The NFL on TV: Changing Formations

Six points to watch for this season
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The salary cap and free-agency setup in the National Football League has helped create an environment in which it’s hard for a team to keep its roster intact for too many consecutive seasons.

That now seems to be the case off the field, too. And there are plenty of new looks for the 2005 season, from the broadcast booths to new technologies. Following is a preview of what to watch for when you are, as ABC’s Monday Night Football says, ready for some football.

1. Musical Chairs in the Broadcast Booths

By 2006, every NFL announcing team, with the exception of CBS’ duo of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, is going to be different. With NBC coming onto the scene on Sunday nights next year and Monday Night Football moving from ABC to ESPN, the game of broadcasting musical chairs is about to begin.

Fox debuts a two-man booth of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman this year. That’s because analyst Cris Collinsworth left for the NBC pregame show beginning next season. (He will sit Sundays out this year.)

Al Michael and John Madden will finish out the season on ABC’s Monday Night Football, but next year Madden moves to NBC’s top analyst role, meaning he will have analyzed the gridiron for all four major broadcast nets. Michaels will stop at the Disney commissary to swap his ABC jacket for an ESPN model as he stays on Monday nights. On Sunday nights on ESPN, Mike Patrick, Paul McGuire and Joe Theismann will stay together this season, before Theismann joins Michaels on Mondays next year. Right now, neither Patrick nor McGuire is slated to have a chair when the music stops.

The one big job still available: NBC’s Sunday-night football play-by-play man. Tom Hammond? Marv Albert? More to come later.

2. Are You Ready for Some (More) Football?

The NFL may sell a Thursday/Saturday TV package, beginning with the 2006 season. One obvious buyer could be Comcast’s new-look OLN, which will need a ratings draw much bigger than hockey to grow into a major sports network. Another possibility could be a return to TNT. There is also an outside chance the league could choose to air games on its own NFL Network, but that would mean persuading league owners to turn down upfront money in favor of nurturing its still-tiny (27 million-subscriber) network.

3. Preview the 2006 Pregame Show...on HBO

HBO’s Inside the NFL is one of the better football shows on television, thanks in part to co-hosts Bob Costas and Cris Collinsworth. And apparently NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol agrees, as he not only hired Collinsworth as a pregame analyst but is also expected to grab up Larry King’s backup, Costas, to join him. Both Collinsworth and Costas are expected to remain in their roles with the HBO show as well.

4. A Look Back on the Glory Days of Dennis Miller, the NFL Analyst?

Well, probably not, but the 36th and final season of Monday Night Football on ABC will include retrospective elements throughout the year. But ABC is trying to avoid lame-duck status by introducing some new looks, including a fresh score and time bug across the bottom of the screen, halftime monologues from Jimmy Kimmel, and a halftime highlight package set to music from country star Tim McGraw.

5. What's Another Hundred Bucks for Football Fans?

That’s what DirecTV is hoping subscribers will say with the introduction of its “Super Fan” application. For an additional $99 (on top of the $200-$280 price of the Sunday Ticket NFL out-of-market game package), DirecTV is catering to the truly diehard couch potatoes by offering a tier of channels that includes everything from the ability to watch eight live NFL games on a single screen to a “Red Zone” channel that takes viewers to the best action going on at a given moment (although only from games that are broadcast on DirecTV corporate cousin Fox Sports this year). The package includes games in HD and the ability to see edited-down versions of games after they are completed.

6. Do We Heart Two and a Half Million?

Last season, Fox charged $2.4 million for a 30-second spot, up about $100,000 from a year earlier. ABC has this season’s Super Bowl, which means it is setting the rate card for the most high-profile ad buy of the year, so $2.5 million seems plausible. The big question: Is it worth it?