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Cable 'MNF' pulls out all the stops

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.

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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!

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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.'

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"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

The early returns are impressive. Ratings are 30 percent better than ESPN's Sunday games a year ago. (Because ESPN isn't available in as many homes, executives shy away from comparing figures to ABC's MNF telecasts or to NBC's Sunday night games this season.) The New Orleans Saints' return to the Superdome last month for a Monday night game against the Atlanta Falcons generated the largest audience in ESPN history - nearly 11 million homes. The figure was the second-largest cable TV audience ever and marked the third straight week that ESPN broke its own mark.

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The how and why of the early success are easy to answer. ESPN did what ESPN does best: stretched a few hours of action into round-the-clock programming, focusing as much on the entertainment as the sport. Football was a three-hour window for ABC the past 36 years. Not anymore.

"It's not just Monday night; now we're talking Monday," ESPN analyst Michael Irvin says. "And we're talking all day."

Following the College GameDay formula, ESPN broadcasts live from a stadium each week, starting at 3 p.m. That means more than one-third of the network's programming originates from one place on Mondays.

"It's so big for us," said Chip Dean, MNF director. "If you look at the whole puzzle, it's more than just a game."

Back in the broadcast booth, the crew returns from a commercial break. Viewers at home see a scenic aerial shot of Philadelphia, which was actually taped a couple of nights earlier.

"The former capital of the United States where the Declaration of Independence was signed back in 1776," Tirico says.

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"What was that like, Tony?" Theismann asks.

"I don't remember," Kornheiser says. "My TV was out that year."

Booth chemistry

It's not an easy task to throw three guys in a booth and expect a three-hour dialogue that has texture, humor and insight. Pardon the Interruption is successful because of the relationship shared by Kornheiser and his co-host and fellow Post columnist, Michael Wilbon. On MNF, the entire nation watches as three guys learn one another on live TV.

"Why are the grass courts of Wimbledon so green?" Kornheiser asks. "The answer is you start with 5,000 years of rain. That's what Wilbon and I have. We've been doing this for 25 years in the hallways of The Washington Post. Here, we're just starting. It's not fair to wonder why it's not like PTI, because this is so different. It can't be like PTI."

The Theismann-Kornheiser chemistry is an interesting one; the sportswriter covered the former Washington Redskins quarterback. In fact, when Theismann was hired to provide color commentary at the Super Bowl in 1985, here's what Kornheiser wrote:

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"[H]ow about that Joe T., stepping right into The Booth at the Super Bowl, making his network sportscasting debut in front of 100 million people? So much for starting at the bottom and working your way up the ladder, huh? ... Theismann might have been hired just to do color, but is there any doubt that he could also do play-by-play, cut to commercial - even appear in the commercials if he had to? Dead air? Once Joe gets rolling, he may never give up the mike."

While media critics dissect the chemistry among the three in the booth, the most important relationship is actually down in the production truck, where the director and producer play conductor to a giant orchestra in real time.

With more than 100 monitors on one wall, the truck would be a pretty cool sports bar if they'd add beer taps and wings. Dean and producer Jay Rothman scan the monitors, managing the chaos like air-traffic controllers.

"Someone's hurt on the field," Rothman says. "Tell me someone saw it. Show me where the injury is. Somebody talk to me!"

Dean sits next to him and is as calm as Rothman is excitable.

"Go to 8," he says in a near-whisper, apparently liking the fan shot on camera No. 8. "And 5 ... OK, now 6 ... "

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"Down and distance, please!" Rothman says. "Look, he fumbled!"

"Ten, give me sidelines," Dean says.

Dean has been at ESPN since 1979, when the network was just a couple of months old. His first football game was a U.S. Football League contest and his crew consisted of seven cameras around the field. Now MNF has 33 cameras; they're in the sky, on the goal posts and zipping around on cables. The newest one features a super slow-motion camera that takes up to 1,000 frames per second.

Their day actually starts much earlier, at 10 a.m., when more than 40 staffers - from production to talent - gather in a hotel meeting room. With a giant dry erase board and a TV monitor at one end of the room, the group goes through everything that had been prepackaged for the night's broadcast.

By the time the broadcasters hit the stadium about 4 p.m., the behind-the-scenes crew has been working for several hours, drawing up graphics, preparing packages and outlining how the night could go.

Everyone is watching

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The fans also arrive in the afternoon, gathering around ESPN's outdoor sets like ants around a watermelon rind. With so much activity at the stadium, Monday nights are bigger than ever in the cities hosting games. And in the locker rooms, MNF is always going to be huge.

"On Sundays, everyone is playing," says Steve Young, also an ESPN analyst. "On Mondays, all of your peers are tuning in. It's an opportunity to make a statement to everyone. It's like a national sales conference and you have the audience's undivided attention."

Undivided attention is a foreign concept when you talk about media today. But on Monday, football has hooked us again. ESPN rescued the game from ABC's scrap heap and fixed her up, giving new life to a treasured institution.

The game ends, and the announcers sign off. Down in the production truck, DVDs are copied and talent and production start critiquing performances immediately. Others start packing up the trucks, and by 3 a.m., they're on the road again. The circus keeps moving to another city and another Monday night.rick.maese@baltsun.com


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