By Allison J. Waldman
Special to TelevisionWeek
For fans of the National Football League, it’s already evident that the 2006 season will be a year unlike any other. More than ever, the NFL is all over the dial with games being televised on CBS, Fox, ESPN, NBC and the NFL Network. Hundreds of telecasts of the sport will take place, and every network will broadcast, market and deliver the game in its own way.
ABC, which created and broadcast “Monday Night Football” for 36 years, turned over the reins this year to corporate sibling ESPN, moving the high-profile franchise to cable for the first time. “MNF” was once all about the men who called the game-Howard Cosell, “Dandy” Don Meredith and Frank Gifford-but ESPN has decided to go in a different direction with its telecasts. “`Monday Night Football’ is an event, and that’s what we want to promote with our campaign,” said Aaron Taylor, VP of programming for ESPN. “It’s not about who’s in the booth, really; it’s about the excitement of a game in prime time on Monday. It’s the last game of the weekend and everyone looks forward to watching it.”
Mike Tirico, one of ESPN’s leading anchors, joins Washington Post sportswriter Tony Kornheiser and former NFL quarterback and current analyst Joe Theismann in the booth for “MNF.” Mr. Theismann, even more than his partners, believes that Mondays are special.
“For me it’s a very, very unique experience because, in part, my entire career in the National Football League was defined by one evening, one accident, one incident, and that was my broken leg on Monday night television,” Mr. Theismann said in an earlier interview. “It’s a Monday night experience that defines who I am as a player. And that just, I think, rings to the significance of what `Monday Night Football’ means. It is something that people build their days around.”
Sunday nights are also going to take on more importance this season if NBC’s marketing department has anything to say about it. The Peacock Network, which got out of the NFL business in the late 1990s because of the high cost of broadcast rights, struck a new deal with the league that commenced this year.
“When we walked away from football in 1998, we always said we would love to be in business with the NFL at a price that made sense. This deal, this contract, makes sense for us. It’s six years, $600 million-a-year average,” said Mike McCarley, VP of marketing for NBC Sports.
What made sense was Sunday prime time. “The NFL chose to move its marquee game to Sunday night, a night that wouldn’t interrupt our dominant late-night franchises-Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien,” Mr. McCarley said. “It was four hours of prime time on Sunday night as opposed to the two-and-a-half hours that Monday night has been.”
The NFL has also given NBC an exclusive bonus: flexible scheduling at the back end of the season. This will maximize the network’s chances to boost the ratings with the top games in December and January.
“The NFL sets the schedule, and the benefit of a flexible schedule is that they can eliminate airing games between teams that are no longer hopes for the playoffs,” said Mr. McCarley. “If you look back at the last three years, the last four games of the season on the Monday night schedule, there was only one game between two teams with winning records. Just last year, the ratings over the last four games of the season on Monday night dropped half a rating point. So their season average was 11.3 with four games to go, but at the end of the season it wound up a 10.8. That’s the main difference; we hope to eliminate airing those less meaningful games.”
NBC has only one broadcast a week, but the network has packed it with an all-star lineup. “Al Michaels, John Madden and Andrea Kremer do the broadcast. It’s the best team available-not only John and Al, who came over from `MNF,’ but also Fred Gaudelli and Drew Esocoff, the producer and director of `MNF,’ have come over to Sunday night,” said Mr. McCarley. “The studio show starts at seven o’clock every Sunday night, called `Football Night in America.’ Bob Costas and Cris Collinsworth host it with Sterling Sharpe and Jerome Bettis, fresh off his Super Bowl win. It’s a prime-time network wrap-up of all the games played that day. We like to look at it like a bulldog edition of a newspaper. It’s the broadcast of record for the entire day.”
In addition to bringing in Mr. Madden, Mr. Michaels and other members of the “Monday Night” team, NBC has decided to use a promotion that began with “MNF.” Mr. Madden will select the player of the game at the end of each broadcast. “For years on `MNF,’ they’d put a photo of the player on the side of the trailer and it followed the crew from stadium to stadium. John and Al and Fred and Drew wanted to continue the tradition but figure out a way to make it bigger and better,” Mr. McCarley said.
