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'MNF' Moving To Cable In 2006

"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.

"ESPN could have stayed on Sunday night," ESPN vice president Mark Shapiro said. "Unequivocally our task was to continue ABC's tradition of Monday Night Football. We've been assured we're getting the preferred schedule."

Added George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN and ABC Sports: "From the Disney perspective, it was a smart move for ABC by moving out of football and having ESPN move into Monday nights."

"Monday Night Football" had its highest-rated broadcast in 1985 with a 29.6, or a 46 share, for a game between the then-unbeaten Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins.

"A great deal with the NFL is the best deal you can get in television," said NBC sports chairman Dick Ebersol, who said the network only began negotiating with the NFL last Friday after ABC, which had the option on the prime-time broadcasts until Oct. 31, relinquished it after talks with the league.

He said the network hasn't started working on finding anchors for the Sunday night broadcast. "We're celebrating for a day. Then I'm sure we'll get a lot of calls."

Last month, Tagliabue said during the NFL meetings in Hawaii that the Monday night move was a strong possibility. ABC, which has been losing money on the package despite high ratings, had been balking at the NFL's asking price.

NBC has been struggling in prime-time this season, and even risks an unprecedented fall into fourth place in the ratings. ABC's newfound ratings strength with "Desperate Housewives" on Sunday nights has been particularly damaging. NBC says it will devote its entire Sunday night prime-time lineup to the NFL.

CBS and Fox already have agreed to pay a total of $8 billion over six years for the rights to Sunday afternoon games.

The NFL is still considering an eight game late-season package of Thursday and Saturday night games on cable and satellite. Tagliabue has said the NFL's own new network could show some or all of those games.

The NFL will continue to show all cable games on free, over-the air television in home markets. That means that local stations will carry ESPN's Monday night games in the cities of the teams involved.