The NFL is exploring the possibility of making its TV schedule more flexible in the final weeks of the season to showcase more attractive matchups for its marquee nationally televised broadcasts, particularly ABC's "Monday Night Football," sources said yesterday.
This year, the final game of the Monday night schedule matched Atlanta and San Francisco, both with losing records and out of playoff contention. The meaningless game drew a 10.0 rating, a number lower than any Monday night game in the '90s. ABC's overall Monday night rating of 13.8 was down 1 percent from 1998.
Sources said yesterday that team owners were told at a meeting in New York on Tuesday that the league will consider leaving the December TV schedule open so that better matchups could be provided to all the NFL outlets--ABC, CBS, Fox and ESPN, which carries Sunday night football.
CBS and Fox, for example, could get more competitive games for the second half of their Sunday doubleheaders, which is usually a national broadcast. Both networks have flexibility under the current contract, but would have more choices under a plan now being devised by the NFL.
In the past, the Monday night schedule was made up six months ahead of time and usually featured teams that finished well the previous season. This season, teams that became surprise playoff contenders--St. Louis, Tennessee and Indianapolis--did not appear on Monday night telecasts.
Dennis Lewin, director of broadcasting for the NFL, declined to comment yesterday. Other league sources said the plan could be put in effect for the 2000 season. The league has had discussions with ABC, and meetings are scheduled next week in Atlanta during the Super Bowl with officials from Fox and CBS. A decision on implementing it for 2000 will be made within the next month.
ABC spokesman Mark Mandel declined to comment on any proposal, but said "the NFL has always done right by ABC. If either one of us could do anything to improve ratings, we'll do it."
Team owners were told the league would likely release a Monday night schedule through November, while holding open the final four weeks of the season to allow ABC/ESPN to have playoff contenders appear in the Monday and Sunday night slots. The networks have similar flexibility in scheduling college football games.
Switching from a Sunday to a Monday night game a month to six weeks ahead of time could present logistical problems. If a team is scheduled to play on Sunday and is later slotted for Monday night, hotels, flights and other arrangements would have to be changed, with enough lead time provided that ticket holders also could rearrange their schedules.
Still, the 1999 season presented an illustration of why a switch to more flexible in-season scheduling has appeal for the networks and the teams. The Falcons, coming off a Super Bowl season, were on Monday night the maximum three times. So were the 49ers.
Still, despite having some dreary matchups, "Monday Night Football" was ranked the No. 3 prime time show last year, trailing "ER" and "Frasier."