- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 9, 2006

Howard Cosell exited the television landscape years ago. Dan Fouts, Don Meredith and Dennis Miller likewise are in the past. Even Al Michaels and John Madden moved on.

“Monday Night Football” still is around, however, and next week for the first time in its 36-year history, it will air on a network other than ABC.

The longest-running sports franchise on television moves to ESPN this season, beginning with Monday’s broadcast of the Washington Redskins’ season opener against the Minnesota Vikings at FedEx Field. The network says it plans to transform its broadcasts of each prime-time game into an all-day event.

“It’s not going to be just a three-hour telecast,” said John Wildhack, an ESPN senior vice president involved in acquiring the rights to the games. “It’s really going to be an immersive experience. Our objective is to take 36 years of history with ‘Monday Night Football’ and build upon that legacy.”

Since signing a reported eight-year, $8.8 billion contract with the NFL last year, ESPN has spent thousands of man-hours planning the Monday night broadcasts — shows network executives say are among the most ambitious in ESPN history.

“Monday Night Countdown,” a studio show previously produced in ESPN studios in Bristol, Conn., now will air live from the site of each week’s game. “Pardon the Interruption,” a sports talk show normally produced in Washington, also will air live on-site before the game.

ESPN’s Web site will offer special content as part of an initiative called “Monday Night Surround,” and ESPN plans to roll out additional content on ESPN Radio and its ESPN Mobile service. In all, 11 ESPN properties will be tied to “Monday Night Football” broadcasts over the course of the season.

“‘Monday Night Football’ in 2006 gives ESPN an opportunity to showcase all of its best in so many different forms,” said John Walsh, the network’s senior vice president and executive editor, at a recent preseason game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers. “Whether it’s the ‘SportsCenter’ in the afternoon, whether it’s ‘PTI’, whether it’s ‘Countdown’ … the Internet [or] talking all day on the radio.”

ESPN is taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to the production: The number of network employees at the stadium each week is expected to top 400 — about 2 times the total for last year’s Sunday night broadcasts.

Production crews will use seven new mobile transmission units, each of which can accommodate 60 employees who cut highlights, look up statistics and give orders to the broadcast team in the stadium.

“This is like taking Bristol, picking it up, and moving it into a truck,” said Rich Abbott, ESPN’s vice president of remote operations.

ESPN will use at least 33 high-definition cameras to record each Monday night game, including four “Slo-Mo” cameras that film 120 frames a second and another that films 1000 frames a second. The network also will use a special wireless “Steadicam” worn by a person who would be permitted on field during stoppages of play.

The biggest change, however, is in the broadcast booth. Gone is the star team of Michaels and Madden, who were lured by NBC for its new football telecasts on Sunday night. Also gone are Mike Patrick and Paul Maguire, veterans of ESPN’s “Sunday Night Football” broadcasts.

In are Mike Tirico and longtime Washington Post columnist and “Pardon the Interruption” host Tony Kornheiser. Former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann serves as the lead game analyst, and Michele Tafoya and Suzy Kolber are the sideline reporters.

Kornheiser’s arrival generated considerable buzz, in part because of his lack of booth experience and in part because of his designated role as the broadcast team’s “everyman.”

Critics warned of a repeat of the 2000 and 2001 seasons, when ABC added Miller, a comedian known for rants and pop culture references, as the football outsider in the booth with Michaels and Fouts. Miller was dropped after two seasons.

Reviews of Kornheiser’s performance during the preseason were mixed. Some critics asked whether a third member of the booth was even necessary. Others credited Kornheiser with displaying wit and good knowledge of the game.

One of the sharpest critiques came from Washington Post Style writer Paul Farhi, who wrote that Kornheiser “wasn’t especially witty, provocative or insightful.” Kornheiser responded with equally tough rebukes to his colleague in print and on the radio. But in a recent interview, Kornheiser appeared mollified.

“[The criticism] is not unfair,” he said. “You put a product on the air to be judged. If I said it was unfair and somebody said they liked me, I’d have to say it was unfair, too.”

Kornheiser said getting comfortable in the booth with Theismann and Tirico, each of whom have more than 20 years of broadcast experience, is still a work in progress.

“The hardest thing for me is getting in there,” he said. “When you’re a writer or on the radio, you have time to say what it is you want to say. When you have three to five seconds, it’s like, ‘Well, what am I supposed to do now?’”

The switch of “Monday Night Football” to ESPN came after NBC aggressively bid for the rights to prime-time broadcasts of Sunday night games, which long were televised by ESPN.

Faced with the possibility of having no contract with the NFL, ESPN officials scrambled to make a record $1.1 billion a year bid for the show, paying about twice what ABC had been paying.

ESPN officials said they are confident they will draw viewers for the Monday night games. “Sunday Night Football” historically scored better ratings than any other regular programming broadcast on ESPN.

The broadcast of a Monday night preseason game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Green Bay Packers scored a 6.3 rating, making it one of the highest-rated cable programs of the week.

At the very least, fans in Washington will have something to tune in to this Monday, with their team on the field and a popular Washingtonian in the broadcast booth.

“If they like the radio show if they like PTI, if they like the column, I’m sure they’ll be rooting for me,” Kornheiser said. “And everybody who knows me knows that even if I bomb, I can be fairly funny.”

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