Paul LaMonica Commentary:
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Why I hate 'Monday Night Football'

Sure, ESPN is enjoying great ratings with MNF. But over-the-top plugs for ABC and annoying 'celebrity' interviews are starting to alienate fans.

By Paul R. La Monica, CNNMoney.com editor at large

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- I'm a huge New York Giants fan. Yet, I'm not looking forward to watching their next game.

The fact that the Giants are decimated by injuries partly explains my wary attitude. But the main reason I'm dreading Big Blue's upcoming match-up against the Jacksonville Jaguars is because the game is on Monday night, which means ESPN will broadcast it.

mnf_crew.jpg
"Monday Night Football" announcers spend a lot of time chatting up celebrity guests...and annoying fans in the process.
NEWSMAKERS FUN MONEY
Are you ready for big ratings?
Despite criticism, "Monday Night Football" on ESPN has pulled in huge audiences, making it the top weekly draw on cable TV.
Game Date Viewers (millions)
Giants-Cowboys 10/23 16.0
Falcons-Saints 9/25 15.0
Bears-Cardinals 10/16 14.2
Jaguars-Steelers 9/18 13.3
Packers-Eagles 10/2 12.9
Vikings-Redskins 9/11 12.6
Ravens-Broncos 10/9 12.5
Patriots-Vikings 10/30 11.9
Chargers-Raiders 9/11 10.5
Raiders-Seahawks 11/6 9.9
Source:Nielsen Media Research Two Monday games were broadcast on ESPN on 9/11
Do you like ESPN's "Monday Night Football" telecasts?
  Yes...more celebrities please!
  No...talk about the game!
  I don't watch MNF
or View results

ESPN has taken self-promotion to a ridiculous new extreme this year. And that has raised the ire of many fans.

I'm in a fantasy football league with a bunch of friends. And on Monday nights, we often have more to say on our league's message board about how infuriating the ESPN broadcast is than about the game itself.

We're not alone. One sports blog, Outside the Beltway, has a page called "Monday Night Football on ESPN sucks." And an item on sports blog TheBigLead.com from last month was titled "Can the JV MNF Crew Start Warming Up in the Pen? Because This is a Debacle." (Since I agree with the comment, I'll forgive the author's mixed sports metaphor here ... using a baseball term to describe action on the gridiron.)

In case you didn't know ... and it would be impossible to remain blissfully ignorant for long when watching ESPN ... the sports network is owned by Walt Disney (Charts), which also owns ABC.

MNF has been guilty of heavy cross-promotions for other ABC shows when MNF actually aired on ABC, which it did up until this season. But this year, it seems to have gotten worse. James Denton, one of the stars of ABC's hit show "Desperate Housewives," was featured in the booth yukking it up with the broadcasters during one game. Pointless.

During the Giants-Dallas Cowboys contest on October 23, Emmitt Smith, the NFL's all-time league-leading rusher, was asked more questions about his fancy footwork on ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" (Smith is one of the show's finalists) than he was about his former playing days .... and this was during a game featuring his old team!

ESPN committed an even more egregious penalty earlier in that game. Just as Giants linebacker LaVar Arrington was writhing on the turf due to what turned out to be a season-ending injury, the announcers in the booth were busy chatting with Hank Williams, Jr., who has been singing MNF's grating theme song since 1989.

The announcers were goofing around, laughing at Joe Theismann wearing Hank's cowboy hat instead of talking about how a key player on the Giants just got hurt. Actual news...ignored by ESPN for the sake of "entertainment."

For now, ESPN can point to great ratings for MNF telecasts as evidence that what they are doing is working. The Giants-Cowboys game had an audience of 16 million viewers, a record for cable TV. And viewers are watching telecasts for a longer period of time than they did last year. But how long can that last? Does ESPN risk losing its core audience if it keeps ramming ABC down football viewers' throats?

I'd argue yes. For ESPN to consistently garner good ratings, it needs to make sure that all football fans are interested in the MNF game and not just fans from the two teams' local markets.

But I think ESPN is making it harder and harder to get fans to want to tune into MNF games unless they involve their favorite team. Sure, I'll watch the Giants this coming Monday ... but it's most likely the last MNF game I'll catch this season.

