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Americans’ new Thanksgiving tradition: watching TV all day long

Thanksgiving is a day when more than 100 million Americans will observe the most honored of traditions: gathering with family and friends to watch as many as 15 hours straight of TV.

More than any other major American holiday, Thanksgiving has become a TV-centric day, where people seem to spend far more time in front of the television than they do at the dinner table. And the broadcast networks are taking advantage of that rapt audience through marquee programs that last year attracted more than 114 million viewers.

The TV turkey day festivities kick off at 9am with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on NBC, which averaged 22.4 million viewers last year, its largest audience since 2001. NBC Research estimates that 43.2 million people watched at least a portion of the parade. An additional 7.5 million CBS viewers watched that network’s unofficial coverage of the New York City event, billed as The Thanksgiving Day Parade on CBS. The parade concludes at 12pm, and segues into NBC’s coverage of The National Dog Show, which drew 9.2 million viewers in 2012. NBC Research estimates that 19.3 million viewers took in at least part of the Dog Show.

The rest of the day is dominated by a triple-header of NFL football, with games on FOX (Green Bay Packers-Detroit Lions at 12:30pm; last year’s Washington Redskins-Dallas Cowboys matchup drew a whopping 28.7 million in 2012, making it last fall’s most-watched show), CBS (Oakland Raiders-Dallas Cowboys at 4:30pm, last year’s Houston Texas-Detroit Lions was watched by 27.3 million) and NBC (Pittsburgh Steelers-Baltimore Ravens at 8:30pm; 19.2 million tuned in for New England Patriots-New York Jets in 2012). This fall, only NBC’s Sunday Night Football games average higher TV ratings than those, which is why the NFL, which offered just two Thanksgiving Day games for decades, pushed to add a third holiday matchup in 2006.

As TV ratings decline—last season’s number-one show, NCIS, averaged 21.3 million viewers; in the ‘90s, top-rated ER would draw almost twice that amount—Thanksgiving Day, like Super Bowl Sunday, is one of the few times a year that advertisers can depend on a dedicated, sizable audience that will watch TV—and watch it live as opposed to time-shifting on their DVRs. Since Nielsen adopted its current “People Meter” ratings system in 1987, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade coverage has consistently remained in the 20-22 million range, an impressive feat in our increasingly fractured TV viewing.

The rapt Thanksgiving audience is also a draw for retailers eager to advertise their pending Black Friday deals. Walmart, which usually has a meager NFL advertising presence, is making significant Thanksgiving Day football ad buys for the first time in its history. “We’re doing more with the NFL around Black Friday than we’ve ever done,” Walmart US Chief Marketing Officer Stephen Quinn told Ad Age, adding, “I don’t know why we didn’t figure it out sooner.”

For many families, these television events have become as essential a part of Thanksgiving as the dinner itself, which is why NBC, CBS and FOX—and the network’s advertisers—will spend Thursday giving thanks for their captive turkey day audience.

Follow Jason on Twitter @jasonlynch. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com

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