Fans of “The Bachelorette” reality television show who live in the Washington, D.C., area were unable to watch the finale of the show’s 20th season on Monday night. It turns out their ABC affiliate showed an N.F.L. game instead — and a preseason one at that.
If you know any “Bachelorette” fans, you can probably guess how the Washington-area ones felt about this particular programming call.
“I was pretty frustrated,” Pegah Moradi, 25, who lives in Arlington, Va., said by phone early Tuesday.
“It’s more important for sports to be live, obviously, than it is for a prerecorded reality show finale,” said Ms. Moradi, a graduate student. “But at the same time, it’s difficult when something that you’re accustomed to viewing at a certain time is just not there.”
The practice of cutting one must-watch TV broadcast for another, more common in the past, has become rare in the streaming era. If something is important enough to broadcast live these days, networks and streaming platforms can usually find a way to do that.
But on Monday, the “Bachelorette” finale was shelved in the D.C. area by ABC’s local affiliate in favor of a football game between the Washington Commanders and the Baltimore Ravens. (The Commanders won, 29-28, after kicking a field goal in the game’s waning seconds.)
“It might be because the two football teams are regional favorites that people are obsessed with,” said Julia Swift, a professor in the Division of Communication and Creative Media at Champlain College in Burlington, Vt. “But people are also obsessed with ‘The Bachelorette.’”
N.F.L. policy mandates that games that air nationally — on cable networks like ESPN or on streaming services such as Amazon Prime — are broadcast on free, over-the-air television in the local markets of the participating teams. This is so fans can see their hometown teams play, even if they don’t have cable or a subscription to a streaming service, Brian McCarthy, an N.F.L. spokesman said in a statement.
The network, in this case ESPN, arranges with a local affiliate of its choice to broadcast the game in the teams’ markets. Neither ESPN nor the local ABC affiliate, WJLA, provided comment on the matter.
ABC, the majority owner of ESPN, did not respond to questions about why the game was aired in lieu of the “Bachelorette” finale, but a spokesman said that the episode would be available Tuesday on streaming platforms such as Hulu and that fans could sign in with their cable provider to stream it online.
The “Bachelorette” finale was available on Charge!, an over-the-air broadcasting network owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group. Charge! is free and does not require a paid subscription. But some fans, including Ms. Moradi, had never heard of it and could not figure out how to watch.
Professor Swift said that it would have made more sense to air the episode on a streaming platform that belongs to ABC or Disney, the network’s corporate parent.
The latest season of “The Bachelorette,” a spinoff of “The Bachelor” and “Bachelor in Paradise,” stars Charity Lawson, a real-life child-and-family therapist from Georgia who is looking for a life partner. Ms. Lawson, 27, began the season with 25 suitors; by the finale, she was down to three.
The ABC affiliate that cut the finale likely did so after calculating that more people would watch the football game, said Amanda Lotz, a professor of media studies at Queensland University of Technology in Australia who has studied the U.S. television industry.
Whatever the reason, the decision illustrates how the federal policies governing American television today were designed decades ago to promote “local sovereignty” by giving local affiliates discretion over what to air, said Professor Lotz, the author of “We Now Disrupt This Broadcast: How Cable Transformed Television and the Internet Revolutionized It All.”
The concept of “local sovereignty” may sound anachronistic in the streaming era, she added, “but these were policies that were designed to protect local community differences so that they wouldn’t be overrun by the creation of a national culture.”
One way to read Monday’s scheduling call would be as a kind of karmic victory for football fans, who were famously denied the ending of a nail biter of a game between the Jets and the Oakland Raiders on Nov. 17, 1968. With 50 seconds left, the television broadcast cut out abruptly to make way for “Heidi,” a made-for-TV children’s movie about a Swiss orphan.
As for “The Bachelorette,” Ms. Moradi said she understood that the Commanders and the Ravens are both in her television market and have local fan bases. “But a preseason N.F.L. game versus the finale of a major franchise TV show is not a very difficult decision to make in terms of what to broadcast,” she said.
After her viewing plans were scrambled on Monday, Ms. Moradi inadvertently saw a spoiler for the show as she searched for how to watch. At this point, she said, she wonders if watching the finale will even be worth her time.
“Everyone I know who was watching it will have already seen it, for the most part, so I’ll just kind of be in the dark for 24 hours,” she said. “I won’t get to join in on this rare experience: watching live TV at the same time as everyone else.”
Rebecca Carballo contributed to this report.
POST AUTHOR: Mike Ives and Jin Yu Young