Reynolds Rap

Monday Night Count Down

12/01/2008 8:49 AM

Very difficult matchup for ESPN’s Monday Night Football tonight.

Not only does the Jacksonville Jaguars-Houston Texans game from Reliant Stadium hold zero playoff implications, it goes up against MNF’s toughest comparison from the 2007 season: New England’s 27-24 victory over the Baltimore Ravens was the equivalent Week 13 contest a year ago.

The Dec. 3, 2007 game, if you’ll remember, attracted 17.5 million viewers as the Pats kept their undefeated regular season intact in the last minute. That average was the largest live audience ever for a cable program to the point. Today, it ranks third overall behind the live+ seven-day total for the premiere of Disney Channel telefilm High School Musical 2, and this year’s Sept. 15 MNF game in which the Dallas Cowboys edged the Philadelphia Eagles, 41-38. Both programs garnered around 18.6 million viewers, with the movie holding a slight edge over MNF due to DVR viewing.

So, ESPN is likely sitting on a major drop in viewers tonight — perhaps somewhere south of 8 million from last season’s equivalent. Take another million off and the inconsequential contest could threaten ESPN’s MNF low: the Dec. 10, 2007 game between the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints that averaged 8.45 million.

Whatever the final Nielsen count, Jax (Nielsen DMA No. 49)-Houston (No.10) figures to take a chunk out of ESPN’s 9.0 cable rating and 12.2 million viewer average for its first 13 games this season, which were up 6% and 11% from respective 8.5 rating and 11 million audience marks through the same period in 2007.

ESPN’s remaining schedule has more interesting games left, albeit with Nielsen caveats. The Week 14 battle is for NFC South supremacy with Tampa Bay visiting the Carolina Panthers. Both are 9-3, but represent Nielsen DMAs No. 13 and 25, respectively. Their Nov. 13, 2006 MNF meeting averaged 9.6 million viewers, the lowest total for ESPN during its rookie season with the franchise. However, the on-field circumstances were a little different then: the Panthers were 4-4, while the Bucs were 2-6.

During Week 15, football fans will get their final primetime viewing of Romeo Crennel’s swan song, as the Cleveland Browns, this season’s scheduling mistake by the lake, invade the Philadelphia Eagles on Dec. 15. Problem is if the New York Giants take care of business against Donovan McNabb and Co. at the Meadowlands on Dec 7, Philly will all but be eliminated from playoff contention by the time they hit the MNF air in Lincoln Financial Field.

ESPN should catch a nice break with its Dec. 22 finale. Last year, the total sports network’s concluder matched the Denver Broncos with the San Diego Chargers on Christmas Eve, and the ‘Bolts 23-3 win tackled just 8.77 million viewers. Clearly, the latest renewal of the league’s oldest rivalry, Green Bay at Chicago, carries more weight as the teams have national followings. And it could generate a big run-up in viewers, if The Pack (5-7) can win a couple before then and the Bears (6-6, one game behind Minnesota) remain in the NFC North hunt.

September