Are you ready for some football? (Because you're about to get a truckload of it)
Updated 8/4/2006 3:19 PM ET
By Michael Hiestand, USA TODAY

America's most popular TV programming is getting a makeover. The National Football League, in new TV deals kicking off Sunday night when NBC returns to airing NFL action for the first time since 1998, will offer viewers more new wrinkles than they've ever seen in a season.

And the league that each week racks up total TV ratings equivalent to about five nights of the 2006 Winter Olympics or four American Idol episodes — and then gets really big ratings for its playoffs — will pose this question more pointedly than it's ever been put before: Can there ever be too much NFL TV?

"If there's a theme to our TV now, it's to make it better and, especially, to let fans see more," says Howard Katz, an NFL senior vice president who oversees the league's media. "There seems to be an insatiable appetite."

That might seem impossible. But David Carter, a sports business consultant, doesn't see any limits yet: "Just when you'd guess fans are at wit's end and have no more disposable time for the NFL, they find another reason not to take the dog for a walk or clean the yard."

This season there'll be lots of new ways to feed their appetite. Monday Night Football, moving to ESPN, makes its debut Sept. 11 with a first-ever MNF doubleheader — and, on ESPN Deportes, the first MNF games on Spanish-language TV.

The NFL will unveil a Thanksgiving tripleheader and have one Sunday — New Year's Eve — when both of the networks carrying afternoon games, Fox and CBS, will be allowed to air national doubleheaders.

Viewers who still haven't had enough will be able to get replays of entire games — albeit in condensed versions — Tuesday and Wednesday nights on the NFL Network, the league's own cable channel. The NFL Network will air regular-season games for the first time via the league's first package of Thursday and Saturday prime-time games.

Excess will be redefined by the NFL Network: Aug. 31, it will whip around viewers for live look-ins on 12 exhibition games being played simultaneously. (The exhibition season begins Sunday night with the Hall of Fame Game between the Oakland Raiders and Philadelphia Eagles in Canton, Ohio, 8 ET.)

The NFL TV basics — gather enormous Sunday afternoon audiences and top them off with Sunday and Monday prime-time games — largely remain the same. But by the standards of the USA's biggest TV draw, suggests the NFL's Katz, "There's enormous change this year."

Changing channels

NFL television coverage was bound to change this season, if only because the league's previous TV rights contracts expired at the end of last season.

NFL network contracts and each network's contracts for its announcers and production staffers usually run concurrently.

That way the league gets one big chance to see how much more money it can make. It counts on the networks to spend lavishly to buy their way into the NFL's TV picture or on incumbent networks to raise the ante to stay in the game.

That jockeying inevitably pays off. In new contracts starting this season, the league will get a total annual average of $3.75 billion — a cumulative 53% jump in NFL TV revenue. And the jockeying usually leads to NFL action changing channels — and new faces.

Monday Night Football, one of the most successful shows in TV history since it premiered on ABC in 1970, moves to cable. ABC's MNF ratings declined for years, and last season the show drew record-low average game ratings — 10.8% of U.S. households. But it remained among the 10 highest-rated shows on TV for the 15th consecutive year.

That was good enough for ESPN, which also is owned by the Disney Co. and has been showing Sunday night NFL games for two decades. ESPN, which looks to marquee action to help justify the industry-high fees it charges cable operators, paid a whopping $1.1 billion annually to get Monday night games, even without getting the NFL to throw in rights to any Super Bowls.

(To illustrate the NFL's TV success, consider that when Fox bought its way into showing NFL games in 1994 by taking games away from CBS in what was then considered an extravagant bid, it paid $400 million annually.)

MNF might see its total viewership decline, given that ESPN reaches about 91 million households, compared with the 111 million that get broadcast TV.

But ESPN will lavish unprecedented hype on MNF, whose famous Hank Williams Jr. theme song has been updated to include Little Richard and Cheap Trick. Each week, ESPN will devote a Super Bowl-like pregame show to its Monday night games that will begin at 3 p.m. ET and include 30 on-air commentators.

Says ESPN spokesman Mike Soltys, "There's not a bigger sports franchise than Monday Night Football."

Dueling showcases

NBC, establishing the NFL's first broadcast network beachhead on TV's most watched night, begs to differ. Its Sunday night broadcasts late in the season will enjoy flexible scheduling meant to give the league the freedom to switch games so NBC won't end up with weak prime-time matchups that plagued ABC's MNF.

NBC will call its series Sunday Night Football and use the game announcers — John Madden and Al Michaels — and key production staffers who worked on ABC's MNF. NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol suggests there wasn't a need to reinvent the wheel: "There won't be any need to get used to these guys. They've simply been the best; (they) define what the best is."

Madden this season becomes the first announcer to call NFL games on all four major broadcast networks, having gone from CBS to Fox to ABC and, now, NBC. And he gets a grand lead-in to his NBC debut: Saturday, he'll be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

He is being inducted for coaching the Raiders to a 103-32-7 record between 1969 and 1978.

Madden, noting he was a Hall finalist 27 years ago, says, "Because I've had to wait so long, this could not be appreciated any more than I appreciate it. ... To say I'm excited about this weekend and this season would be the biggest understatement of the world ever."

Expect plenty of back and forth between ESPN and NBC about which has the biggest NFL night. ESPN plans a little guerilla tactic: This fall it will begin showing Sunday night college football games.

Fewer extras

Not everything about NFL TV is getting bigger. Sideline reporting during games, which is so restricted by the league that reporters can't get at much news, will shrink: CBS and the NFL Network won't use sideline reporters.

And networks, at least so far, haven't announced any razzle-dazzle production technology. That's partly because the league, despite its insatiable appetite for TV money, is conservative about on-screen commercialism during games. It won't allow networks to sponsor any "in-game enhancements" — meaning networks can't get sponsors to pick up the tab for fancy new on-screen gimmicks.

Fox, known as the NFL's most flamboyant carrier, is even cutting back on its glitz.

The network surveyed viewers, Fox senior vice president Gary Hartley says, and found that Fox's many sound effects, blinking lights and animated graphics were seen as "pointless and annoying."

So they'll be reduced. However, he says, Fox is bringing back the on-screen robots that pop up on its coverage: "We found we've lost some of the attitude we've projected in the past. Robots are sacred ground for that."

Fox also will test the idea of letting consumers send in uploaded digital photos of their tailgate parties — with some of those photos going on TV.

Says Hartley, "It's an effort to say we're talking to you, not at you."

And the NFL's Katz hints at a test that might really break new ground. In the preseason, he says, ESPN will be allowed to have a camera operator run onto the field for close-ups, but only with plenty of restrictions to keep from interfering with play. If the league deems the test acceptable, other networks will be allowed to bring their cameras on-field this season.

Fans probably will love it. But could the NFL's expanded TV buffet, and the unprecedented hype expected from NFL TV carriers, finally be too much?

"The NFL is the consummate promoter," consultant Carter says. "But that doesn't mean that fans might not find all this over-the-top at a time when they're inundated by sports generally. But I wouldn't bet on it."