Cable `MNF' pulls out all the stops

October 09, 2006|By RICK MAESE

Up in the broadcast booth, a stylist moves from person to person, dabbing foundation makeup with the focus of a painter touching up her work.

When she finishes, Joe Theismann spins around and surveys the crowd in the stadium. Mike Tirico stands up to stretch his legs, smiling as he chats up a cameraman. And Tony Kornheiser remains seated, staring blankly ahead. He's so still he could be posing for a sculptor - except for his foot, which is fluttering like a hummingbird's wings. Ten minutes until showtime.

Deep down below, ready to storm one of sports' biggest stages, a football team waits in the tunnel. Together the players sing the familiar notes of the Monday Night Football theme, and you start to wonder what all that fuss was about last year. Didn't we say goodbye to Monday Night Football? All that pomp and circumstance that surrounded MNF's leaving network television surely made it feel like we were laying to rest an institution.

Now we know better. There was no tombstone and no need for all the eulogizing. Television executives simply sneaked Monday Night Football into a broom closet, loaded her up with Botox treatments, nipped here, tucked there and then sprung on the world MNF Version 2.0: New! Improved! And ESPN-icized!

The men with headsets are moments away from game time. A glass divider separates the booth from a club suite. A pretty young woman wearing a jersey in the neighboring suite puts both hands over her heart and mouths to Kornheiser: "I love you." Kornheiser, the veteran sportswriter charged with providing on-air levity, smiles. He seems slightly embarrassed but also looks around to see who else noticed.

Kornheiser concedes that just 10 years ago, the idea of MNF's moving to cable would be akin to driving a car off a cliff. But since then, the network has evolved into the sports fan's 24-hour church, and after MNF faded in recent years, ESPN has managed to make it relevant again.

"Look at what sports has become. Fewer things seem special," says Tirico, the crew's play-by-play announcer. "Monday night when we were kids, it was really special. When ESPN got these games, we needed to figure out, how do we keep it that way? Look around: This is like a circus is coming to town. It's not just a game - it's an event."

A weekly Super Bowl

Leaving ABC (which, like ESPN, is owned by Disney) has actually enabled ESPN to beef up the profile of MNF, and when you pull back the curtain and go behind the scenes, you see that the network treats each game like a weekly Super Bowl. Programming originates from the stadium early in the day. More than 400 people on the ESPN payroll are buzzing around, and everything you can think of is planned for, from the graphics on the screen to the tie around Theismann's neck.

In fact, the outfits for the three men in the booth and two women reporting from the sidelines were picked out months ago. Kornheiser and company are wearing strictly Canali each week - not a bad fringe benefit. Usually, when a sportswriter wears Italian, it's because he spilled marinara sauce. But the gig is a new universe for Kornheiser, who catapulted from the pages of The Washington Post to ESPN's Pardon the Interruption program five years ago.

Because he's the one in the booth without experience broadcasting football, he has drawn the most attention - and the most criticism.

"This is not in my skill set," he says. "There's nothing I did where I said, `Now I'm ready for this.'

"I think I'm aware of what Monday Night Football has meant to the culture. I've done enough stories in my life to know about what Howard Cosell and Roone Arledge did, taking sports and putting it in prime time, moving it from the basement to the living room. I just don't look at myself and see that I'm a part of that continuum. I mean, I'm a sportswriter."

They're on the air now. The words and pictures hit a production truck outside the stadium, where they're sent via fiber optics back to network headquarters in Bristol, Conn., then dispatched to millions of homes, every word traveling in a single second farther than any man will in an entire lifetime.

"[Brett] Favre playing football, Cal Ripken playing baseball, Joan Rivers on the red carpet - there's your iron men," Kornheiser says for millions of ears.

The broadcast is still what Arledge built, but ESPN's fingerprints are everywhere. Before the season, it wasn't exactly clear whether this new version of MNF would resemble the broadcast most of us grew up with. But they've protected the MNF brand while adding their own, essentially packing up the product and moving it to a bigger lot across the street.

Ratings winner

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