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'MNF' Moving To Cable In 2006

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AP
"Monday Night Football," a television institution that over 35 years has helped transform the NFL into a prime-time ratings draw, is leaving ABC and moving to ESPN beginning with the 2006 season.

The new broadcast deal also brings the NFL to NBC for the first time since 1997. The network gets Sunday night football — which the league now considers its marquee television showcase — and will employ a flexible scheduling model.

"In the current media environment, Sunday is now the better night for our prime-time broadcast package," commissioner Paul Tagliabue said Monday.

Moving "Monday Night Football" to ESPN, which currently broadcasts Sunday night games, keeps the brand under The Disney Company umbrella. Disney owns both ESPN and ABC.

After the coming season, ABC — which pioneered modern television sports in bringing pro football to prime time — will be the only major network not to carry the NFL. "Monday Night Football" has been a pillar of ABC since it began in 1970, when Howard Cosell anchored the show that now stands as the second-longest running prime time network series, trailing CBS's 60 Minutes by two years.

NBC will start its Sunday broadcasts with a pregame show at 7 p.m. eastern; games will begin at 8:15. The network plans to use a flexible scheduling model in the last seven weeks, allowing it to shift afternoon games to prime time to ensure more meaningful games are shown on national TV.

Monday night games will shift to the earlier start time of 8:40 p.m. eastern on ESPN.

"The earlier kickoff times for both packages, NBC's Sunday night programming devoted to the NFL and flexible scheduling for Sunday night are all positive changes," Tagliabue said.

ESPN, which has been broadcasting Sunday night games since 1998, will pay $1.1 billion a year over eight years for Monday night games, two sources familiar with the deals told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Under its current eight-year, $4.4 billion contract, ABC has paid an average of $550 million per year to broadcast "Monday Night Football" — exactly one-half of the annual average that ESPN has agreed to pay.

NBC will broadcast Sunday night football for $600 million a year over six years, according to the sources. That annual figure is the same price ESPN paid for Sunday night football over the course of its current eight-year deal. NBC will also get the Super Bowl in 2009 and 2012.

ESPN said it had been assured by the league that it would get high-quality games in keeping with the tradition of Monday night football.