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IMITATION ISN'T FLATTERY.

Byline: TOM HOFFARTH The Media

In case you hadn't noticed, or you just shield your eyes, ESPN's ``Sunday Night Football'' looks an awful a lot like ABC's ``Monday Night Football.''

The word awful is used intentionally.

The same Hank Williams Jr. The same graphics. The (almost) same three-man booth - a play-by-play man with two first names, next to the ex-quarterback, talking over the I'll-try-to-provide-some-levity guy.

It's creepy and it's kooky. Mysterious and spooky. It's all together Goofy - the Disney family.

Packaging the two prime-time NFL games - that is, if your definition of prime time includes the period between 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. when the average vehicle on the 405 reaches a top speed of 2.3 mph - really has nothing to do with bringing the viewer's TV experience to a new level. It's actually subliminal torment, if you must know the truth.

This profit-enhancing buddy system has everything to do with selling commercial time to companies that think they're getting a unique package deal. A buy-Monday-get-Sunday-free sort of thing, since about 40 million people watch Monday more than Sunday. The company actually gets two days in a row to ram its commercial message - OUR BEER IS BETTER BECAUSE . . . IT JUST IS - into the viewers' gray matter.

If Disney were to make a movie about this arrangement, they could call it ``The Parent-Company Trap.'' But they wouldn't do that. It would ruin the surprise.

Disney's blatant joint-bid strategy with the NFL last winter was to cough up $17.6 billion not just to keep ABC from losing ``MNF'' but secure Sunday nights for ESPN, which swiped the eight-game package from cable-rival TNT.

What Disney accountants failed to take into account is that by trying to elevate ESPN's Sunday game, it has lowered the stature of ABC's Monday game. Even Dierdorf could figure this out. Just thank the person on the editorial side who wasn't under the profit-margin trance and had the clear vision to now allow Monday's game to be called ``ESPN Presents Monday Night Football.'' You don't know how close it came to being just that.

Sunday's game piggy-backed onto Monday night's tradition might be a ratings bonanza, but it only exposes the inferior product that can't be disguised with some pretty graphics or a Hank intro.

Sunday night football is an important element of the ESPN game plan. So important, that you saw that classic Philadelphia-Arizona game instead of experiencing the fans' love of Cal Ripken Jr., as he ended his consecutive-game streak. This decision came because Major League Baseball gave ESPN an ultimatum - the NFL or us - before taking the games back. Remember that.

Cross-labeling isn't new. Fox does it between the main network and the cable regionals, which is the same logo it uses on its movies, too.

(Writer's note: By the way, Fox says we should start referring to it as FOX, as in all capital letters, as in ASAP, as in even though FOX isn't an abbreviation for anything like CBS, NBC, ABC, WB, UPN, CNN, PBS, HBO, TBS, TNT, NFL, NBA, NHL, NASCAR. . . . Hey, pals: You're Fox, just Fox, not FOX. Fugettabowit.)

The objective here is to ``brand'' the product, again for advertising strategy. ``Branding'' is a phrase used in TV these days more than ``quality programming.''

If Al Michaels is told to whet our appetite for the next episode of ``The Hughleys'' instead of watching what the Dallas Cowboys might be discussing in the team huddle between plays, that's one of those same-channel spots we've sadly been conditioned to seeing.

If Michaels reminds us at the end of the game that we can stay tuned to ABC for late local news or go over to ESPN for the postgame show with ``live reports and continuing analysis,'' that's somewhat a relief. L.A. viewers are officially free of any obligation to stay around for ``Monday Night Live''!

But if Michaels ever shows up on ESPN, even for that ``Monday Night Countdown'' infomercial, it's just going against the laws of high-component circuitry.

It's enough that ESPN's Chris Berman hosting a MNF pregame ``blast'' is about as blasty as a shot of seltzer water from a bottle. The FCC must look into the fact that ABC has blatantly exceeded the ``One Boomer-per-night'' limit.

So, after three weeks, the ratings bear out that more folks are watching Sunday night football than ever before. And less are watching Monday night - the 13.6 rating average is the lowest it's ever been.

