The Critical 'I'

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Friday, December 12, 2003

TWO MNF GAMES?
oh the parity
How many times has Monday rolled around, and you took a look at the TV listings to find out what the matchup on Monday Night Football was, and decided there were plenty of better things to do that night instead of watching a couple of 5-8 squads go through the motions? I know I've opted for other forms of entertainment this season, televised and not, instead of Madden and Michaels. And the ratings over the past several years indicate that plenty of others have taken the same attitude.

That's why the NFL is considering scheduling not one, but two games on Monday night, so that ABC has a better chance of airing a meaningful game late in the season. The idea would be that one game would get the national treatment, while the alternate would be shown regionally. The decision on which game is the featured broadcast could be made as late as Sunday (taking into account John Madden's bus route). I imagine that the couple of games that were rescheduled to Monday night in recent seasons (I recall the Bears had to do this, one or two seasons ago) might have inspired this.

On one hand, this is a good idea. With four teams in action on Monday night, there's a much better chance that at least one of them will have something to play for, even late into the season, and so would attract a decent audience. Anything that would avoid a dud matchup like the one I most vividly remember, a late-season MNF game between Indianapolis and San Diego back in the (I believe) 1993 season. Both those teams were coming off resurgent seasons--Indy was being led by QB Jeff George, and the Chargers were fresh off breaking a years-long playoff drought--and at the start of the season, it looked like a quality tilt. In hindsight, it was pretty stupid for the schedulemakers to put those two teams in primetime, as the possibility of both of them being one-season wonders was obvious. End result, both teams were on their way to losing records, the game was putrid, and I clearly remember the MNF booth guys struggling greatly to stay focused on the action on the field.

But honestly, I'm not sure this gambit will pay off. First off, I consider it extremely unlikely that the broadcast partners are going to play ball. It'll take an enormous ransom from ABC, with plenty of prodding from the league, to get CBS or FOX to give up one of their games. What's the incentive for the other two networks? They really gain nothing from ensuring the league has good ratings on Monday night; all the broadcast partners care about are their own numbers. In fact, in the larger scheme, the other networks would love to see ABC's MNF numbers continue their decline, because it means potentially stronger numbers for their (typically non-sports) counterprogramming. So right off the bat, this is academic, and I feel the chances of it coming off while the current broadcast deals are in force are extremely slim.

I question how much the Monday night matchups by themselves are to blame for the decline in MNF viewership. I've felt for a while now that the Sunday Night ESPN Football game has done a lot more to make MNF less appealing. Personally, as much as I love the NFL, by the time the Sunday night game starts, I feel like I've had my fill of football for the week. The ESPN game has served to dilute the broadcast product. It used to be that you got only two (and sometimes only one) Sunday afternoon game, and then were left craving more. Now, it's like an overabundance of games, and you can pick and choose what and when to watch.

Beyond that, for all the hype that would surround an additional Monday game as being for the benefit of the fans, in truth it's a move grounded in cynical motive. I don't feel there's any real demand for a guaranteed Monday night thriller; again, you'll either watch the Monday night game because you're in the mood for some football, or you won't. Scheduling two games on Monday is clearly perceived as a ratings grab, and I think that approach will filter down to the audience's perceptions.

Finally, consider that ABC will have to find two MNF broadcast crews to pull this off. That means another Lisa Guerrero--sheesh.