Regarding TV Ratings

Published on September 15, 2013 5:18 PM by dbo.

In our age of instant and all information at our fingertips, television ratings for CFL are highly sought out. As the league’s popularity has grown, more people seeking out rating numbers for various reasons — curiosity, proof of popularity, questioning their validity — come forward. This creates a lot of comments, questions and misinformation on the ratings, the CFL‘s position amongst programs and how the system works. The fallacies created can be debunked with a little knowledge and a lot of common sense.

Update: Added some links to reports showing cable penetration in Canada.

Viewership in Canada

Of Canada’s population of approximately 33 million about 6% or 2 million watch top hit shows each week. Special shows and events will do more, with 3-4 million considered an exceptional hit. Saturday night NHL hockey during the season will see about 2 million as well for the early game, with higher numbers for Canadian teams in the playoffs. Nothing out of the ordinary here, Canada is a hockey country, hockey is ingrained into Canadian male culture and there is not much else to do in the winter.

Prior to Labour Day, the CFL sees ratings peak at 1 million or slightly less, with the range from about 500,000 to 1 million and an average in the 750,000 area. During this time, the CFL will consistently grab the top rated 4 of 5 or 4 sports programs of the week when the Blue Jays are bad. What they would do if the Blue Jays are good we don’t know, if that happens we will find out. The Jays numbers range from 600,000 early in the season (April) dropping through May, June and July to 400,000 in August as the team’s chances dwindle. When they play big teams like Boston and New York their numbers can jump by 250,000 a game or more for their peak numbers throughout the season.

Summer in Canada is outdoor and vacation time for most and not the spare evenings staying inside that the winter provides. Despite this, the CFL does well enough to be easily considered the second most popular televised sport on Canadian TV. Being a summer league, the CFL is aware of the competition they face, but addressing the schedule start is for a future article. The earlier schedule creep, increased competition and a more affluent and leisure orientated population are all changes the CFL over the decades. From before TV when the CFL predecessors started in Sept. to August starts to the expansion of the schedule and June/July starts, the CFL‘s first half of the schedule is now firmly entrenched in the summer vacation months, yet it still draws what are considered good numbers for summer programming.

Sports in general and the CFL is also very much a male audience. Although many women have found their way to the sport and are welcome, it doesn’t change the fact the audience is male skewed. At the same time, younger audiences do not have the attention span to focus on a 3 hour game. The CFL is focussing on these two audience groups for growth in the future.

People Meters and Simulcasts

The BBM audience measurement is done by a technology called people meters. These small devices carried by the population sample listen for inaudible audio signals in a broadcast to determine what is being watched. My understanding is this is the only method used by BBM now, the days of the survey books and other tracking methods are gone. After some tweaks to the system, it has proven to be more accurate and efficient at estimating audiences throughout the year versus increased accuracy only during sweeps months.

Canadian broadcasters have the right to simulcast properties they have purchased for broadcast in Canada. This normally occurs on entertainment programming but it also occurs for sports. While the content of the program is usually not changed substantially, the Canadian commercials are substituted on American channels carrying the broadcast on cable and satellite services. In fact the whole broadcast is simulcast, in that the Canadian feed is shown on the American channel. This means, to my understanding, the audio signal used by the people meters to detect the channel being watched is the Canadian signal, meaning no matter what channel you are watching, if you have a people meter, the Canadian broadcaster will be credited with the viewer.

So what about viewers that watch the American signal on over-the-air broadcast television from locations close enough to the border to receive such a signal? It is true they would not be counted in the Canadian viewership numbers. How many of these people actually exist? That is impossible to know since the tracking of viewers for American broadcast signals is not performed by BBM. I find it hard to believe that large numbers of people are switching over to broadcast television to avoid simulcast rules. There may be a few, but how many actually have people meters, causing lost viewers? (If they only watch American broadcast television, then they will be reported as watching no television by the people meters). With the introduction of digital signals and the availability of commercials on the Internet, I don’t see many making an effort to avoid simulcasts.

Why is this important? Many Canadians look at the NFL rating numbers in Canada, say the Sunday night game, which starts the season around the 500,000 mark and say that is too low, it should be double or more, it has to exceed the CFL numbers, they can’t be counting those that watch on NBC. And the assumption with no basis gets repeated and repeated as truth through the years, with those that want to believe based on their bias the most vocal. For me, understanding how the system works, I can’t believe there are half a million people watching on broadcast signals over the border since I have never met anyone who does so or even know someone who knows someone that uses broadcast signals, even as a secondary source. In fact the belief that American channel watchers are not counted may have originated before people meters and the current simulcast allowances given to broadcasters. The changes to both mean that it is no longer true.

These comments are not based on facts, but perceptions that the NFL has to be more popular than the CFL. There is no consideration to other factors, such as not everyone with interest in the NFL will watch a specific game, and just because your group of friends follow the NFL and you don’t know CFL fans doesn’t mean they aren’t out there in numbers you can’t understand. Refusal to accept the facts looks bad on their part, for their self-esteem is tied to being associated with the most popular. There is enough to go around and the competition is on the field, not between the leagues or sports.