Congrats. You've managed to make Monday nights not so special anymore.

But that groan you just heard was Howard Cosell rolling over in his own private luxury box.

SOUND BYTES

By Tom Hoffarth E-mail: sptmediaaol.com

WHAT SMOKES

A potential viewer enhancement debuting on the next ESPN ``Sunday Night Football.'' A graphic called ``1st and Ten'' will show a yellow line that appears to be painted on the field marking where the offense has to go to get a first down. It'll be used every down. Think of watching a game on a college field that has a soccer lines painted over it. Except these lines move. The gizmo - created by New York-based company SportTVision Systems - is run by a computer that creates the first-down stripe. In each frame of video, the line maintains its position. The computer analyzes the line 30 times per second and determines whether the image in the frame is the field, a player, the ball, an official or something else, and allows that to be shown on top of the line. It's one of those things you need to see to determine if it suits your viewing needs. ``The league knows that new technology, when used properly, can only enhance the coverage of its sport,'' said Jed Drake, ESPN's vice president of remote production. And nah, nah, nah, Fox didn't come up with it first, Drake failed to add.

Fox Sports Net decided not to run ads for the muscle-building supplement Androstenedione, which ESPN had been airing Tuesday but then pulled because of criticism from the NCAA and national high school federation.

WHAT CHOKES

Maybe it has nothing to do with the fact ESPN's ``Sunday Night Football'' ratings keep increasing. But maybe it's kind of interesting to know how things work behind the scenes. During the summer, ESPN's marketing department inundated more than 1,100 cable systems across the country to help promote the fact that the NFL would be a full 18-game package this year instead of nine games. Included in the campaign was a ``customizable press release'' that cable companies could use to mail out to media outlets. ``The NFL on ESPN and (System Name)'' is how the release is headlined. It goes on to tell how ESPN's ``cable-exclusive prime-time NFL games'' will be on ``(System Name's) Channel ---.'' Then there's this pre-fab quote: `` `We are delighted to provide our customers with the best NFL programming available,' said (System Name) General Manager (--------). `ESPN's entire 18-game Sunday Night Football regular-season package, as well as its expanded studio offerings, will deliver a one-stop shopping bonanza for NFL fans. Programming of this caliber makes cable television the best entertainment bargain around.' '' Kinda creepy, eh?

ABC's ``Sports Night.'' Is it a drama? Is it a comedy? After Tuesday's maudlin pilot, we've stopped trying to figure it out.

With only one NFL game to show Sunday (Oakland-Dallas at 10 a.m.), KCBS Channel 2's ``Sports Central'' has four hours to fill. Watch for Lisa Guerrero's favorite outtakes from ``Sunset Beach'' to help fill the time.

WHAT SMOKED ON LOCAL TV

The top 10 Nielsen-rated sports events (with their share numbers) on L.A. television from Sept. 17-23:

Event Date Station Rt/Sh.x

NFL: Dallas-N.Y. Giants 9/21 KABC 13.9/23

NFL: Denver-Oakland 9/20 KCBS 13.2/30

NFL: Green Bay-Cincinnati 9/20 Fox 7.4/18

NFL: San Diego-Kansas City 9/20 KCBS 6.7/16

NFL: Philadephia-Arizona 9/20 ESPN 5.9/11

MLB: Angels-Texas 9/17 KCAL 5.4/10

MLB: Texas-Angels 9/22 FSW 4.2/6

MLB: Seattle-Angels9/19 KCAL 3.9/7

NCAA: Florida-Tennessee 9/19 KCBS 3.4/7

MLB: Texas-Angels 9/23 FSW 3.4/5

Note: Saturday's Oregon State-USC on FSW2 had a 2.4/5.

x-One rating point equals 50,092 TV homes in Los Angeles; a share is the percentage of all the TV sets in use at that time.

CAPTION(S):

2 Boxes

box: (1) SOUND BYTES (See Text)

(2) WHAT SMOKED ON LOCAL TV (See Text)
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Sep 25, 1998
Words:1420
Previous Article:ANOTHER STEP TO DISASTER; NBA POSTPONES CAMPS; REAL GAMES COME NEXT.
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