NEW YORK — Talk about lowered expectations: Don Ohlmeyer, executive producer of “Monday Night Football,” says the show may be headed for record-low Nielsen ratings this season, for at least three reasons:
- Monday’s 31st season opener takes place on Labor Day, and the final regular-season game lands on Christmas Day. Traditionally, TV viewing levels drop off drastically on these two holidays.
- During the last two Mondays in September, “MNF” games will go up against NBC’s primetime coverage of the Summer Olympic Games from Sydney, a clash that’s almost certain to steal a few ratings points from the football Nielsens.
- The New York Giants, Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers are absent from the “MNF” schedule this season, depriving ABC of the Nielsen bounce that usually results from hyped-up interest in a contest highlighting a local team from one of the top-10 markets.
Speaking to reporters in a telephone conference call, Ohlmeyer said that any additional viewers who might tune in to see how comedian Dennis Miller does in his new role as one of the “MNF” commentators will be more than offset by all of the negatives that the schedule has to overcome.
ABC got the Monday-night showcase off to a bad start during the exhibition season, Olymeyer said, by starting the first two games at 7 p.m. (4 p.m. West Coast time). “That was a real disservice,” he said, pointing out that when the third game started at 8, its rating matched the equivalent game of a year ago. Regular-season games will begin at 9 p.m. ET.
Last year, “Monday Night Football” had an average audience of 19.6 million viewers — a significant improvement over 1998, when the show reached the lowest ratings in its 29-year history. The ’98 season was plagued by an 8 p.m. ET start time — it has since been moved back to 9 — and an uncommon number of blowouts.
However, even if “MNF” does fall off this year from the average rating of the 1999 season, it may not have a seriously adverse effect on ABC’s overall primetime schedule, said Stacey Lynn Koerner, VP of research for TN Media.
Koerner said that since the 2000-01 primetime season doesn’t become official until Oct. 2, the “MNF” Labor Day game and the two contests opposite the Olympics won’t be counted.
And Julia Shohet, an ABC research executive, said the network is not worried about any decrease in its primetime ratings, despite the fact that its bellwether “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” which will run for four separate primetime hours a week during the season, is pulling in a disproportionately higher percentage of older viewers this summer compared with last year.
“…Younger viewers go out at night during the warmer weather,” Shohet said, “while older audiences tend to stay at home.” She expects some of the younger viewers to drift back to their TV sets in the fall and winter.
Koerner disagreed, and said TN Media has raised its estimate of the age of the typical ABC primetime viewer from 41 to 46, mainly because of the graying of the “Millionaire” demo.
TN also discounts any potential jump in “MNF” ratings from the hiring of Miller as part of the three-man team in the booth. “People aren’t going to tune in Monday night to watch Dennis Miller,” said Koerner. “The game is what matters.”
She echoed Ohlmeyer, who said that even though Miller “has exceeded my expectations” in calling the first three exhibition games, “we’re talking about a football game, not ‘The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.’ ”
Miller, who also took calls from reporters with Ohlmeyer, said, “I’m not pleased with my work so far.” What he’s learned from the first three games, he said, is that “I’ve got to remember that less is more. I plan to dial it back by 15% or 20% and let it breathe a little.”