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NFL ALTERS TV LINEUP

The pregame sketch featuring "Desperate Housewives" star Nicollette Sheridan and Philadelphia Eagles star Terrell Owens rocked Monday Night Football last season. Now the hit ABC series has rocked the entire television industry.

The 2006 move of Monday Night Football from ABC to ESPN, as well as NBC's decision to get back in the game with Sunday Night Football, are indirect results of the popularity of Sheridan's series.

In separate conference calls held simultaneously, executives for NBC and ESPN agreed that the National Football League wanted to move its broadcast network prime-time show from Monday night to Sunday night for a few reasons.

Sunday is the week's highest viewing night, and it would be much easier for the NFL to institute a flexible game schedule without greatly disturbing fans during the final seven weeks on Sundays, when most games are already scheduled.

That's where the agreement ends. NBC executives claimed Disney (which owns ESPN and ABC) bid for the Sunday package currently carried by ESPN. ESPN executives said they did not.

Disney, which has had Sunday hits this season in "Desperate Housewives," "Grey's Anatomy" and "Boston Legal" on ABC, wasn't hot on the idea of moving the American broadcast network institution of prime time football to Sundays after 36 seasons on Monday Night.

NBC, which is in a prime-time mess after years of network dominance, probably couldn't afford not to play with the NFL on Sunday nights now that ABC is dominant there.

The one sure winner is the NFL. It got NBC to agree to a reported 9 percent rights fee increase to $600 million annually for a package that ABC claimed resulted in losses of $150 million annually. And it got the Walt Disney company to pay a 75 percent rights fee boost to more than $1.1 billion a year by moving Monday Night Football to cable. NBC and ESPN officials each claimed it got what it wanted.

NBC gets four hours of strong prime time Sunday programming for six seasons. It eases the pressure on its entertainment division to find new hits. Besides the flexible schedule, it also gets the Super Bowls and Pro Bowls in 2009 and 2012 and two wild-card playoff games in other years. General Electric, NBC's owner, also has entered in a partnership with the NFL for some business enterprises.

Disney makes its shareholders happy by ending a money-losing Monday Night Football deal on ABC. Starting in 2006, ABC also gets three hours of prime territory on Mondays to put on its successful entertainment programming. ABC is doing so well that it decided to keep completed episodes of "Boston Legal" until next fall and it hopes success will continue in 2006.

Disney also gets to pass the increased rights fee for MNF to cable subscribers. Cable channels have dual revenue streams. ESPN gets traditional advertising revenue, as well as subscriber fees paid by cable companies to carry the channel.

"We can live with this economically," said Bob Wright, NBC's top official, who was in charge in 1998 when the network walked away from the NFL because it felt the deal that CBS accepted to carry American Football Conference games was too expensive. This time, Disney officials were the ones talking about fiscal sanity.

NBC and ESPN had different spins over who now had the more prestigious package. In a statement, Wright said he was thrilled to be joining the NFL "in moving the 36-year institution of Monday Night Football to Sunday night." ESPN, however, notes Disney still owns the institution of MNF. Undoubtedly, more viewers will be watching NBC's package in 2006 than ESPN's, which is one way to judge which is more prestigious.

Dick Ebersol, NBC's sports leader, predicted Sunday Night Football would get higher ratings than the MNF package on ABC because potential viewers on the West Coast won't be stuck in rush-hour traffic as they are on Mondays.

The switch in 2006 means changes for the armchair fan. NBC will carry a 7 p.m. pregame show that may compete with the finish of some games on CBS and Fox. However, it won't interfere with ESPN's popular "NFL Prime Time" with Chris Berman and Tom Jackson. ESPN said the highlights show will air in 2006 in late night so it won't conflict with NBC's game. The Sunday kickoff on NBC will be at 8:15 p.m.; the Monday kickoff on ESPN will be at 8:40 p.m.

The biggest changes for the viewer may be in the booths. Network spokesmen confirm that the contracts of ABC's team of Al Michaels and John Madden and ESPN's crew of Mike Patrick, Paul Maguire and Joe Theismann end with the finish of the 2005 season. NBC's Ebersol said he would take a day to celebrate the network's return to the NFL before considering announcers. He wouldn't even address whether NBC's top sports host, Bob Costas, would be involved.

ESPN officials would only say that it and ABC have two strong announcing teams and they had a year to decide who they would want to keep on MNF. If Michaels and Madden don't return it won't feel like MNF.

If Maguire doesn't make the cut, it will feel like deja vu all over again. He joined ESPN seven years ago from NBC after it lost the AFC rights to CBS.
e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com