In the vast television wasteland known as pregame football talk, the Big Two will become the Big Three this fall.

The network programs are alive and almost well. Brent exited CBS and was replaced by another Gumbel. NBC shuffled the lineup and added Will McDonough.

And now as the NFL prepares for another season, ESPN is taking a bold step in an attempt to compete with the established network shows.

"We saw 'The Simpsons' were taking on Cosby so we figured we could do this," said Chris Berman, host of ESPN's "NFL GameDay."

Here's the game plan: Beginning Sept. 9, the first week of the season, ESPN will go head-to-head with NBC and CBS. Actually, the cable network will get the early jump by starting its preview show at noon, a half-hour before the 30-minute competition.

For four years, "NFL GameDay" began at 11:30 a.m. and ended at 12:30 p.m., the time when CBS's "NFL Today" and NBC's "NFL Live" air. ESPN will maintain its one-hour format, but the time change will put it in direct competition with the networks from 12:30 until 1.


"We hope to enhance our ratings," said Steven M. Bornstein, ESPN's executive vice president for programming and production. "There is some risk going against the networks, but we think we have a superior product."

ESPN looks at it this way: Get the early viewers, give them a good show and maintain that audience until 1 when the networks begin game telecasts.

"If it's a good show, people will watch it," Bornstein said. "If we had a half-hour, it's unlikely we would do it because the network showing the game has such a strong incumbency."

"NFL GameDay" received a 2.7 rating last year, which is difficult to compare with network programming because ESPN is available in only 56.3 million homes and about 61 percent of U.S. television households.

ESPN will go with a five-man studio crew. In addition to Berman, there is analyst Tom Jackson, in-house experts Fred Edelstein and Pete Axthelm and Joe Theismann, who will be seen more in the studio than out at game sites.

"Maybe at three minutes of 1, we'll lose a few people because we don't have a game," Bornstein said. "We're not too worried about that. We want them for everything before that time."

Will the move work?

"I find it interesting," Berman said. "Everyone I've always talked to told us that we have a better show. Now we'll see if they were lying."