Canadian Cable Penetration

Update A couple reports show some estimates on the penetration of cable and direct-to-home (satellite) television services in the Canadian market. A CRTC report with numbers from 1995 to 2005 shows cable/DTH reach 87% reach in Canadian households versus over-the-air broadcasts. A more recent Television Bureau of Canada report states indicates 98.5% of Canadian households having a television and 94% of television households being cable/DTH subscribers. These numbers come from BBM data for 2013. 94% of 98.5% equates to 92.6% cable/DTH penetration in households, up about 5% from the 2005 numbers. These numbers may have peaked with the advent of Internet services, but time will tell. The conclusion from these reports is about 1 million households across Canada use over-the air broadcasts as their sole television provider source. It does not answer how many households supplement their cable or satellite services with over the air broadcasts, nor how many are close enough to a US signal to receive it, nor how many are interested in American football.

Regional Disparity

When the numbers are trusted, Ontarians will trot out that the CFL numbers come from Western Canada, not Ontario and that Ontario is an NFL region. Again, the reports from the Ontario based media often state that the ratings for the Toronto Argonauts and the CFL are strong in southern Ontario, in contrast to the gate numbers. Viewers from an all-East matchup do not all come from Western Canada. I can confirm this by the numbers to this site. Ontario accounts for almost the exact correct percentage of visitors to this site based on population. Based on most accounts, Ontario should be well below their percentage of population if the CFL was less popular there than in other parts of the country. This information is what makes the league and clubs believe there is hope, they just need to convince a few more of those closet TV fans to come to some games. If this is not to be believed, then I suggest someone get the BBM number breakdowns by region and demographic and prove it is not the case.

Viewer Growth

Some see the growth in the CFL‘s popularity in recent years and the factual increase in viewership numbers along with a corresponding monetary increase in the broadcast contract value and predict that this will continue, making the CFL a television league rather than a gate league in a decade or so. Such a statement is a fine, feel good declaration but has no basis in reality or what would have to be achieved to accomplish such.

First, let’s look at the revenue numbers to get an idea what factor we are talking about today. The general consensus is the upcoming broadcast agreement will provide each of 9 teams $4 million in league revenue per year. Operating revenue for a median team is in the $16 million range. If we only examine game revenue it is in the $8 million range. So that is 2 to 4 times what the 2014 broadcast agreement will provide with other league revenue.

In a decade, how much growth can the CFL expect in viewership. Yes, there is growth, but numbers will vary from year-to-year. If anything, Canadians are a fickle bunch, and fans jump off bandwagons at the first sign of trouble. So perhaps year-to-year growth in the 5-10% range, but at some point, a ceiling will be hit and growth will slow. Part of the issue is the first half of the season against vacations in July/August. Where else can growth come from? In 10 years perhaps the CFL can add a 10th team. An additional 9 games, plus an additional audience to draw from. Now it all depends on where the team is located, a Maritime team and Quebec team could have substantially different results on viewership numbers.

So perhaps it can conservatively be said that the league tightens up its summer numbers, bringing up the low games substantially while pushing the 1 million mark during the summer more often. In the fall, steady growth across the board. Then perhaps in a decade a 10% boost from a new team. Will this equal add up to a doubling of the average viewership? To double the average, each game needs to double in number of viewers and the high regular season games need to attract 2 million viewers. I’m just not sure that amount of growth can be accomplished in a decade.

Of course an increase in revenue has to also consider the increase in expenses. Player salary costs will rise in correspondence to revenue increases along with other areas. This complex relationship between the two makes making predictions about television revenue paying all expenses and gate revenue being profit a very shaky one.

This is not to say viewership will not increase and television revenue will not grow. But there are a lot of factors, and looking ahead farther than a year or two is difficult. While an honest attempt to be positive about the league’s direction, it can breed complacency. The league needs ticket buyers, it needs viewers. Full stadiums will bring viewership growth. A $1 billion TV contract and empty stadiums will see viewership plummet and the next contract would be worthless. A fan base that looks forward to not attending games in person is a symptom of a dying league.


I don’t have a lot of sources linked here. Much of this is based on my knowledge based on decades of reading. I also generalize a lot of the numbers, which have ranges and many factors affecting them. I believe I have been fair in my generalizations, but my bias may be coming through. I see trusting the facts of the viewership being reported and discounting any over-the-air audience as logical based on the evidence. I may be wrong on my reasoning and conclusions if I am missing relevant information. Opinions will gladly be read, logical arguments considered and if you have sources of facts to contradict what I am saying, the article will be updated.


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Regarding TV Ratings was published on September 15, 2013 5:18 PM by dbo.

2,230 words.

This article is categorized under Coverage and tagged with broadcasts and tv-ratings.

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