The image of the “Sunday Night Football” player of the game goes up on the Top of the Rock, at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York. “It’s a series of glass panels all around the Top of the Rock,” Mr. McCarley said. “What better way than on the top of the NBC studios overlooking New York? Fans have always stopped at the trailer. Now we’re seeing people already looking up at the picture-70 stories above the skating rink.”
With the star power and success of NFL teams in the American Conference, CBS approached the new season already feeling that it has a winning hand. “We’ve been very lucky with our games over the past few years,” CBS Sports Executive VP Tony Petitti said. “Super Bowl-winning Pittsburgh’s been very good for us, and New England winning three Super Bowls. Peyton Manning and the Colts. We’ve had great stories to tell because the AFC has been so good.”
That said, CBS decided to reshuffle some talent, moving Greg Gumbel from hosting “The NFL Today” back into the broadcast booth. “We also had the opportunity to get James Brown and add him to our pre-game,” said Mr. Petitti. Mr. Brown joins Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino and former NFL stars Shannon Sharpe and Boomer Esiason on “The NFL Today,” which has been given a new set. There is also a new graphics package for the game telecasts.
“We approached it like we did back in 1998, when we first got the package,” said Mr. Petitti. “Adding JB gave us the opportunity to put Greg back on games, where he’s done a great job for us in the past. We believe Jim Nantz and Phil Simms are the best `A’ team in the business. Rich Gannon was new last year, but he’s really taken off and has gotten a grasp of it, and he’s bringing enthusiasm to the booth.”
The most important element in every broadcast remains the game. “We’re always looking for innovations, but we only want things on the screen that add in a positive way to the viewer as he’s watching,” Mr. Petitti said. “The first-down line is a perfect example. Fans immediately loved it. Three years ago we added Stat Tracks, for fantasy football fans to keep track of how a quarterback or running back is progressing.
“At the bottom of the screen is Game Track, which is scores from games around the league. Sunday is about everything going on, much like we do with the NCAA Tournament coverage, where things are happening at the same time. We want the viewer to feel like he’s watching his game, but he’s up on all the other games as well.”
While new talent and graphics are exciting to promote and market, Mr. Petitti said there’s nothing more exciting than the fact that CBS Sports has the 2007 Super Bowl. “Our guys are already talking about it,” he said. “We get to put a big ribbon on the season with the Super Bowl in Miami. We complete the whole season. It’s the most-watched show of the year. We’ve had meetings about it, so it’s a yearlong project. It gives the entire season a different tone.”
In just its third year on the air, the NFL Network, the league’s 24/7 flagship channel, will broadcast eight prime-time games, starting Nov. 23. “I know the season just started, but we’re ready for Thanksgiving,” said Charles Coplin, VP of programming for the NFL Network. “We’re excited about what we’re going to air. We have som
e entertainment things that we’re doing that night that are going to be a big surprise.”
The NFL Network has decided to go with a two-man booth for the broadcasts, landing former “Today Show” anchorman Bryant Gumbel as the play-by-play man. It’s Mr. Gumbel’s debut in this role. “That’s a Hall of Fame broadcaster in both news and sports doing something for the first time in his career,” Mr. Coplin said.
Cris Collinsworth, a former NFL player who’s also part of NBC’s “Football Night in America,” will be the color man. “He is arguably the best football analyst in the business and this is the only place he’ll be doing games. We’ve added Dick Vermeil for two games, and he too is very special. Our talent, we feel, makes the broadcasts very unique,” Mr. Coplin said.
The NFL Network plans to promote its programming and stars in a plethora of ways. In addition to the daily NFL newscast, “Total Access,” the network has launched two new shows. “`NFL Replay’ features four games that we select from the previous week, which will be cut to 90-minute versions,” Mr. Coplin said. “It’ll be the original broadcast, but with some enhancements like postgame sound and NFL cameras and stuff like that. We’re also starting a new show called the `NFL Cheerleader Playoffs.”‘
Another innovation, recently announced by the NFL and Apple, is the addition of the NFL Network to the iTunes Music Store. Fans can download highlights from the previous Sunday’s games to their computers or iPods for $1.99. The material is available within hours of the original broadcast.