- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 7, 2006

The television landscape for the NFL may be different this year, but Americans’ ravenous appetite for the sport is apparently still intact.

This was a year of change for the NFL on television, as NBC re-entered the football game by acquiring the rights to “Sunday Night Football” and ABC handed off the rights to “Monday Night Football” to ESPN. So far, so good, as NBC, ESPN and Fox all report that viewership for NFL games is among the highest in history, with broadcasts challenging for network top spots on a weekly basis.

NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” broadcasts have pulled in 18.9 million viewers according to Nielsen Media Research, representing a 12 percent increase over comparable “Monday Night Football” games on ABC last season. Three of the top-rated shows in September were football games airing on NBC.

“Monday Night Football” games on ESPN have lured an average of 9.4 million households, representing nearly 14 million viewers. Only the 1993 NAFTA debate between Al Gore and Ross Perot on CNN has scored more viewers on cable.

“The ratings we’re seeing and the buzz surrounding the games has exceeded our expectations,” said Leah LaPlaca, vice president of programming and acquisitions for ESPN, which agreed to pay $1.1 billion a year for the rights to “Monday Night Football.”

“Football, overall, is on a tear,” LaPlaca said.

Meanwhile, Fox is off to its best start in history, averaging 15.5 million viewers a game, including 22.7 million for the Sept. 10 game featuring the Cowboys and Jaguars, the most-watched football game of the season. Overall, ratings for NFL games on Fox are up more than 10 percent from the same period last year, the network’s largest one-year increase.

Fox, in particular, has benefited from a series of high-profile matchups that lived up to their hype. The Sept. 17 game involving an dramatic overtime win by the Giants over the Eagles landed 18.1 million viewers, a 43 percent increase over the same week in 2005.

“We’ve been fortunate to get some tight games, some overtime games,” Fox spokesman Lou D’Ermilio said. “The more competitive the game, the better our ratings will be.”

But even the stinkers are getting big numbers. Last Sunday night’s 37-6 victory by the Bears over the Seahawks lured 16.9 million viewers for NBC, an 8 percent increase over the comparable “Monday Night Football” broadcast last year.

Ratings have likely been buoyed by a lack of new programming to compete against football this early in the year. As networks debut new shows and the NHL and NBA begin play, ratings could fall off slightly, analysts said.

“There’s been plenty of pent-up demand,” said Ray Artigue, executive director of the WP Carey Sports Business MBA Program at Arizona State University. “NFL fans have been waiting and now they have a chance to watch — really against little competition here. It would not surprise me if the NFL viewership starts to level off.”

The big exception to the ratings boost has been CBS, which has seen a slight decline in viewers for football after averaging nearly 15 million viewers a game last season. Network executives said they are unconcerned, blaming the lower ratings largely on matchups, and pointed to the 18.8 million viewers for last Sunday’s late afternoon games, which led all football broadcasts for the week. The network’s “NFL Today” pre-game show has seen a 12 percent ratings increase, and executives said any overall boost in ratings for the NFL bodes well for later in the year, when CBS airs the Super Bowl.

“Now that we’re through four weeks, it’s apparent that we have some tremendous matchups down the road for us,” said Rob Correa, CBS Sports’ senior vice president of programming. “We’re very bullish.”

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