- The Washington Times - Friday, December 29, 2006

An average of 9.1 million households each week tuned in to watch “Monday Night Football” on ESPN this year, making it the most-watched program on cable and giving a big boost to the cable network’s Web site and other programs. The broadcasts reached 43 percent more households than “Sunday Night Football” games broadcast on ESPN last year, helping to justify the nearly $9 billion the network is paying for the eight-year package.

“We’re delighted, obviously,” said John Wildhack, ESPN’s senior vice president for programming, acquisitions and strategy. “It’s just phenomenal. These are just remarkable numbers in our business.”

Of the top 17 programs shown on cable this year, all of them were “Monday Night Football” telecasts, and the games represented nine of the top 10 cable broadcasts of all time. (The Oct. 23 game between the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys is No. 1.)

The move of “Monday Night Football” to ESPN from ABC was one of the most scrutinized decisions of 2006. In a unique shuffling of broadcasts, the NFL’s Sunday night broadcasts moved from ESPN to NBC this season, while “Monday Night Football” moved to ESPN after 36 years on ABC.

ESPN is paying an average of $1.1 billion annually over eight years — about $64 million a game — for the rights to “Monday Night Football.”

The sports network brought in a new broadcast crew, installing Mike Tirico as the play-by-play man alongside analyst Joe Theismann, the former Redskins quarterback. ESPN also added Tony Kornheiser, a columnist for The Washington Post and host of the ESPN show “Pardon the Interruption,” to bring an everyman perspective to the broadcasts. Suzy Kolber and Michele Tafoya served as sideline reporters.

Sports media analysts said ESPN has been able to justify the expense of the “Monday Night Football” package not only by luring millions of viewers to the game telecasts but by boosting the profile of its other programming and new media offerings, such as ESPN.com and ESPN360.

“They did get their money’s worth,” said Neal Pilson, an independent sports media consultant and former president of CBS Sports. “They did considerably better than last year’s ‘Sunday Night Football’ and proved that using the ESPN platform of multiple distribution services and promoting it across all of their channels can move the needle.”

ESPN.com averaged 24 million page views on Mondays during football season, up 52 percent from last year. The household audience for the “Monday Night Countdown” studio show rose from 1.75 million homes to 2.16 million homes, and the audience for the “Sunday Night Countdown” show rose from 1.94 million to 2.04 million.

High ratings are particularly important for ESPN, which constantly is asked to justify the nearly $3 a subscriber that it charges cable companies for carriage.

Journalists and fans were quick to dissect the broadcasts throughout the season, focusing in particular on the performance of Kornheiser, who had done little work in the booth before this year and often wrote about his experience in print. It remains unclear whether Kornheiser and the rest of the broadcast crew will return. Kornheiser, who dislikes flying and has indicated a desire not to do “Monday Night Football” long-term, did not return a call requesting comment.

“We see no reason why they won’t be back,” Wildhack said. “We were very pleased with the booth and with the performances of Suzy, Michelle and everybody else involved.”

Wildhack said ESPN will critique the broadcasts during the offseason to determine whether any changes are needed.

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