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'Monday Night Football' Changes the Channel

After 35 Years on ABC, ESPN Will Take Over Beginning in 2006

By Leonard Shapiro and Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 19, 2005; Page A01

ABC's "Monday Night Football," which revolutionized broadcasting of the National Football League when it was launched 35 years ago, will end its unprecedented run on network television after the 2005 season and move to the ESPN cable network.

Under terms of a new agreement reached with the NFL yesterday, ESPN will pay $1.1 billion per year over the length of an eight-year contract to replace ABC -- both ABC and ESPN are owned by the Disney Company -- in televising the Monday night package of games. ABC reportedly had been losing about $150 million a year on Monday nights in its eight-year deal with the NFL that expires after the 2005 season, and ratings for the telecast have been trending downward in recent seasons.

John Madden, already a household name as a football announcer, joined "Monday Night Football" in 2002. (Fred Prouser--Reuters)

_____NFL's New TV Deals_____

ESPN (announced yesterday)

Monday night

• 8 years, 2006-13

• $1.1 billion per year

• No Super Bowls

NBC (announced yesterday)

Sunday night

• 6 years, 2006-11

• $600 million per year

• Super Bowls in 2009 and 2012

Fox (announced Nov. 8)

Sunday afternoon NFC

• 6 years, 2006-11

• $712.5 million per year

• Super Bowls in 2008 and one other year during deal

CBS (announced Nov. 8)

Sunday afternoon AFC

• 6 years, 2006-11

• $622.5 million per year

• Super Bowls in 2007 and one other year during deal

DirecTV (announced Nov. 8)

Sunday Ticket satellite

• 5 years, 2006-10

• $700 million per year

• No Super Bowls

_____NFL Basics_____
Team index
NFL Section
_____Mark Maske's NFL Insider_____
TV Deals Show League's Might (washingtonpost.com, Apr 19, 2005)
Young QBs Hope for the Right Situations (washingtonpost.com, Apr 18, 2005)
For Restricted Free Agents, a Bullish Market (washingtonpost.com, Apr 15, 2005)

In addition, NBC Sports will return as an NFL partner in 2006 after an eight-year absence, taking over the Sunday evening games that previously aired on ESPN, the NFL and the network announced. With CBS and Fox broadcasting Sunday afternoon games, ABC, beginning in 2006, will be the only network not to televise the NFL.

The shift of "Monday Night Football" from network to cable television marks the end of an era in television sports broadcasting and reflects a broader transformation of how NFL games are televised as the league seeks to maintain its core viewers while attracting a new generation of fans. While the Super Bowl routinely ranks among the top-rated shows each year, ratings for regular season games have been declining.

CBS and Fox have been discussing the possibility of shifting the starting times, set for years at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Eastern time each Sunday, to a later hour. The NFL has been heavily promoting its two-year-old NFL Network, providing blanket coverage of the annual college draft, which will be held this weekend, and such once-obscure events as the annual college scouting combine. Some in the industry believe the league is positioning itself to someday begin televising games of its own.

ESPN officials spoke excitedly about the shift of "Monday Night Football" to the 25-year-old all-sports cable network. "It's a huge day for ESPN," said George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN and ABC. "Who would have thought 25 years ago we'd have 'Monday Night Football,' an American institution, on ESPN?"

Retaining the show "did not make sense" for ABC, Bodenheimer said. The average audience for "Monday Night Football" fell to 16.4 million viewers last season from 16.8 million a year earlier, making the show's ratings the lowest ever. The broadcast attracted an average of 11 percent of the 109.6 million U.S. homes with television sets.

For millions of sports fans, "Monday Night Football" on ABC was an American institution, and a generation of TV viewers has never known life without it. The program was the brainchild of the late Roone Arledge, who in the 1960s and 1970s pioneered sports broadcasting as the head of ABC Sports, and Pete Rozelle, then the NFL commissioner, who was the first to see the role that television would come to play in his sport. The show broke the Sunday monopoly of the NFL and showcased the sport on prime-time television, before then the exclusive domain of sitcoms, dramas and variety shows.

Both men took a huge risk in airing professional football in prime time, but it quickly became a rousing success, in part because of a three-man announcing booth that included Howard Cosell, who used Monday nights as a podium to pontificate on an array of sports issues, and "Dandy Don" Meredith, the onetime Dallas Cowboys quarterback. Keith Jackson handled the play-by-play in the inaugural 1970 season; Frank Gifford took over that role for the second season.

In recent years, ABC had attempted to increase its audience any way it could, including a two-year experiment with comedian Dennis Miller in the booth that did little to improve its ratings. Two years ago, popular football analyst John Madden left Fox to join play-by-play announcer Al Michaels in the booth, but ratings still did not pick up.

It was not immediately known whether Madden and Michaels would move to the ESPN games. Network officials said no decision on announcers had been made.

"We felt the over-the-air [network] package would do much better on Sunday night," said Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, chairman of the league's television committee. "Ratings were declining. The consensus of the committee was that Sunday night was a better fit for the over-the-air package because people are already home. They're not at the office or driving home. We had informed Disney we wanted to change nights, and that didn't fit in with their ideas because of the entertainment programming they have on Sunday nights."

ABC's highest rated show this season, "Desperate Housewives," has been airing at 9 p.m. on Sunday nights. NBC had no interest in Monday nights because it would force a delay in its popular late night franchise of Jay Leno and "The Tonight Show" airing at 11:30 p.m.

The ESPN Monday night package also will have an earlier kickoff, with games starting at 8:40 p.m. instead of 9 p.m., the starting time on ABC since the series' inception. The ESPN games also will be made available on regular over-the-air television stations in each participating team's local market so that households without cable television can still see the telecast.

"The league felt strongly that Sunday night football was the only place for prime time network television to grow," said Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Sports. "A great deal with the NFL is as good as you can get in television."

NBC's parent corporation, General Electric, also was involved in the new deal. GE Chairman and CEO Bob Wright said the company will provide electronic, security and health care equipment as well as financial services for the league, and the contract gives GE "its own bond with the NFL."

"It's the right time for this," he said. "We've worked out an arrangement that's attractive to us economically. This will be a profitable transaction."

The NFL negotiated separate six-year deals with CBS and Fox last November that totaled $8 billion, as well as a five-year, $3.5 billion extension of its deal with DirecTV, also starting in 2006, in which fans can buy a package of games through the satellite system. Starting that season, the NFL will average $3.74 billion a year in television revenue, and that figure likely will go higher.

The league still is shopping a new Thursday night/Saturday night package of games to several cable companies that would provide added revenues. TNT, USA and Fox Sports Network all have expressed interest in the package of games, which would be shown in the second half of the season. The NFL may eventually decide to carry those games on the NFL Network.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company