And if more pigskin diehards like me grow tired of the shtick on MNF and start watching "Heroes" on NBC or "CSI: Miami" on CBS (Charts), that's not good news for ESPN and Disney. I highly doubt the same people who watch MNF are likely to switch to ABC's "What about Brian" on Monday nights instead.

ESPN doesn't seem to be worried. In an e-mailed response, ESPN spokesman Bill Hofheimer wrote that the ratings speak for themselves and that there are plenty of people happy with the broadcasts ... they just don't go on blogs to proclaim how satisfied they are.

"While a small fraction of fans have voiced concern with the new approach, when was the last time a customer bought a computer and called Dell to say how much he/she loved the new monitor?" wrote Hofheimer.

Still, who really wants to see "Dancing with the Stars" footage while a game is going on? If ESPN needs to do a soft feature about Emmitt's new career, at least save it for halftime.

The big difference between ESPN and its rivals is that other networks don't allow the corporate shilling to get in the way of the game.

This past Sunday, for example, NBC had Alec Baldwin pop-in to the studio just before kickoff in the guise of his character from NBC's sitcom "30 Rock." This was forced and annoying but at least it was done during the pre-game show.

Fortunately, viewers didn't have to listen to Alec pretend to be a GE (Charts) executive while the Giants and Chicago Bears were actually playing. Once the game started, John Madden and Al Michaels were all business. Baldwin didn't show up in the booth. Nor did Matthew Perry, Howie Mandel, Maria Bartiromo, King Kong or any other NBC Universal "talent."

Other networks seem to realize this too. The Sunday afternoon telecasts on CBS and News Corp.'s (Charts) Fox are, more often than not, highly professional and focus on football first.

Now to be fair, ESPN hasn't only invited people toiling on the House of Mouse's payroll into the MNF booth. Spike Lee appeared during the game against the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints and talked about his Hurricane Katrina documentary, which was co-produced by and aired on HBO, a subsidiary of my parent company Time Warner (Charts).

And actor Christian Slater came on during the November 6 game to talk about his new movie, "Bobby." The delicious irony there is that "Bobby" is being distributed by The Weinstein Company., the studio founded by brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein after their messy Miramax divorce with Disney. I bet Disney studio honchos in Hollywood weren't pleased.

But this speaks to the bigger problem for Monday Night Football ... even if ESPN isn't pimping ABC or other Disney products, football often seems to be the last thing on the minds of play-by-play man Mike Tirico and commentators Theismann and Tony Kornheiser (or, as I like to refer to them, the unholy trinity).

ESPN's own ombudsman (coolest word ever) even agrees. George Solomon, a former editor at the Washington Post who now writes critiques of the network's coverage on ESPN.com, took ESPN to task for the preponderance of guests in the booth in a recent column.

"Many viewers feel the guests are a distraction from the football game. I agree. It's a football game, not a night-time talk show," Solomon wrote.

Despite this firestorm of criticism, ESPN still doesn't appear to get it. This past Monday, during the game between Carolina and Tampa Bay, NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon was the "celebrity" guest. At least they had an athlete on instead of a movie or TV star. But this segment was still relatively worthless if you're a football fan.

The "highlights" were Gordon and Kornheiser discussing why the NASCAR season should be more like "American Idol" or "Survivor" and Kornheiser giving Gordon a Belgian waffle maker because Gordon's new wife is a model from Belgium. Wow! Make room for an Emmy!

But ESPN's Hofheimer defended the practice of having guests in the booth.

"Guests and celebs are broadening our telecasts and helping to attract more casual fans to the game, which is in the tradition of MNF, and we have had many non-Disney guests. Plus, we are usually talking about 5-6 minutes over the course of a three-hour telecast, and our down to down football coverage and analysis is as strong as it's ever been," Hofheimer wrote.

I don't buy the "casual fan" argument. Does ESPN think someone will choose to watch MNF as opposed to say, "Heroes" on the off chance that the MNF crew might interview their favorite celebrity?

The F in MNF should stand for football, not fun, frivolity or fluff. ESPN needs to learn that you can still have an entertaining telecast without celebrities.

And the network shouldn't be fooled by the ratings. If Monday Night Football remains a Monday Night Fiasco for much longer, I think more hardcore football fans are eventually going to change the channel.


The reporter of this story owns shares of Time Warner through his company's 401(k) plan. Top of page

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.