Thanks to a couple of really big games from ageless quarterback Brett Favre, Walt Disney Co.'s sports cable channel ESPN had its best season ever carrying the NFL's "Monday Night Football" franchise.
ESPN, which shells out about $1.1 billion a year for its football package, said "Monday Night Football" was the most-watched show on cable television this fall. This is ESPN's fourth year of "Monday Night Football," and its current deal expires after the 2013 season. Among all the rights holders for the game, it holds the most expensive contract.
The strong ratings come just as programming costs are a major issue in the cable industry and will give ESPN some cover when cable-system operators gripe about how much they will be forced to pay to carry the channel. Time Warner Cable is embroiled in a big fight with News Corp. over the costs of carrying several channels, including Fox's local TV stations and FX.
With a price tag of almost $4 a month per subscriber, ESPN is the most expensive cable network for cable and satellite distributors. Strong ratings are key for the channel to justify its high cost. For Disney, which owns 80% of ESPN, the cable channel is a crucial revenue driver. Hearst Corp. owns the remaining 20%.
For the season, ESPN's 17 games averaged 14.4 million viewers, a 20% increase over its 2008 season. Its finale Monday, which featured a tight match between Favre's Minnesota Vikings and archrival Chicago Bears, averaged almost 12 million viewers, impressive given that the week between Christmas and New Year's Day usually has low viewership.
ESPN's biggest telecast was the Oct. 5 match between the Vikings and Favre's longtime team, the Green Bay Packers. The game drew 21.9 million viewers, a record for a cable network, and it easily beat all other programming including what was on the bigger broadcast networks. It was only the second time that a cable show had beaten the broadcast networks during the traditional September-to-May television season.
Overall, ratings for football have been strong performers on all the outlets that carry the games. News Corp.'s Fox, General Electric Co.'s NBC and CBS have had strong seasons. CBS, which carries the Super Bowl this season, has just about sold all the commercials for the game.
The downside for the networks is, of course, that the NFL will have a lot of leverage when the contracts for football are up for renewal.