For the first time in 36 years, "Monday Night Football" won't be in ABC's starting lineup for the official kickoff of the new television season tonight.
But the network's parent company's game plan could soon look like third and long. By dispatching the venerable weekly football event to its ESPN cable sports channel, Walt Disney Co. has exacerbated ABC's existing programming challenges, according to several advertisers.
"Not having football is only going to hurt," said Tim Spengler, top buyer for ad firm Initiative. "Networks who have football tend to do better than those who don't."
That may be, but football comes with a hefty price tag: an annual loss for ABC of more than $150 million. Disney ditched football, figuring it could instead make money producing new hit shows. At the time, ABC was on a hot streak, with such blockbusters as "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives."
Then ABC stumbled.
Although the network finished last season in second place in the ratings, it failed to launch a hit show. In June, the network encountered resistance from advertisers during the upfront ad sales market, and then suffered through a disappointing summer in the ratings with such busts as "The One: The Making of a Music Star."
ABC also failed to attract a single advertising sponsor for its $40-million miniseries "The Path to 9/11," criticized as an inaccurate account of the events leading up to the terrorist attacks.
"That was a fair amount of money for something that didn't have a demonstrable return," said Jason Maltby, co-executive director for national broadcast for ad-buying firm Mindshare.
Analysts said that Disney's decision to punt the NFL program could eventually pay off -- but requires ABC's hits staying healthy and such rookies as "The Nine" and "Ugly Betty" scoring big in the ratings.
"It's important for ABC to have a good year," said Lowell Singer, media analyst with investment banking firm S.G. Cowen. "They need to prove that they can launch a couple of new scripted hits so they can have more broad-based success."
The loss of professional football, combined with the lack of strong sophomore shows, has left holes in ABC's schedule. Prime-time success requires not only a few hits, advertisers say, but also powerful lineups that let networks dominate nights.
"They really have only four shows that are holding up their entire schedule: 'Grey's Anatomy,' 'Desperate Housewives,' 'Lost' and 'Dancing With the Stars.' That's difficult," said Laura Caraccioli-Davis, director of Starcom Entertainment, a division of ad-buying giant Starcom USA.
ABC's top two executives, Anne Sweeney, president of Disney-ABC Television Group, and Stephen McPherson, ABC entertainment president, declined to be interviewed for this story.
To plug its scheduling gaps, ABC developed twice as many shows as its rivals. The network spent more than $200 million on development, ordering 38 pilots this year and selecting 15 to air. Disney Chief Financial Officer Tom Staggs recently told analysts that expensive pilots hurt broadcast operating profit.
ABC will introduce 10 new shows this fall. In contrast, CBS has four new contenders for fall, and fourth-place NBC has six.
Advertisers cautioned that trying to get traction simultaneously for so many unfamiliar shows, including several dramas with complicated concepts, adds to ABC's challenges.
"But if you don't take risks you will never truly know what the upside is," said Mindshare's Maltby. "No guts, no glory."
ABC's gutsiest play this fall was to move its hospital drama "Grey's Anatomy" from its Sunday night slot to a more lucrative Thursday night period.
Advertisers -- primarily movie studios and retailers -- pay a big premium for time on Thursday night to try to influence weekend spending. ABC executives are hoping that "Grey's Anatomy" will be the No. 1 show of the night, at least among younger viewers, toppling the CBS juggernaut "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."
"It's a good move," Caraccioli-Davis said of the switch, a sentiment shared by other ad buyers.
However, some cautioned that the shift carried risks. "They are messing with established viewing patterns," said Initiative's Spengler.
Moving "Grey's" leaves its former Sunday night companion show, "Desperate Housewives," exposed. The prime-time soap faces tougher competition this season, going up against NBC's new "Sunday Night Football" in most of the country and the popular CBS crime-solving drama "Cold Case."
Some advertisers noted that "Desperate Housewives" already was vulnerable, with the story lines about Wisteria Lane's vixens veering off course. That was not lost on Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger, who promised analysts last month that the show "is going to be in better shape than it was last year."