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Steve Springer / ON THE MEDIA

NFL proves to be cable ready

September 19, 2008|Steve Springer

It was an announcement that would have left even Howard Cosell speechless, had he still been around.

"Monday Night Football," a national phenomenon that became the longest-running sports program to ever hit prime time, the show that enabled ABC to finally break the CBS-NBC stranglehold on the NFL, was going to basic cable.

Of course Cosell lived in an era when the three networks ruled the airwaves and cable was a novelty for those with too much free time.

Today, the line between cable and the broadcast networks is all but indistinguishable. That was made clear again Monday night when the Dallas Cowboys-Philadelphia Eagles game on ESPN attracted the biggest audience in the history of cable television. The game had a 13.3 rating, viewed by an audience of 18.6 million in 12,953,000 homes, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Even more impressive, ESPN, owned by Disney as is ABC, beat all the broadcast networks in that time slot for the second straight week and for the 11th time since "Monday Night Football" moved there for the 2006 season.

ESPN has accomplished this even though it is available in 96 million homes, 20 million fewer than the broadcast networks. In the larger network universe, ESPN's rating for last Monday night would have been an 11.3.

Even on ABC, you have to go back to 1999 to find a season where the network averaged more than 18.6 million viewers.

The second- and third-largest cable audiences ever are also Monday night games (New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens in 2007, 17.5 million viewers in 12.5 million homes, and Cowboys-New York Giants in 2006, 16 million viewers in 11.8 million homes).

It's not only sports fans who are blurring the divide between cable and broadcast outlets. During the recent political conventions, the choice was between gavel-to-gavel coverage on the cable stations or a sparse highlight package on the broadcast networks. For any serious political watcher, the choice was obvious.

So where would Cosell be if he were alive today? Undoubtedly sitting in Chris Berman's chair.

Where's Oswald?

It was the strangest trade in broadcast history: Al Michaels for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

When Michaels decided he wanted to jump from the "Monday Night Football" broadcast to NBC's "Sunday Football Night," rejoining John Madden, an unusual deal was struck. ESPN, in exchange for excusing Michaels from his contract, would get extra footage from the 2008 Olympics (and other events), the first day of the Ryder Cup for the next four matchups and Oswald.

Oswald had sentimental value to Disney because he was founder Walt Disney's first major animated character, appearing in 26 silent cartoons in 1927-28. When Disney lost the rights to Oswald, he came up with another rodent, a mouse named Mickey. That worked out pretty well.

Michaels is in his third season of "Sunday Night Football," ESPN has already aired its Olympics footage and will devote 10 hours to today's opening round of the Ryder Cup before NBC takes over for the weekend.

And Oswald? His plans "are still up in the air," said a Disney spokesman.

Perhaps Oswald could work on "Monday Night Football." He'd be what Berman has always wanted, a silent partner.

Small Bytes

Based on his performance on "Saturday Night Live," don't look for Olympic swim star Michael Phelps to take the plunge into show business any time soon. Of course, he might have fared better with material that was actually funny. . . . In describing the Carolina Panthers' season-opening victory over the San Diego Chargers on the last play of the game, Paul Olden of KNX Radio may have coined a new term: "Walk-off touchdown."

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steve.springer@latimes.com

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