Football scores big for networks

The National Football League scored a touchdown with its Nielsen ratings in 2006, delivering gains in total viewers on all four of its major carriers: NBC, CBS, Fox and ESPN. In the key adult-male demos, all of them were up year to year, except for CBS, which was flat.

“It’s nothing short of amazing that these networks are up across the board in viewers, particularly with NBC on Sunday and ESPN on Monday,” said Kevin O’Malley, a sports-media consultant and former top exec at Turner Sports. “I would never have predicted that.”

O’Malley said he was convinced going into the NFL season three months ago that “NBC wouldn’t be unable to overcome football fatigue on Sunday night,” referring to the phenomenon of game-saturated viewers who’ve watched the Sunday daytime NFL doubleheader on CBS and Fox and feel more than a little bleary-eyed when 8:15 p.m. ET rolls around for the start of the NBC contest.

And ESPN on Monday faces strong entertainment programming from the Big Four broadcast networks, including ABC; last year, ABC’s “MNF” competed with only three major broadcasters.

“I can’t remember a previous year when all of the major carriers of the NFL went up in the ratings simultaneously,” said Mike Trager, another sports-media consultant.

Trager chalks up the gains to “the fact that so many teams are in the hunt so late in the season. There’s so much parity in the league that a number of teams have a shot at the postseason.”

This parity “kept CBS and Fox from getting hurt by the flex schedule” that the NFL — for the first time — drew up for NBC on Sunday nights, Trager said. The flex sked allows NBC to scrap its predetermined Sunday game — as it did on three occasions this season — and pick a more meaningful contest within two weeks of the air date.

Season to date, covering 16 telecasts, NBC’s Sunday package is up by an average of 5% over ABC’s Monday of a year ago in total viewers and in key male demos. It certainly helped that the popular Dallas Cowboys aired four times on the Peacock.

Fox’s numbers are even better year over year. Its coverage of the NFL on Sunday afternoon is up 5% in total viewers, 11% in men 18-34, 7% in men 18-49, and 6% in men 25-54.

CBS’ Sunday afternoon games grew by 1% in total viewers, and were flat among men 18-34 and men 18-49. They dipped by 1% with men 25-54.

ESPN’s “MNF” engineered the biggest gains in the only appropriate comparison, to the network’s carriage last year of “Sunday Night Football.” (ABC, which gets into 20 million more homes than its ESPN sibling, broadcast “MNF” last year.)

ESPN soared by 42% in total viewers, by 32% in men 18-34, by 29% in men 18-49, and by 29% in men 25-54.

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