America’s ABC TV network has done something that will be followed here, abandoned a long held TV sports programming tradition? In sport it gave the world the idea of the sports magazine show with reports, chat, zany happenings and personality-driven hosting in Wide World of Sports , which the Nine Network here copied.

In Current Affairs it pioneered in 1979 the late night news and current affairs program with Ted Koppel hosting. It became Nightline and was copied the world over.Ted’s now leaving because of proposed changes in Nightline’s format.

But in terms of US ‘culture’, or rather sports culture, the concept of taking sport out of the weekend and plonking it on Monday nights in the middle of autumn and winter, and turning it into a ratings and financial success, was perhaps the most interesting idea. That move opened the way for networks the world over to gradually push sport out of Saturdays and Sundays and into the week. Previously it had been TV gospel that sport and weekends went together and you couldn’t disrupt the working week by showing sport between Monday and Friday.

ABC’s Monday Night Football started in 1970 and has been a success for 25 years, until now. As this story from The New York Times explains, it’s the end of an era.

ABC will cede the series after the coming season to ESPN, which will pay a record $1.1 billion a year.

As one network stalwart leaves, another will return: NBC, which bowed out of broadcasting the National Football League after the 1997 season, will replace ESPN on the Sunday night games, paying $600 million annually, the same as ESPN has been paying.

The NFL’s deal-making leaves ABC out, ending its involvement with the sport and an era that began with an idea by Pete Rozelle, the former commissioner, and advanced with the technological sophistication of Roone Arledge, the former president of ABC Sports.

Rupert Murdoch capitalised on this pioneering work, as did Kerry Packer. The ABC Network thought there was a cost/income benefit in not chasing the NFL after 37 years of being a major part of it. ABC was making losses of $US100 million to $US150 million a year thanks to declining NFL audiences, which in turn had produced cost cuts and coverage changes that viewers didn’t like.

With that background it’s equally possible that the Nine Network could bow out of the AFL and even the NRL, if the price is too high. Nine is under financial constraints these days, one of which is the cost of sporting coverage. Next year it is spending millions on the Commonwealth Games coverage in the hope of a killer ratings performance. But as Seven found last year with the Olympics, even a best ever performance by Australian athletes doesn’t guarantee high levels of viewing and high profits.

Nine also has to decide if it wants the rights to cricket.. Given Kerry Packer’s background with World Series Cricket, that’s a priority for Nine. Nine and the Packer Empire also are under pressure to substantially increase the amount they are prepared to pay the NRL for the rights to the Rugby League. Presently around $1.5 million a year at most is paid for the NRL TV rights (Free To Air), compared to $30 million or more for the AFL.

The pressure is coming from News Ltd, half-owner of the NRL, and the driving force behind Foxtel, which needs a subscription driver (either the League or the AFL would be perfect). But the decision by the ABC network in the US to abandon tradition shows that sports rights have a price!

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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