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Tuesday, April 19, 2005 

Switching Channels

There is a lot to like in the new NFL television deals announced yesterday. Disney decided to scale back their NFL interest, switching Monday Night Football to ESPN in 2006 and dropping the Sunday night game altogether. Meanwhile, NBC's Dick Ebersol lept back into the fray, unexpectedly grabbing the Sunday night package that includes the Thursday night season opener. While a late-season Thursday and Saturday night package is likely to be added, possibly on the NFL network to force its way into standard cable packages, the NFL TV picture in coming into clearer focus.

ESPN is a big winner, since NFL Monday's will now belong exclusively to them. Their "Monday Night Countdown" show now becomes the official MNF pre-game show, and an earlier kickoff time of 8:40pm ET will give folks on the East Coast a bit more sleep. The deal also means the end of Sunday night baseball conflicts, which will make Major League Baseball smile.

NBC is an even bigger winner, as they get Sunday nights, plus flexible scheduling in the second half of the season, plus two Super Bowls, all for the same yearly rate as ESPN was paying. The NBC 7pm ET pre-game show will be a great way to recap the afternoon games, just like ESPN does for baseball with their Sunday night "Baseball Tonight". NBC's pre-game ratings might be low during the first half hour while waiting for the late games to finish, but it will keep fans watching football until the 8:15pm ET kickoff without wandering off to "60 Minutes" or somewhere else.

Ebersol's return to the NFL might seem like a flip-flop, but if you go back and read his comments in 1998, when NBC lost the AFC package, he's being consistent:

NBC President Dick Ebersol said the network was willing to pay as much as $300 million a year for the NFL package acquired by CBS -- up from its current $217 million -- but folded when the stakes far surpassed that. ... He said NBC would have gone as high as $500 million for "Monday Night Football"...

Ebersol believes in "event television", which is why NBC has retained rights to NASCAR, the Olympics, Wimbledon, and major golf events like the U.S. Open and the Ryder Cup. Now NBC has a stake in the Super Bowl, and prime time football. They may be able to boast being the home of the Super Bowl and the Daytona 500 in the same year. All of a sudden, the once dormant NBC Sports department looks pretty good.

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