ESPN Ready for Some Football

Jul 31, 2006  •  Post A Comment

The cable sports network this fall takes over ABC’s venerable prime-time pigskin program, complete with Hank Williams Jr. and his opening theme song, and plans to surround fans with as much news and information about the National Football League as they can stand.

“There’s a big appetite for NFL football, and we try to service our viewers,” said Norby Williamson, executive VP of remote and studio production for ESPN.

Obviously, football has always been important to ESPN, whether its on shows like “SportsCenter” or on ESPN News or on its Web, broadband and mobile services. ESPN also used to broadcast NFL games on Sunday nights.

“Now we get this franchise, which is sort of more than just a franchise,” Mr. Williamson said. “It’s more than just a game. It’s a national event, if you will, with the history and the lineage of `Monday Night Football,’ and we sort of say to ourselves, how do you surround that three-hour event and build to it and follow it with our properties?”

Mr. Williamson traced the beginning of ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” programming to Sunday, when “Sunday NFL Countdown” is televised. ESPN is adding new programming Monday as part of that build to the big game. It will run a two-hour edition of “SportsCenter” at 3 p.m., it will launch “NFL PrimeTime” at 6 p.m. and “Monday Night Countdown” at 7 p.m., while other shows adjust to the network’s rookie addition.

ESPN is known for its promotional zeal, and the network is likely to ensure that everyone, especially its core of sports-watching viewers, know what channel “Monday Night Football” is on, what time it starts, which teams are playing and what the halftime entertainment will be.

But Mr. Williamson said NFL football will be covered in those shows as part of an editorial effort, rather than a promotional one.

ESPN covers football all week long, but it really starts gearing up for the games on Sunday morning with “NFL Countdown.” “We get you set for your football day, and obviously we’ll touch on all the [Sunday]games as well as the Monday night game,” Mr. Williamson said. After Sunday’s games, “SportsCenter” will have highlights and go through key story lines of the NFL weekend.

On Monday morning, “Mike and Mike” and “Cold Pizza” on ESPN carry the ball, “then we get into our afternoon programming,” he said. “There is going to be this constant evolution and this constant build, looking backward to Sunday, being on the stories that are developing, and looking ahead to `Monday Night Football.’ The exclamation point on any NFL weekend is `Monday Night Football.”‘

The new two-hour edition of “SportsCenter Special Edition: Monday Night Kickoff” will cover not only the NFL but “whatever else might be going on: baseball pennant races, college football,” he said. But there will be segments and presence from the “MNF” city.

Similarly, “Around the Horn” and “Pardon the Interruption” will cover the wide world of sports. “PTI” will originate from the “MNF” city because co-host Tony Kornheiser is also part of the new “MNF” announcing team. But, Mr. Williamson added, whatever the hot topics of the day are-football or not-“they’ll be in the show.”

The dynamic shifts with “NFL Primetime” at 6 p.m. “It will be highlight driven, looking back on Sunday. But in that show, we’ll really start to spin ahead toward the Monday night game,” Mr. Williamson said.

“NFL Primetime” will be set outside the stadium and will attempt to duplicate the atmosphere ESPN’s “College Gameday” show generates, with fans and tailgaters. The show will be hosted by Stuart Scott, who will be joined by Ron Jaworski and Mike Ditka.

That’s followed by the 90-minute pre-game show “Monday Night Countdown,” hosted by Chris Berman from inside the stadium. The show features analysts Michael Irvin, Steve Young and Chris Mortenson.

There will be some interaction between the “Primetime” and “Countdown” personalities, Mr. Williamson said.

As far as the game is concerned, the big change is the new team, with Mr. Kornheiser, Mike Tirico and Joe Theismann in the booth, with Michele Tafoya and Suzy Kolber reporting from the sidelines.

“When you look at credibility, when you look at knowledge, when you look at reporting skills, when you look at entertainment value and fun, we think we’re in very good shape, and we think it’s going to be an entertaining experience for the fan, he said.

Following the game, Stuart Scott will anchor “SportsCenter” from the NFL city each week. He will also host an updated version of “NFL PrimeTime,” which will include highlights of the “MNF” contest, at about 1 a.m.