grossing movie of the year for the first time, but that will only happen if studios pull back on the planned release of the new James Bond and Wonder Woman franchises.

It's also possible that China will account for more ticket sales this year than the U.S., an outcome that's been predicted for years but still hasn't happened. The North American box office is double China so far this year, but Chinese cinemas are opening up to 75% capacity while the U.S. is still reporting tens of thousands of new coronavirus cases a day.

Amazon gets into gaming

Amazon jumped into the streaming video game market this week, unveiling a new cloud-gaming service that costs $5.99 a month. (It also announced a new version of its smart speaker and home video camera.)

Amazon is already one of the biggest media companies in the world, competing in TV, movies, podcasting, audiobooks, music and live streaming. Why get into gaming? Here's what Marc Whitten, Amazon's VP of devices and services, told me:


"20 years from now, gaming is going to be big. 20 years ago, it was big. The intensity around it is very high. I don't look at it as a consultant – here is the size of gaming, and we should therefore invest because gaming is here. Otherwise, we would have done more all along.

… We were meeting the needs of our customers. They also play a ton of games, and I don't think we were necessarily delivering ways to make that easier. You look around and see Twitch and Amazon Web Services…how do we build something that may lower the barriers to make it easier for more people to play?"

For what it worth, that rationale could be used for Amazon to expand into any business.


Weekly Playlist

Spotify's Carl Chery made a playlist for fans of underground hip-hop. Mos Def. Gang Starr. Murs. If those names mean anything to you, give it a listen.

Also, I love "Ted Lasso." Go Lakers.

Pop Star Tracker


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