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Original Issue

Extreme Makeover

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

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.

THE BROW BEAT

HIGH HBO's Billie Jean King: Portrait of a Pioneer is required viewing for anyone who remembers her mainly as Bobby Riggs's foil. With insights from Chris Evert and other contemporaries and some frank talk from King about her sexuality, it's a touching look at a self-made star whose influence was felt far beyond the court.

LOW Objectivity goes out the window--with raucous results--on Fox Soccer Channel's Fan Zone, a Premier League game called by one unabashedly rabid fan from each team. There's plenty of taunting, rooting and screaming; for a more authentic experience you'll have to fly to England and buy a ticket.

Friday Night Might

High school football becomes a hot topic on TV

ONCE UPON a time, watching high school football involved sitting on metal bleachers, pulling out home movies or, worst of all, renting Wildcats. But this year networks--and advertisers--discovered that high school football could be a ratings hit or, failing that, a critical smash. Fox Sports Net and ESPN's networks showed 21 live games this fall, and MTV's addictive reality series Two-A-Days, about the on- and off-field exploits of national power Hoover (Ala.) High, averaged nearly two million viewers. Ratings for NBC's Friday Night Lights (right), a drama based on Buzz Bissinger's bestseller about a pigskin-crazed Texas town, haven't been strong, but the show is well-acted and sharply written and has attracted some of the best reviews of any new series. On the ad side, Nike's Briscoe High campaign cast Mike Vick, LaDainian Tomlinson and other NFL stars on a fictional high school squad. Says a Nike spokesman, "For us, passion for football at the high school level is at its purest form." Viewers seem to agree.

Fair-haired Boy

VETERAN OUTFIELDER Eric Byrnes has a simple broadcasting philosophy: "To bring locker room talk minus the obscene language onto television," he told the New York Post while moonlighting as an ESPN and Fox postseason analyst. "Often, I think athletes are a little too uptight and a little too scared to say something." Anxiety wasn't a problem for Byrnes. His shaggy-surfer hair looked untouched by a stylist, and his commentary (he declared "man love" for Derek Jeter) was edgy and informative. When he retires, a promising TV career awaits.

Credibility Gap

AFTER ESPN named Dave O'Brien--who had virtually no soccer experience--as the lead announcer for its World Cup coverage, network VP Jed Drake explained, "We felt the need to create a non-soccer-centric audience." While ESPN did see ratings improve by 75% over 2002 (when games aired in the middle of the night), aficionados groaned at the performance of O'Brien and Marcelo Balboa (above left, with O'Brien). Many, in fact, decided to watch in a language they didn't understand: Univision, which outdrew ABC and ESPN, reported that 42% of its 50 million Cup viewers were non-Hispanic.

9/15 >> THE ROCK'S GRIDIRON GANG OPENS WITH A PALTRY $14 MILLION 9/25 >> NHL FANS GET MORE CONFUSED: OLN CHANGES NAME TO VERSUS 10/15 >> SPELLING DRAMA AKEELAH AND THE BEE TAKES BEST PIC AT BLACK MOVIE AWARDS 10/27 >> CARDS WIN LEAST-WATCHED WORLD SERIES EVER

The Most...

ANNOYING TREND
Used to be, if you wanted to be offended by a sportscaster you'd have to turn on Pardon the Interruption. That's no longer the case, now that color commentators seem to have lost all sense of decorum. Miami alum Lamar Thomas got fired for cheerleading during a Hurricanes brawl (right). Fox's Steve Lyons was let go when he joked that Lou Piniella's ability to speak Spanish likely made him a wallet thief. Bert Blyleven was suspended from Twins broadcasts after dropping two f bombs on the air. (He thought he was on tape.) Guys, please: Heed the words of Ron Burgundy. Stay classy.

ADMIRABLE TREND
More HD broadcasts to justify those expensive new hi-def TVs. Fox Sports Net announced that its regional affiliates would double the number of HD games (MLB, NHL, NBA and college football) they air. And ESPN expects to drastically expand its HD programming next year--for good reason. A recent study found that nearly a quarter of sports fans tune in to HD broadcasts of games they normally wouldn't watch.

PROMISING THING ABOUT THE NFL NETWORK
Its access to NFL Films.
Exhibit A is America's Game: The Super Bowl Champions, a series of one-hour documentaries on the 40 Super Bowl winners featuring unsurpassed behind-the-scenes footage, those terrific slo-mo highlights and low-key narration that lets the pictures do the talking.

UNCEREMONIOUS DECLINE
The Olympics used to be guaranteed ratings gold. Competing networks acknowledged that and filled their schedules with reruns and old movies. But the Turin Games faced stiff competition (including new episodes of Dancing with the Stars, American Idol and 24) and didn't fare well. NBC--criticized for not showing enough live action and ignoring minor sports--saw its prime-time ratings drop 37% from 2002. The final insult: Stars drew nearly twice as many viewers as the closing ceremonies.

ILL-ADVISED ATTEMPT TO CREATE AN AUDIENCE
With Quite Frankly with Stephen A. Smith generating little buzz (and minuscule ratings), producers posted invites on message boards and e-mailed free ticket offers to bloggers. In August several Cubs bloggers received invites to a show featuring Chicago manager Dusty Baker (right) that included the promise, "You guys can definitely feel free to BOO Dusty if you so please." Baker found out and wisely bailed on the appearance.