Engineering a Monday Night Comeback

ESPN’S Monday Night Football franchise is looking to rebound this season after being sacked for a major ratings loss last year, when the venerable series suffered a 12% year-to-year viewership loss in averaging 11.4 million viewers.

ESPN executive vice president of programming and scheduling Burke Magnus recently spoke to Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about the network’s plans to score big ratings gains on Monday nights with a stronger, more competitive schedule of games. Magnus also said he’s bullish on the National Football League, as well as the network’s current $15 billion TV deal with the league, which runs through 2021. Following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

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MCN: How does Monday Night Football bounce back from a double-digit year-to-year ratings falloff?
Burke Magnus:
The first thing we did was to work hand in glove with the NFL to make sure that they were completely aware of our priorities on this year’s schedule. It’s not that we don’t do this every year, because we do, but certainly this year was a little bit different coming off the performance of last year’s schedule. The NFL takes a ton of pride in ownership of its overall schedule — they have a lot of partners and a lot of mouths to feed. But they were equally as concerned with not just Monday Night Football but across the board last year. They really took our input and our priorities into consideration when making the schedule. We just worked closer with them than probably we ever had before to try and get the schedule in a place that we are happy with going in. I think it’s vastly improved.

MCN: How has the schedule improved from last year?
One of the primary things we requested and they delivered was an increase in divisional matchups. We have nine this year versus four last year. The reason for that focus is we think that the divisional games are more airtight from an interest perspective just because they are rivalry games, even if one or both of the teams don’t have the records that they had hoped for going into their Monday Night Footballappearance. Just like you do in college football, you throw out the records to a certain degree when you know that the Lions and Packers are playing because it’s a big NFC North matchup. We have a couple of those big ones but we have nine overall, which we think will be good insurance against the records going into those games.

Last year, we had some tough sledding from a competitive perspective — we had a 14½-point average margin of victory across all of the games, which was more than double what it was in 2015 and well above average. That’s the part we can’t control, obviously, but … we’re cautiously optimistic that was a big contributor to last year’s performance.

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MCN: This year Monday Night Football is not following the Summer Olympics nor is it competing with news coverage in a presidential election season. Given all of those factors, are you confident you will be able to definitively improve on last year’s ratings?
I would say we’re pretty optimistic. That dropoff was unusually large — it’s an outlier when you look at the last decade of Monday Night Football. As you noted there were a variety of factors that contributed to that, some of which don’t exist anymore, like the Olympics, and some of which are different than they were a year ago, like the election. That’s not to suggest the news networks and coverage of that sort of content isn’t going to still be higher than usual, but nonetheless I don’t think it can approach the headwinds that we faced last year.

MCN: ESPN’s Monday Night Football wasn’t the only NFL TV property to suffer ratings losses last year. Are you concerned about a downturn in interest in watching live games?
No, I wouldn’t go that far. The NFL has done a masterful job seemingly always being up, but in our business you can’t be up every year — it defies gravity. So, to a certain degree, I think a bunch of factors conspired to have an off year. The NFL again to their credit hit this head on in terms of making sure that the scheduling was done in a way to get off to a good start and hopefully carry through. They adjusted commercial formats to help declutter and simplify the television presentation with less breaks. They are laser-focused on this and they are doing everything they can to make sure that their presentation is as friendly as possible to potential fans and viewers.

MCN: Some industry observers have questioned whether ESPN is getting its money’s worth from its Monday Night Football deal. Halfway into the network’s 10-year Monday Night Football TV extension with the NFL, are you satisfied with the value generated from the deal thus far?
We’re very satisfied and we’ve got a long way to go. It is critically important to our business ... it’s the most popular sports property by a wide margin. The NFL is delivering everything to us that we bought and licensed from them, and I think at some certain point in time — especially in light of what was an unfortunate performance last year again, for a variety of reasons — I think people tend to read between the lines. But if we’re up 12%, 15% or 20% [in ratings], knock on wood, I think those articles will be more difficult to write. We know we’re in the live sports business so this stuff ebbs and flows, so you can’t get too excited when you’re up and you can’t get too dejected when you’re down. You just have to keep your focus and try and make it the best it can possibly be. The attitude we took with the NFL and scheduling this year was to just redouble our focus on trying to grow the audience — and you know they’re great partners in that regard — so we’re very happy.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.