SI Vault
 
Extreme Makeover
Bill Syken
December 18, 2006
Changes on Sunday and Monday nights rocked the NFL's prime-time landscape
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
December 18, 2006

Extreme Makeover

Changes on Sunday and Monday nights rocked the NFL's prime-time landscape

View CoverRead All Articles

Anyone who remembers the glory days of Monday Night Football was surely disappointed with the Nov. 6 broadcast, and not only because it was a pulse-deadening matchup between the Seahawks and Raiders. In the second quarter, actor Christian Slater entered the ESPN booth and wedged himself among Joe Theismann, Tony Kornheiser and Mike Tirico, who asked if he was a football fan. "A lot of my friends are," Slater responded. He went on to promote his role in the movie Bobby in an appearance that had no apparent connection to the NFL. All that distinguished the booth from a talk show was the absence of Charles Grodin. Such moments annoy purists--and don't get them started on the wry Kornheiser, whose work has gotten harsh reviews. But in the NFL this season, Sunday night is for serious fans; Monday is Fun Day.

Thanks to the NFL's new TV contract, which moved MNF to cable and introduced Sunday Night Football on NBC, fans have had to rearrange their viewing patterns. NBC has played its role smartly, if conservatively. It brought in top-shelf talent like John Madden, Al Michaels, studio hosts Bob Costas and Cris Collinsworth (as well as SI's Peter King) and created a show that, while technically new, couldn't feel more cozily familiar. And flexible scheduling, a gift from the league to the network this year, has paid off. Last spring, for example, NBC penciled in New England-- Miami for this Sunday, but it switched to a game with two winning teams, the Saints and Cowboys. Ratings for SNF are up 2% from MNF's last year, and NBC producer Fred Gaudelli expects they will rise further. "People are still not used to the big game being on Sunday night," he says.

Knowing it can't count on a good match-up every week, ESPN has tricked up its show. MNF has had its moments--for example, the Saints' return to the Superdome, when Spike Lee, director of the documentary When the Levees Broke, appeared. Celebrity visits from, among others, Sylvester Stallone and Jimmy Kimmel (who justified his presence during the Green Bay-- Seattle game when he greeted Joe Theismann by asking "How's the leg?") have set the tone. ESPN is sticking with the formula, right down to bringing Kornheiser back next year if he wants to return. Says producer Jay Rothman, "It's our job in prime time to be more than just a football game."

His ultimate defense is the ratings, which are up 38% over ESPN's 2005 Sunday night NFL broadcasts. "We're doing something right," Rothman says. In the end, despite the problems, the same could be said for the NFL's remaking of prime time.

1