NBC has struck a deal with the National Football League for the Sunday-night games that have been airing on ESPN.
Starting with the 2006 season, NBC will be home to the NFL on Sunday nights through 2011, including Super Bowls in 2009 and 2012.
NBC executives said they were only interested in Sunday night games, which would bolster prime time but “would not in any way affect our incredibly valuable late night franchise, from The Tonight Show to Saturday Night Live.”
Monday night games have often run late, pushing local news and Nightline to an hour or more into the night (early morning, actually).
Another essential element is flexible scheduling, that will allow NBC to pick games between two playoff contenders late in the season. Monday Night Football often suffered from match-ups between two teams that were well out of contention.
NBC executives claim they’ll get far better ratings ESPN’s current Sunday Night Package. “They have a smaller audience,” says Randy Falco. “Broadcast television is still the only place you can get 100% of the homes in the United States. Our ratings will probably be twice as high.”
ESPN isn't crying, though. It will get Monday Night Football, which has been on co-owned ABC since it launched 35 years ago. The ESPN deal covers eight years of the game, from 2006 through 2013.
While that means MNF will now only be available to pay TV subs, it will still be broadcast on a local broadcast affiliate in each of the participating team's markets, as is the case now with Sunday Night Football on ESPN.
ESPN/ABC Sports President George Bodenheimer said that given the improvement in entertainment product and the "financials"--i.e. fees versus revenues of the Monday night games--it didn't work to keep the games on ABC and made better sense to move them to the company's premiere sports franchise, ESPN.
Asked what he would say to the affiliates, he answered that it was an opportunity to continue to grow the entertainment side, which has logged some hits in Extreme Makeover,Desperate Housewives, Lost, and now Grey's Anatomy, a growth that would ultimately benefit them.
ESPN expects to be able to bump up the MNF rating, which has slid from an average 17 rating in 1995 to a 10.9 average this past season, though to be fair broadcast ratings have been on a general decline in the face of increasing competition for eyeballs from cable, satellite and the internet.
Bodenheimer also said the deal should increase ESPN's value to cable operators come carriage negotiation time, when the network's rates are frequently the source of some heated operator rhetoric.
The Monday game will kick-off at 8:40 instead of a little after nine, while NBC's game will start at 8:15. Disney has a year to decide which of its announcing teams will get the Monday night honors.
The Sunday night and Monday night NFL games were the only deals yet to be done, with CBS and Fox both having re-upped for six-year deals last November.
ESPN was not offered the Super Bowl, although in echoing a comment by Roone Arledge, the late ABC sports and news exec who brainstormed the original MNF, ESPN Executive VP Mark Shapiro said: "We're halfway there."
Perhaps, but the NFL in its release on the deal said: "The new agreements thus continue the NFL’s long-standing practice of making all of its games, including the playoffs and Super Bowl, available on free, over-the air television."
A cable-only Super Bowl could well raise sports-siphoning concerns in Washington, where the NFL's big game, as well as the World Series, are looked on as the closest thing to free TV entitlements.
The NFL says it is still looking into breaking out an eight-game cable/satellite package for late-season beginning in 2006, but those games will come from CBS and Fox (four apiece).--John Higgins contributed to this report.