Why Broadcast TV Is So Thankful for Thanksgiving

Live shows and turkey draw people to the tube

When network executives and advertisers sit down for Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, they will have plenty to be thankful for: Thanksgiving Day is now home to four of fall's most-watched programs.

Macy's iconic parade and three Turkey Day football games ranked among the 30 most-watched network programs last fall. The whole holiday has become a testament to the drawing power of live TV—and captive audiences—as friends and families gather for the meal and end up riveted to their TV sets all day long.

This year, the holiday TV festivities begin at 9 a.m. EST with NBC's 88th annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Last year, the broadcast drew 25.2 million total viewers and 46.7 million who watched at least part of the show—the event's biggest average audience since Nielsen's People Meters rolled out in 1987. It also snapped up a 6.6 rating in the 18-49 demographic and was the 22nd most-watched program last fall.

Then CBS airs the first of three NFL games, Chicago Bears versus Detroit Lions, at 12:30 p.m. EST. Last year's Oakland Raiders-Dallas Cowboys matchup won more viewers than any TV program in the fall and any NFL game in the regular season, averaging 31.675 million viewers.

That's followed by the football game on Fox at 4:30 p.m. EST, featuring the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys. (Last year's Green Bay Packers-Detroit Lions matchup ranked No. 2 among fall programs and averaged 28.34 million viewers.)

And the night is capped off with NBC's Thursday Night Football game at 8:30 p.m. EST (Seattle Seahawks versus San Francisco 49ers). Last year's Pittsburgh Steelers-Baltimore Ravens game ranked No. 30 and averaged 21.073 million viewers.

"People love watching live events, and this has become part of what families do on Thanksgiving," said Brad Lachman, who has executive produced the Macy's parade for 21 years. "It's as much of an American tradition as cooking the turkey. People turn it on, and they don't necessarily watch three hours of it, but their families are coming in and out of the living room, watching parts of it, cooking and coming back and watching more."

One reason for the surging appeal of live broadcasts? "There's always the what's-going-to-happen-next factor," Lachman said. He also has worked to goose the parade's ratings by fine-tuning the production over the years.

"Everybody behind the scenes is trying to develop it with the times, because people have shorter attention spans," he said, "and so we try to keep the parade going at a faster pace, and have a lot of elements in it. We used to have smaller Broadway numbers. Now we have big numbers with 50 to 60 people in them."

The stellar ratings are a boon for advertisers, which are capitalizing on their last chance to reach viewers before Black Friday—or, increasingly, Thanksgiving night—shopping.

"People watch the show, then they eat their dinner, and then they go shopping," said Lachman. "And the stores are opening up earlier and earlier every year."