By Bob Keisser
Special to TelevisionWeek
If the NFL TV execs used a Chinese calendar, this would be the Year of the Lame Duck.
With the league getting a leg up on its TV contracts for 2006 and beyond in the off-season, the shuffling of rights holders-next season NBC is in, ABC is out and “Monday Night Football” is headed to cable-leaves two networks with broadcast teams on their way out of the booth.
The entire 36th and final season of “Monday Night Football” on ABC, for example, will be a virtual Long Goodbye. Al Michaels, the man in the play-by-play seat since 1986, will stay with “MNF” next season, but the show switches to cable’s ESPN. John Madden will finish his last season on Mondays and then jump to NBC’s new Sunday night package in 2006.
Here is a network-by-network look at the way things were, the way they are and the way they will be:
It was incomprehensible to some that ABC would ever lose the “MNF” package it launched, nurtured and benefited from for more than three decades. Howard Cosell is ranting somewhere in the hereafter. But such are the dynamics of TV in 2005-06: Even though “MNF” consistently ranked in the Nielsen top 10, it was still a money loser for Disney/ABC, which abhors red ink.
So the question for 2005 is whether ABC will be maudlin all season with the pending loss of an icon. Mr. Michaels, who turned down an offer from NBC to stay within the Disney family at ESPN in 2006, is TV’s closest thing to a sure thing: He’s never unprofessional. But that might not stop ABC producers from getting nostalgic.
The network that pulled off a unique trade a few years ago-Greg Gumbel and Jim Nantz switched chairs, Mr. Gumbel going from the No. 1 broadcast team to the studio host seat and Mr. Nantz switching to games-is now the most stable network broadcast team It also benefits from having a No. 2 broadcast team, Dick Enberg and Dan Dierdorf, that may be better than its No. 1 (Mr. Nantz and Phil Simms).
Mike Patrick, Joe Theismann and Paul Maguire earned generally high critical marks over the years for their solid work on Sunday night games. But only Mr. Theismann, a regular on the telecast since 1986, will be back when the network makes the switch to Monday nights in 2006, and his verbose tendencies may not fit well with Mr. Michaels. Mr. Patrick and Mr. Maguire will be reassigned.
The strangest sight in 2006 may be Mr. Michaels becoming a regular participant on other NFL-related ESPN shows, including “SportsCenter.” Mr. Michaels’ loyalty to Disney is especially admirable because ESPN doesn’t get a Super Bowl as part of the deal.
The network’s No. 1 three-man booth will be down to two next year. When NBC landed the Sunday package, it immediately stole Cris Collinsworth from Fox and put him in the 2006 studio alongside good friend Bob Costas. It will be interesting to see how Joe Buck and Troy Aikman fare in the booth without the opinionated and fearless Mr. Collinsworth, who set up a lot of Fox’s best in-game debates.
The network that lost its place in the NFL universe in 1997 because it didn’t want to pay the NFL’s rights fee demands is back in the fold for 2006. Pundits are mixed on whether a Sunday night prime-time game on an over-the-air network is a sure winner, but considering NBC’s current tenuous ratings situation, it will likely be an improvement.
NBC also excitedly signed Mr. Madden, owner of 14 Emmy Awards, as its analyst, but Mr. Madden’s reputation has taken some hits in the past few years, mostly because his bam-boom style is aging. NBC still doesn’t know who it will pair with Mr. Madden after Mr. Michaels spurned its offer. NBC’s Tom Hammond is the early leader.