NBC's "Sunday Night Football" is superior to ESPN's "Monday Night Football" for a number of reasons, not the least of which has to do with the schedule of games NBC gets for its primetime package. There was a time not too long ago when such a statement would have been laughable. "Monday Night Football" was the king of NFL broadcasts while "Sunday Night Football" was a half-season cable package that drew a fraction of the attention of the venerable weekday telecasts.
In their oral history of ESPN, "Those Guys Have All The Fun," James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales recount the fascinating story of how the roles of the two telecasts shifted when new television contracts were signed in 2005. In short, when deciding how to proceed with MNF, ESPN turned its back on ABC's old MNF crew of Al Michaels, John Madden, producer Fred Gaudelli and director Drew Esocoff in favor of a new team that was to bring a different focus to the primetime package. ESPN's loss was NBC's gain, as Dick Ebersol snatched up the talent and put the team on NBC's new "Sunday Night Football" package.
The diverging paths of the two networks are evident today, where ESPN treats "Monday Night Football" as a three-hour talking point/self showcase while NBC lets the game dictate the story. What follows are a few key quotes from the book that exhibit the different philosophies of the two broadcasts. (Concentric circles!) The entire ESPN/NBC story takes up dozens of pages in the lengthy tome, which is well worth the read.
Jed Drake, ESPN senior vice president of production: "Where we like to take our productions is to not just limit it to the game, but to bring in, when appropriate -- and that's the key thing, that's the art of producing, when appropriate -- other elements that may be germane to that game, that telecast, ultimately, to the viewers. We might think that the story needs a discussion point -- whereas Freddie is going to stick to the game, the game, and nothing but the game."
Dick Ebersol, NBC Sports chairman: "[Fred and Drew] were both available to me for reasons I will never understand. Those two guys were born at ESPN, rose all the way through the ranks, then they were told, in front of the entire industry, that they didn't get the job producing this billion-point-one property because the other guys were the loyal guys who had stayed with ESPN."
Fred Gaudelli, producer, NBC "Sunday Night Football": "['Monday Night Football'] is not the way you set up an NFL telecast. To call it a platform for something larger is just wrong. That's looking at it from the wrong perspective. [...] You don't stop producing around the game."
Jay Rothman, ESPN senior coordinating producer: "When we first got to 'Monday Night Football,' [ESPN executive Mark Shapiro] was shrewd but there was also this whole enthusiasm going around that 'we're going to do it bigger and better than ever. We're going to blow it out. We're going to have a great opening. It's going to be star-studded. It's going to be a celebration. It's going to be a bigger-than-the-game kind of thing.' And we bought into this stuff."
John Skipper, ESPN executive: "[...] Jed Drake is the original guy who used the visual image of concentric circles to talk to the announcers. It's not my favorite conceptual way to talk about it. It is fairly simplistic. There are a series of concentric circles and the game itself lies at the center of the circles. The circles outside are the things that aren't actually happening in the action but which are closest to the action. You're watching a game and it's the first circle. The second is, let's say, the star quarterback and his football life. The third circle is his personal life. The fourth circle, larger trends."
Gaudelli: "Think about if ESPN goes the other way, okay? If it's Al and John and Drew and me on 'Monday Night Football,' number one, they'd probably get better games because the league's going to want to give Madden better games."