Analysis: End of an era?

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  April 20, 2005 at 6:19 PM
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LOS ANGELES, April 20 (UPI) -- At first glance the NFL's deal to move "Monday Night Football" to ESPN from its traditional home on ABC appears to be the end of an era, but upon further review the switch honors an even more revered tradition in the NFL -- of maximizing revenues from televised games.

"MNF" has been a fixture on ABC ever since legendary TV executive Roone Arledge put it on the network in 1970. For much of that time, Tuesday watercooler conversations were incomplete without talk of the previous night's game -- often including arguments about the work of color analyst Howard Cosell.

The telecast made Don Meredith one of the first former players to become a major star in the NFL broadcast booth, and Frank Gifford also became a national presence when he joined the broadcast team.

There will still be "Monday Night Football" -- just not on ABC after the 2005 season.

Beginning in 2006, the Monday night game will only be available to viewers who pay for it on cable. Viewers who want their football free of charge will still have Sunday telecasts on CBS and Fox -- and beginning in '06, they'll get Sunday night games on NBC.

Marc Gunther, co-author of the 1988 book "Monday Night Mayhem: The Inside Story of Monday Night Football," told The Los Angeles Times the change marks the end of a television institution, largely because "MNF" became too rich for ABC's blood.

"Because the NFL was able to charge such a huge rights fee for it," he said, "ABC was no longer able to afford it."

Some fans will be nostalgic over the dissolution of the long-running NFL-ABC Monday night partnership. The show certainly provided more than its share of highlights and excitement over the years.

But nostalgia is a luxury neither the league nor the networks can afford.

ABC has lost hundreds of millions of dollars on the "MNF" telecast, despite consistently high ratings, because it has not been able to cover its costs through ad revenues. The deal announced by NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue calls for The Walt Disney Co. to pay the league about $1.1 billion each year for eight years, for the rights to televise 17 games each season on ESPN.

As a consequence, although Disney-owned ABC will be out of the NFL business, Disney itself will still maintain its partnership with the league.

The move also represents a watershed in the growth of cable. Disney expects ESPN to recoup costs because it not only charges cable subscription fees -- it also will sell commercial time during the games.

Once ABC passed on the Monday night telecast rights, General Electric's NBC-Universal made a successful bid for the Sunday night games currently being televised by ESPN -- $600 million a year for six years beginning in 2006. Randy Falco, president of the NBC Universal Television Networks Group, said the deal made economic sense for NBC.

"Broadcast television still is the only place where you can get 100 percent of all the television sets in the United States," he said. "You have a bigger promotional platform than ESPN does by virtue of the fact that we have multiple stations that we work with. Local combined with national makes our platform that much bigger than anything that cable could ever put on."

Falco said it's a mistake to think of the deal as shifting ESPN's Sunday games to NBC.

"It's really ABC's broadcast package on Monday night going to Sunday night," he said, "which is even more valuable for us than it ever has been before because of the fact that we're only paying a 9 percent increase over the previous package ABC paid for Monday night."

NBC had no interest in acquiring "MNF," because it would cause scheduling problems for "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" -- a major profit center for the network.

Tagliabue, as he typically does when making announcements about the league's plans, said the new TV deals would be a major improvement for fans who watch football on TV.

"They underscore our unique commitment to broadcast television and our tradition of delivering our games to the widest possible audience," he said. "In the current media environment, Sunday is now the better night for our prime time broadcast package."

With a big assist from the Baltimore Colts-New York Giants 1958 NFL championship game -- often called the greatest game ever played -- professional football caught the nation's imagination and became one of the most lucrative TV franchises. CBS owned the rights, and the other networks just had to live with it -- until the American Football League started luring top prospects with big money contracts in the 1960s, largely with TV money from NBC.

Fox scooped CBS for NFL rights in a stunning development in 1993, and NBC walked away from NFL football in 1997. None of those developments packed the emotional wallop, perhaps, of ABC dropping "MNF," but each has its place on a time line that most assuredly will see more change down the road.

Who knows, maybe the day will even come when the league will regard it as good for the fans if there is no more free NFL football on TV at all.

Now that would be the end of an era.


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