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Monday, April 18, 2005
Updated: April 19, 10:38 AM ET
Monday Night Football coming to ESPN news services

NEW YORK -- Are you ready for some football? On ESPN?

And NBC?

But not ABC.

"Monday Night Football," which 35 years ago was one of the biggest gambles in television history and then became the backbone of ABC's revival, is headed to cable. ESPN, which like ABC is owned by The Walt Disney Co., will take over, beginning with the 2006 season, what has been a TV institution and made the NFL a prime-time ratings draw.

The league's financial package with ESPN has not been confirmed.

NBC, meanwhile, gets back into the NFL picture with a six-year deal to take over the Sunday night telecasts previously owned by ESPN. NBC lost the AFC Sunday afternoon package to CBS after the 1997 season. NBC is part of General Electric Co.

"When the deal concluded with a handshake on Saturday," said NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol, "I walked up Park Avenue to my apartment and spent most of the time remembering most of the beginnings on ABC. I was Roone Arledge's assistant and I was the only one he would allow to come into the meetings with Pete Rozelle for the first prime-time package, when Roone was trying to sell Pete on why it would work.

"In my happiness that the prime-time broadcast is moving to NBC, I couldn't help but think how sad Roone would be at this point."

Disney shares slipped 2 cents to $26.92 in morning trading on the New York Stock Exchange, while GE shares rose 26 cents to $36.26.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue emphasized that the marquee television series, at least according to the league, will be the Sunday night package, for which NBC is paying $600 million a year, according to the sources.

"In the current media environment, Sunday is now the better night for our prime-time broadcast package," Tagliabue said Monday.

Also, the NFL's hopes for a more flexible prime-time schedule will be realized with the new agreements.

NBC will start its Sunday broadcasts with a pregame show at 7 p.m. eastern; games will begin at 8:15. In the last seven weeks, the league will be able to shift afternoon games to prime time to ensure more meaningful games are shown on national TV.

There also will be a time switch on ESPN's games, with an earlier start time of 8:40 p.m. eastern.

"The earlier kickoff times for both packages, NBC's Sunday night programming devoted to the NFL and flexible scheduling for Sunday night are all positive changes," Tagliabue said.

The commissioner still hopes to sell a package of eight late-season Thursday night/Saturday night games, although those telecasts could wind up on the NFL Network, one of Tagliabue's pet projects.

With the move of Monday night games to cable, a tradition will be altered, if not ended. After all, "Monday Night Football" has been a pillar of ABC's programming since it began in 1970, when Howard Cosell anchored the show that now stands as the second-longest running prime time network series, trailing CBS's 60 Minutes by two years.

"The turning point at ABC was when Roone Arledge moved sports to prime time and with that deal it happened for the first time," Ebersol recalled. "That was all him, and it was the reason why ABC moved up from third place."

After the coming season, however, ABC will be the only major network not carrying the NFL.

NBC also gets two first-round playoff games and the Super Bowl in 2009 and 2012 as part of the deal.

"A great deal with the NFL is the best deal you can get in television," Ebersol said.

ESPN said it had been assured by the league that it would get high-quality games.

"ESPN could have stayed on Sunday night," ESPN vice president Mark Shapiro said. "Unequivocally, our task was to continue ABC's tradition of Monday Night Football. We've been assured we're getting the preferred schedule."

Added George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN and ABC Sports: "From the Disney perspective, it was a smart move for ABC by moving out of football and having ESPN move into Monday nights."

NBC has been struggling in prime time this season, and even risks an unprecedented fall into fourth place in the ratings. ABC's newfound ratings strength with "Desperate Housewives" on Sunday nights has been particularly damaging.

Viacom Inc.'s CBS and News Corp.'s Fox already have agreed to pay a total of $8 billion over six years for the rights to Sunday afternoon games.

The NFL will continue to show all cable games on free, over-the air television in home markets. So local stations will carry ESPN's Monday night games in the cities of the teams involved.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.