ESPN scores extra points

Its first NFL games of the season are Nielsen winners; ABC's MNF is so-so

ESPN offered an unusual half-time act for its season-opening National Football League telecast on Sept. 5. ESPN anchor Chris Berman and ABC's new star commentator, John Madden, dished football with rival NFL broadcasters from CBS and Fox. The roundtable was part of a plan by the league and its broadcast partners to launch the new season in a favorable light.

"We put a lot of resources behind the Thursday-night opener and worked hard with the league," said John Wildhack, ESPN senior vice president of original programs. "There was a lot of buzz about the season opening."

For the first time, the NFL season kicked off on a Thursday night, with a game between the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers televised by ESPN. The warm-up that afternoon was a musical tailgate party in New York City's Times Square featuring big-name acts like Bon Jovi and Enrique Iglesias. The game was ESPN's idea, but the pregame hoopla was the NFL's marketing machine at work.

"ESPN had tremendous promotion for that Thursday-night game. You would expect a superior rating," said sports analyst Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports.

And spectacular it was by cable standards. ESPN grabbed a stunning 9.4 rating, its highest NFL rating since 1999, according to Nielsen Media Research.

ESPN's Nielsen marks got even better three days later. On Sept. 8, the sports net's regular Sunday-night game earned a stunning 9.6 rating. The inaugural contest for the NFL's newest franchise, the Houston Texans, against in-state rival Dallas Cowboys garnered ESPN's highest rating since 1995.

Both ESPN games ranked among the week's top 10 shows on broadcast and cable for adults 18-34 and 18-49.

On broadcast, the NFL's season debut did not produce the same dramatic gains.

ESPN's sister Disney network, ABC, had generated headlines by luring Madden away from Fox. But he failed to draw many new viewers to ABC's Sept. 9 Monday Night Football
kickoff. A strong 12.8 rating for the Pittsburgh Steelers-New England Patriots contest made it the night's highest-rated program, but ratings were off 3% from last year.

Though an overtime thriller, CBS's Sunday opener between the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets logged an 8.7 rating, off 5% from last year.

Fox's matchup between the St. Louis Rams and Denver Broncos, at a 13.2 rating, was up 5%, attracting the net's largest audience since it began airing football in 1994.