Despite numbers, nets encouraged by football perfs

NEW YORK — The NFL has just wrapped the regular-season games on its 2000 schedule, and, on the surface, things look pretty bad: All four of the networks that carry games nationally have slipped in household ratings compared with last year’s lineup: ESPN by 13%, CBS by 8%, ABC 7% and Fox 3%.

Considering the fact that the four networks pony up a collective license fee of $2.2 billion a year to disseminate National Football League games, why wouldn’t the Dolby-enhanced sound of weeping and gnashing of teeth among network decision makers be heard throughout the North American continent?

But the networks say no one is cryin’ the blues, citing a number of reasons why they’re actually encouraged by the final Nielsen tallies.

Dennis Lewin, senior VP of broadcasting and network TV for ABC, says “Monday Night Football” games in 2000 faced a number of scheduling handicaps.

For example, the opening game ran on Labor Day, traditionally a night when viewing levels are down. The final game took place on Christmas night, an even worse time for TV viewing.

Plus, Lewin says, two of the Monday NFL games found themselves up against the Sydney Olympics on NBC, which appealed to many of the male viewers that dote on football.

These same handicaps led to audience erosion on all of the other networks as well.

Ed Goren, president and exec producer of Fox Sports, says, “I’m pleasantly surprised that Fox finished as well as it did.”

Goren started off the season “pessimistic,” he says, as he watched the Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers — Fox’s three bellwether teams since it landed NFL rights six years ago — all suffer through disappointing seasons.

“But teams like the Minnesota Vikings, Philadelphia Eagles and Tampa Bay Buccaneers began taking up the slack,” Goren says, making 2000 “a nervous transition year for the NFL. We should’ve taken a much more severe ratings hit than we did.”

Even more promising was the fact that all of the networks except CBS delivered gains year to year among men 18 to 34 — ESPN by 8%, ABC by 7% and Fox by 2%. Since Madison Avenue particularly covets this demographic — and since you don’t need football to know that frequently the best defense is a good offense — the networks might be inclined to focus on the demos and try to jack up next year’s ad rates.

ESPN fell harder in the Nielsens than its broadcast-network brethren, victimized by “an unusually high number of blowouts,” which caused viewers to abandon too many games before they were over, says an ESPN spokesman.

“Until two weeks ago, we didn’t have one Sunday game where both teams had winning records. Despite that, our weekly games, as usual, finished higher in the ratings on average than any other series on cable.”

The big question at ABC was: Will the highly publicized hiring of Dennis Miller, the standup comic, as third man in the announcers’ booth attract new fans or drive away many existing “MNF” zealots turned off by a cynical blurring of the line between sports and entertainment?

Although Miller has his detractors, a number of observers say “MNF” got an adrenaline shot from his wry observations.

“Miller turned out to be a nice counterpoint to Al Michaels and Dan Fouts,” said Neal Pilson, who is head of his own sports consultancy and former president of CBS Sports. “He became a representative in the booth of John Q. Public, sports fan.”

Although “MNF’ has suffered audience declines almost every single year since the late ’70s, Lewin says the falloff is even greater in all of the other forms of primetime TV like sitcoms, dramas and magazine shows.

Rick Kissell in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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