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NETWORKS PUT THEIR OWN SPIN ON NFL COVERAGE

After NBC grabbed Sunday Night Football, you might have expected WGRZ-TV (Channel 2) General Manager Jim Toellner to imitate Bills star linebacker Takeo Spikes after he makes a big play.

Toellner didn't get that excited, but he certainly is happy to see that the NBC affiliate will be involved with the NFL on a regular basis in 2006.

"We're very excited to get the NFL," said Toellner. "It is going to dramatically increase our Sunday night prime time revenue."

How dramatic the increase will be depends on whether the Bills make the Sunday night package in 2006. They won't be part of ABC's Monday Night Football for the fifth straight season in 2005. The Bills do have two appearances on the final Sunday cable package carried by ESPN.

Once again this season, Channel 2 has a deal with ESPN to simulcast the Bills games so non-cable subscribers can see them. Channel 2, which carried NBC's AFC package for decades before the network passed on the NFL in 1998, made the deal to stay connected with the NFL.

The deal to carry Bills games on ESPN expires after 2005, though Toellner hopes to renew it in 2006 when the cable sports network begins carrying Monday Night Football.

"We're the incumbent," said Toellner.

Channel 7, which loses Monday Night Football after carrying it for 35 years, might be expected to make a play for the ESPN package when the Bills are on. After all, the ABC affiliate is the official Bills station. But Channel 7 General Manager Bill Ransom concedes the incumbent has a large advantage.

"(Channel 2 has) the right of first refusal," said Ransom.

How much Channel 7 will lose in 2006 when MNF goes to ESPN is difficult to assess.

"It's a negative," conceded Ransom. "Monday Night Football over the years was major, major money."

Channel 7's revenue loss might not be out of the ball park because the Bills haven't been on MNF for five seasons. Additionally, Channel 7 should get some financial benefit on Monday nights during the football season in 2006 because its local news will play at 11 p.m. instead of at 12 a.m. or 12:30 a.m. when it gets low ratings after games.

"A lot will depend on what (ABC's) Monday night lineup turns out to be," said Toellner.

Predicting TV's future can be as difficult as picking NFL games. In letting the network prime time package go to NBC, ABC is betting its Sunday series "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy" will continue to be big hits in their third seasons in 2006. There are no assurances of that.

NBC, meanwhile, is betting it won't lose $150 million annually on Sunday Night Football as ABC did on MNF. By having four hours of programming for 17 football nights, it probably is saving at least $150 million in production costs if it had to program series.

It is early to place bets on who will be winners and who will be losers and who is going to announce the prime time games in 2006. But not to question some of the networks' spin.

NBC is trumpeting the ratings benefits of the flexible schedule for the final seven games of its Sunday package. But with parity in the NFL and with CBS and Fox allowed to protect so many games, there often won't be much better games available than the ones originally scheduled. If a small-market team like the Bills or Jacksonville is a league surprise, NBC might not want their games anyway because a bad game involving a big market like New York or Chicago might get higher ratings.

NBC's Dick Ebersol predicts the Sunday night games will have higher ratings than the MNF games on ABC. But NBC's package probably will be competing with a few World Series games on Sunday nights, and its network competitors will send out some big entertainment guns during the November sweeps.

And how many married men glued to the set for six hours of games on Sunday afternoons will be willing to jeopardize their marriages on Sunday night by watching another game rather than watch "Desperate Housewives" with their spouses?

ESPN's public contention that it has two good announcing teams and it has a year to decide which one will do Monday Night games in 2006 sounds as silly as something that comes out of Joe Theismann's mouth. One imagines MNF's Al Michaels and analyst John Madden had to be insulted at the idea of being part of a year-long tryout at this stage of their careers. My guess is that ESPN gave that spin because it knows that Michaels and Madden might pass on being involved in a less prestigious package than ABC's.

It is way too early to say what Ebersol will do, but I know how he'd get people to understand that NBC really has the premier football package in 2006.

He'd hire Michaels and Madden, who would be Exhibit A and Exhibit B for NBC's slam dunk case that it will be No. 1 with the NFL.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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