Flat's Not so Bad For NFL's Ratings

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In what has been a tough fall season for broadcast networks, the National Football League has proven to be a bright spot. Pro football ratings are basically even with last year on broadcast and up slightly on cable. Now, the coming playoffs promise to usher in bigger ratings, though if the regular season is any indication, there probably won't be extraordinary gains.

"You look at this television season and everyone talking about how ratings are down," says Fox Sports President Ed Goren. "To be even is very healthy in today's television environment."

Through Dec. 14, ABC's Monday Night Football
was averaging a 11.5 rating and 16.9 million viewers, about even with the 2002 season, according to Nielsen Media Research. Fox and CBS's marks are holding up as well. Fox's Sunday NFL games are delivering an average 10.4 rating and 15.9 million viewers, about even with a year ago. CBS, with a 9.7 and 14.8 million viewers, is up slightly.

On ESPN, the crowds are smaller, but NFL games are still the highest-rated programs on ad-supported cable during the football season. ESPN is averaging a 7.8 in the cable universe and 9.3 million viewers. Its Sunday Night Football
ratings are up 4% over last season. And while the league was fuming over ESPN's controversial pro football drama Playmakers, the show didn't seem to turn off any football fans.

One area where the NFL is not attracting too many new eyeballs is on its own cable network. So far, the NFL Network, which launched mid-season, only has carriage on DirecTV—which also carries the league's out-of-market package exclusively. The DirecTV deal is a good one, giving the NFL Network almost 12 million subscribers on the DBS provider's most widely-distributed package, but the league is having trouble convincing MSOs to give it similarly broad carriage.