For 35 years, it has been one of the rare constants on network television: Every Monday night in the fall, Americans have gathered by the millions to watch ABC's "Monday Night Football."
Legendary TV producer Roone Arledge created the franchise in 1970, installing Howard Cosell, Don Meredith and Keith Jackson in the broadcast booth. The trio of Cosell, Meredith and Frank Gifford became the best-known face of the show. In the process, Arledge simultaneously transformed both professional sports and prime-time network entertainment. Each Monday was more than just a game; it was a shared cultural experience.
" 'Monday Night Football' became part of the landscape," said Art Modell, former owner of the Cleveland Browns. "People talked about it Tuesday morning around the water cooler, debating Cosell, Meredith, this player, that player."
All that changed Monday when National Football League executives announced that the pillar of the ABC lineup will move to ESPN starting with the 2006 season. The Walt Disney Co., which owns ESPN and ABC, will pay about $1.1 billion a year for the rights to 17 Monday night games on ESPN, or more than $8.8 billion over the life of the eight-year agreement.
The move signaled the growing clout of cable television and the increasingly specialized way Americans are consuming their entertainment.
It also marked Disney President Bob Iger's first major decision since he was named to succeed Chief Executive Michael Eisner, who is retiring.
In recent years, ABC has lost hundreds of millions of dollars on the franchise, which despite high ratings does not generate enough advertising revenue to cover its costs. ESPN, by contrast, has two revenue streams: cable subscriber fees and commercial spots.
Disney executives, happy to be keeping the Monday games under their corporate umbrella, downplayed the significance of the shift from network to cable.
"It will be tough for ABC to say goodbye to a landmark," said George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN and ABC Sports. "But we're not looking back. It is not the end of an era. It is the beginning of a new era."
But Marc Gunther, co-author of the 1988 book "Monday Night Mayhem: The Inside Story of Monday Night Football," disagreed.
"This is the end of a television institution," he said, noting that ironically, the franchise "fell victim to its own popularity. Because the NFL was able to charge such a huge rights fee for it, that ABC was no longer able to afford it."
General Electric's NBC network was the immediate beneficiary, scooping up a Sunday night football package that will begin in the fall of 2006. NBC, which took a pass on the NFL beginning in the 1998 season rather than lose money, spent the weekend negotiating the $600-million-a-year deal for six years, or a total of $3.6 billion.
For hard-core fans, the new arrangement may not change much. Already, the broadcast networks were not airing all NFL games. To watch every one, fans have to subscribe to a cable or satellite provider. For example, ESPN now runs the Sunday night package that NBC will soon broadcast.
Monday's announcement came five months after the NFL hammered out three other TV rights packages with CBS, Fox Broadcasting and DirecTV. The combined deals maintain the NFL as the most expensive property in all of professional sports. All together, the NFL's TV rights deals add up to more than $23 billion over eight years.
Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, said the high prices being paid to broadcast NFL games were a testament to "the quality of the product we put on the field. If you give people quality, they'll stick with you in the bad times and the good times."
As part of the deal, after next year's Super Bowl, no Disney-owned channel will air the largest television event of the year. Instead, the Super Bowls will continue to play on broadcast networks that reach most of the nation's nearly 110 million homes with TV sets: CBS, NBC and Fox Broadcasting Co.
ESPN, by contrast, is available to about 88 million households. Beginning in 2006, however, it will be difficult to estimate how many people watch "Monday Night Football" because it will run not just on ESPN but also on broadcast networks in the local markets of the playing teams.
Sources close to the negotiations said that as late as Friday morning, Iger made one last effort to keep "Monday Night Football" on ABC. Disney bid about $1.5 billion a year, those sources said, to continue Sunday night games on ESPN and Monday night games on ABC.
When the NFL rejected the offer, Disney scaled back its bid to $1.1 billion a year for just "Monday Night Football" on ESPN. (It will begin at 5:40 p.m. Pacific time instead of 6 p.m.).
ABC has promised Wall Street that the network will soon be profitable. Now, executives say the combination of several new hit prime-time programs and the shedding of its money-losing football deal makes profitability more likely.