NFL deal splits goal posts

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Last year was a good one on the gridiron for the NFL in its first year of the long-term TV rights deals it struck last fall. It also has been good for the league's TV partners as each showed ratings gains last year compared with 2005's regular season.

This fall was the first of the multiyear rights deal that saw ESPN take over "Monday Night Football" and NBC try to start its own dynasty with "Sunday Night Football." CBS and Fox continued their Sunday packages as they have since the 1990s.

Leading the list is Fox, which saw viewership jump 6% to 16.6 million for the 2006 season from the 15.7 million who tuned in during 2005, according to data from Nielsen Media Research. It's the largest audience for Fox's NFL telecasts since 1999 but there are other superlatives as well.

Fox Sports' national games averaged 21.8 million viewers, which Fox Sports said Thursday made it the highest-rated, most-watched show on television so far this season. (A record that won't last presumably thanks to the Super Bowl on CBS and Fox's own "American Idol.") And that's 6% more than a year ago, when the national games averaged 20.4 million viewers.

A surge late in the season gave CBS a slight increase as well. Nielsen Media Research said an average of 15.2 million viewers tuned in to the regular-season CBS coverage, up 1% compared the 15.1 million in 2005 and up 2% compared with 2004's 15 million. CBS said it was the second-highest audience since 1998.

NBC's "SNF" — along with ESPN's telecasts — were considered bellwethers in the industry, with observers wondering whether viewers would change their Sunday (and Monday) night habits.

NBC's telecasts were strong out of the gate and continued that way through most of the season, thanks in part, NBC executives said, to flexible scheduling that gave them stronger matchups than had happened with last year's "MNF" package that didn't have that benefit.

"SNF" averaged 17.5 million viewers, up 7% compared with last year's "MNF" on ABC. From week 13 to week 16, each of the games on NBC are up double digits compared with the "MNF" games on the same weeks last year.

ESPN also is happy with its performance in "MNF," which it touted as the most-watched series in cable TV history. Its 17 games averaged 12.3 million viewers, up 41% compared with its Sunday night games last year that averaged 8.7 million viewers. That doesn't include the over-the-air broadcasts in local markets, which aren't factored in.

ESPN had the top 17 programs on cable TV in 2006 and shattered audience records all over the place including unseating the 1993 NAFTA debate ratings with the Oct. 23 New York Giants-Dallas Cowboys game. It also beat broadcast primetime on four Mondays.
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