Games help network thrive with record ratings

Americans will turn their attention to Washington Tuesday, but on election eve, more than 10 million also will be transfixed by what’s transpiring in the nation’s capital … on ESPN.

Tonight’s Pittsburgh Steelers-Washington Redskins contest — a matchup pitting two of the top teams in the NFL — marks the midway point of the season for “Monday Night Football,” the long-running franchise that is thriving in its third season on the cable network.

Ratings are up this year — a rarity in these days of audience erosion — and the Week 2 game between the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles drew a record audience for cable, 18.61 million.

“MNF” has won the night in adults 18-49 for eight consecutive weeks, an unprecedented run of success for a cable network. It’s also the longest such streak for any net on Monday since auds went gaga over Fox’s “Joe Millionaire” nearly six years ago.

Monday actually has become a great success story for Disney overall. Through last week, ESPN’s Monday was the top-rated night of the week among adult males, while ABC’s Monday (thanks to hoofing hit “Dancing With the Stars”) is the top-rated night among adult women.

The Alphabet had been the home to “Monday Night Football” for 36 years before the franchise shifted to ESPN in 2006. And ABC’s decision to target femmes on the night has turned out to be a smart one that has also benefited its cable sibling.

For ESPN, the third year of its eight-year, nearly $9 billion “Monday Night Football” contract has been the charm. A cleaner graphics package, new on-air replay technology and the decision to eliminate in-booth celebrity guests and most sideline reports has paid off in a stronger product.

“The talent is doing better, and the presentation has improved this year,” said Neal Pilson, a sports consultant and former president of CBS Sports. “ESPN has done a very good job of bringing in viewers who aren’t necessarily ESPN viewers and keeping them.”

A little luck has helped, too. While NBC’s broadcast package on “Sunday Night Football” may feature more appearances by the league’s glamour teams (like the Cowboys, Giants and Bears), “Monday Night Football,” which features a wider variety of teams, can land a matchup that initially might not have seemed so attractive.

Case in point: the New York Jets. Brett Favre joined the lowly Jets after the primetime sked was announced in April. The Jets’ “Monday Night Football” appearance against the San Diego Chargers in September drew nearly 12 million viewers even though it was a lopsided game.

Through the eighth week of the NFL season, ESPN was averaging 12.2 million viewers, up 8% vs. last year’s 11.3 million. It’s also the Monday leader in adults 18-49, slightly ahead of CBS, and is dominant on the night in all key male demos.

The cabler is now available in 98.2 million households, not far below the roughly 110.5 million homes who have access to the Big Four broadcasters. But since league rules stipulate that all games airing on cable be made available on an over-the-air station in the markets of the teams involved, nearly everybody who wants to watch a game on ESPN has the chance.

“The alleged difference between cable and broadcast has been erased,” said John Wildhack, ESPN exec veep, program acquisitions and strategy. “People are going to find the network that delivers the programming they want.”

Wildhack also thinks the network has hit its stride this season, making some tweaks — both visually on-air and behind the scenes — that play to the strengths of announcers Mike Tirico, Tony Kornheiser and Ron Jaworski.

“When you have the preeminent sports show brand and marry that with ESPN, it’s a pretty powerful combination,” he said. “We really feel like we have hit our stride now, and this bodes well for both of us (ESPN and the NFL) long term.”

He points to the network’s ability to spend virtually all day promoting the game via its pregame shows and regular daytime series that now include live morning and midday “SportsCenter” telecasts.

Looking ahead, tonight’s game — which will include Chris Berman interviewing John McCain and Barack Obama at halftime — figures to be one of the season’s top-rated “MNF” contests. And while the franchise’s second-half sked may not look as strong as the first, games like Tampa Bay-Carolina, Green Bay-Chicago and Cleveland-Philadelphia figure to go a long way toward deciding this season’s playoff participants.

“One of the beauties of our schedule is the competitiveness of the NFL,” Wildhack said. “You never know what’s going to happen, and that helps give us some good games down the stretch.”

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