Monday, April 18, 2005

NBC's Big Games

How long, do you suppose, before John Madden makes a deal with NBC?
How iffy must things be in prime time at the Peacock Network?
How good are they at ABC?
But, most important, are you ready for some "flexible scheduling"?
The 2005 season will be the last for the foreseeable future for "Monday Night Football'' on ABC. The NFL on Monday announced a new deal putting a prime time game on Sunday nights on NBC, while Monday games go to ESPN (which, like ABC, is owned by the Walt Disney Co., sort of keeping football in the family), beginning in the 2006 season.
Let me say that again: We are not talking about a deal for the coming season in 2005, but for seasons that follow, starting in 2006.
On the surface, this is a just a deal that moves prime-time football from from ABC to NBC. (CBS and Fox still have packages built around weekend afternoons.) "MNF" -- which began with a Browns-Jets game in 1970 -- probably stopped being a phenomenon as the Howard Cosell era was coming to an end, and experiments like the use of Dennis Miller as a commentator did not bring back the good old days. And diehard football fans are used to games on Sunday and Monday nights already, since we've had a combo of ESPN and ABC telecasts.
But there are reasons to see this deal as something more sweeping.
For one, ABC is finally confident enough about its prospects for entertainment series to fill those hours previously taken by "MNF." The success of "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" in particular have given the network a long-missing swagger.
For another, NBC needs to establish something in prime time that doesn't have "Law & Order" in the title -- and was willing to take on something it had let get away in the late '90s.
Football will not only give it a foundation on Sunday nights, it will provide a football-season-long promotional base for other programming. So the network has dealt for a package that each year will include three preseason-game telecasts, 16 regular-season games and some wild-card playoffs, along with two Super Bowls, in 2009 and 2012.
And, for those of you interested in corporate synergy, the deal gives NBC's owner, General Electric, "the opportunity to associate with the NFL in healthcare technology, security equipment, electric products (including lighting) and financial services," the NBC announcement said.
But NBC is also getting something that ABC long wanted for "Monday Night Football" and could not get: a better chance at marquee games in prime time late in the season.
"MNF's" schedule is set before the season begins, and it always runs the risk of getting bad games involving teams long out of the playoff hunt as the season wears on. The network lobbied privately and publicly for a better deal, but the other networks with football were not about to give up their best games.
The recent contract window -- CBS's and Fox's current deals run out at the end of 2005, although the NFL has announced extensions beginning in 2006 -- apparently set the stage for "flexible scheduling" for the final seven weeks of the season.
"Details on the flexible scheduling will be developed by the NFL," the league's announcement said, but you can imagine how it works. If, say, Cleveland-Pittsburgh on a late-season Sunday has playoff implications, what might have been a 1 or 4 p.m. start will suddenly become have kickoff at 8:15 p.m. (the announced time for NBC games).
And I won't mind that, if it means seeing some exciting and important football.

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