Back in the 2005 season, Monday Night Football moved from ABC to ESPN. It was a desperation move: ESPN had just lost Sunday Night Football to NBC. In order for Disney to continue commanding a hefty paycheck from the cable companies for ESPN – about five dollars for each Expanded Basic cable subscriber – they needed a prime time NFL game. Moving MNF to ESPN seemed like a simple solution, right? Not so fast…
Naturally, ABC ratings for Monday night immediately tanked. They thought The Bachelor could challenge Two and a Half Men. Fools. But someone had an “a-ha!” moment two years later, and they moved Dancing With the Stars to Monday, which itself then became a ratings juggernaut after it moved to its new time slot. I’ve never watched it, but I am still stunned by what happened to Heather.
It wasn’t long before people started calling Sunday Night Football “The New Monday Night Football”. For whatever reason, ESPN kept getting lousy match-ups for MNF, while SNF usually had compelling games. Then along came “flex scheduling“, and SNF was all but guaranteed compelling games later in the season. The only thing compelling about MNF was a drinking game: each time Jon Gruden lavishes praise for someone, you have to take a swig. Tuesday mornings are a real bitch, though.
Just a few years after Disney moved MNF to the walled garden of cable, the perfect storm happened. First, in 2010 the FCC allowed cable companies to scramble Expanded Basic channels, rendering the built-in tuner of your TV useless: you had to pay an additional monthly rental charge for a set-top box to continue watching MNF. Meanwhile, the cable companies jacked up the cost of their services as well. Greedy bastards.
Second, the U.S. was in the middle of a massive recession at the time. Many people couldn’t afford the additional $27 a month to rent descramblers for their three household televisions. Canceling Expanded Basic would save them that $27, plus the $25 a month the service itself costs. Two months of savings pays for a decent antenna, which has better picture and audio quality than cable, so now Limited Basic service can be canceled as well. And the cord-cutting revolution took off.
Naturally, MNF ratings tanked. Then it got worse: ESPN lost over a million subscribers in early 2016, then lost another million later in the year…during football season.
On the flip-side, The NFL Network had spent their entire existence, since 2006, in ratings hell. Almost nobody watched Thursday Night Football. Then in 2014 somebody had an idea: simulcast TNF on CBS for a handful of games. And television ratings for Thursday night skyrocketed for CBS for those games. It was so successful, they decided to add NBC to their simulcast deal last season, so we get to watch even more TNF games.
On the surface, it seems like an easy solution: Disney owns both ABC and ESPN, so what’s stopping them from simulcasting MNF on ABC? Ratings for MNF would skyrocket, right?
Two reasons. First, their negotiating leverage with the cable companies for ESPN would drop significantly, which means they would get less money and not be able to afford to maintain ESPN to such high standards. Second, ratings for DWTS would likely drop if they were to re-schedule it to a different night.
The solution they went with instead: fire everybody. Except for Stephen A. Smith.