In a bid to bolster its strike-blighted primetime lineup, ABC this fall will air what amounts to a full season of Monday Night Football, marking the first time the package will be broadcast to over-the-air TV households since ESPN assumed the rights in 2006.
Effective as of the Oct. 2 Seahawks-Giants game, which was originally scheduled as a standalone ESPN telecast, ABC will add 10 Monday Night Football simulcasts to its 2023-24 NFL roster. The shift was engineered in response to the ongoing writers’ and actors’ strikes, which have left ABC with a skeletal nightly broadcast schedule.
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While the additional broadcast windows will amplify the reach of Disney’s NFL package—last season, the five ABC/ESPN two-fers averaged 18.4 million viewers per game, up 56% compared to the 11.8 million viewers MNF averaged over the course of its 12 cable-only telecasts—the radical reduction of ESPN exclusives at one time would have been a bitter pill to swallow for some pay-TV operators. Live sporting events that cannot be seen anywhere else have long been the means by which ESPN has been able to justify its industry-high carriage fees, and the NFL is the most valuable exclusive in the network’s programming playbook.
By airing all but three of its 22 allotted MNF games on its broadcast sibling, Disney is at once expanding its potential reach—ABC’s signal is beamed to around 17 million households that do not subscribe to ESPN—while also undermining the cable network’s status as the center of the NFL universe every Monday night in the fall.
That said, since pay-TV operators are also on the hook to pay retransmission consent fees to the broadcast networks, the provenance of a given sportscast ultimately may not matter as much today as it might have a few years ago. Carriers on average fork over an estimated $9.42 per sub per month for the right to offer ESPN on their channel lineups, while ABC’s retransmission fee is less than one-third of that rate.
All told, the multiplexed MNF audience is fairly well balanced between the broadcast network and the cable channels. Last week’s Bills-Jets opener averaged 11.66 million viewers on ABC and another 9.44 million on ESPN; toss in the numbers of the ManningCast on ESPN2 and the total cable tally works out to 10.96 million—or just shy of half (48%) of the game’s aggregate deliveries.
In expanding the reach of the Monday night showcase while managing to limit any material losses in the pricier cable option, Disney seems to have cracked the code on the whole having-cake/eating-cake conundrum. Operators thus far have not commented on the revision of the MNF schedule, although their silence may not persist should ESPN’s deliveries take a hit somewhere down the line.
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