- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 12, 2006

For years, ABC tried — in vain — to restore “Monday Night Football” to its former ratings glory. Just ask comic-turned-color-commentator Dennis Miller.

The minds behind the annual “Miss America Pageant” fought a similar battle.

Now, both aging franchises have found the fountain of youth, via ESPN and CMT, respectively.

Cable television is taking on shopworn shows and giving them the proverbial new lease on life.

The New Orleans Saints’ 23-3 victory over the Atlanta Falcons Sept. 25 not only gave ESPN its highest ratings ever but beat the competition, both network and cable, according to ESPN.

David Berson, ESPN’s senior vice president for program planning and development, says his network didn’t think twice when it came time to bring “MNF” aboard.

“We were not worried about it being a decaying property. We knew the opportunity was there to grow ‘Monday Night Football,’” Mr. Berson says.

The cable channel is taking advantage of the ratings windfall by molding its programming and online content around the franchise.

“We’re fueling many businesses with this,” he says, including Web-only trivia challenges designed around specific games. “You can’t look at this like other networks might.”

ESPN took another broadcast dud, NBC’s reality boxing drama “The Contender,” and made it a champ. The reality show’s average rating on ESPN is up 44 percent from its 2005 debut on NBC.

The moves speak to a growing shift in the television universe.

“There’s less and less of a distinction [between broadcast and cable channels] in the minds of TV viewers,” Mr. Berson says. “It’s not like the old days.”

Paul Villadolid, vice president of programming and development with CMT, says acquiring broadcast rights to the Miss America Pageant was a no-brainer.

“It’s a rare occasion for a cable network like ours to get into a franchise like that,” Mr. Villadolid says.

Such a move does more than guarantee a night of potentially big ratings.

“One of the big hopes … is to bring new viewers to your network,” he says. In the case of the most recent “Miss America Pageant,” that meant more than three million viewers, the cable channel’s best offering to date.

Since that first airing, CMT has run the show 17 times in all.

“It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” he says.

CMT will devote even more energy to next year’s pageant, including a reality show featuring the contestants and the behind-the-scenes maneuvering to be number one.

Broadcast networks have too much original content to let one program overshadow the rest. For a cable channel, doing so just makes sense.

“It helps to define us, to differentiate us from the 100 other cable networks,” he says.

A few shows, like NBC’s “Last Comic Standing,” have bounced from broadcast to cable and back to broadcast again — and likely benefited from the cross-pollination. And then there’s “The Simple Life,” the Fox reality saga which left the network for E! Entertainment and has been successful enough to coax stars Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton to end their high-profile feud.

“Shows that are marginally successful [on broadcast television] can be phenomenally successful on cable,” Mr. Villadolid says.

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