ABC Is Right To Resurrect Prime-Time Football

This Saturday, ABC will debut what may prove to be the most astute scheduling maneuver of the 2006-07 season: prime-time football. Could be smarter than ABC shifting "Grey's Anatomy" to Thursday, CBS making a bid to capture "Grey's" old Sunday spot with "Without A Trace" or NBC opting to air all originals of "ER."

First some background: Prime-time pigskin is hardly new for ABC, which carried "Monday Night Football" for 36 years before electing to pull the plug last year. At the time, it seemed ABC had permanently washed its hands of football after dark, leaving the turf to sibling ESPN and NBC's new NFL Sunday entry. Then, seemingly out of nowhere at the upfronts in May, ABC unveiled "Saturday Night Football"--a 12-game schedule of top-notch college match-ups--that start Saturday and run through Dec. 2.

Credit ABC for calling an audible. Its nimble resurrection of prime-time football has huge upside--both in the potential to create some Saturday night fever, while ensuring young males don't completely abandon a network with a line-up overwhelmingly dominated by shows with heavy female appeal.



ABC channeled a talented running back: It saw an opening and made a dash for it. Saturday, once the home of "Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island," has become a graveyard for broadcast TV as the networks limit original programming, looking to trim costs. Enter: news magazines, some poorly rated real-life law and order on Fox and lots of "Law & Order" and other reruns on other nets. Ratings are faint and HUT (households using television) levels low.

Now, count on ABC to change the game, both for viewers and advertisers. The impressive schedule of match-ups--which feature Notre Dame thrice (including in this Saturday's debut), USC five times and a Sept. 9 Ohio State at Texas blockbuster--should appeal to the masses who don't feel the need to leave home on Saturdays, particularly in the South and Midwest where college football is king and the nightlife is arguably less enticing than along the coasts. There are also hordes of college kids looking for entertainment before they head out.

Equally if not more important, advertisers increasingly looking for big-time, live, TiVo-proof events will likely warm to the broadcasts and the chance to reach people who still have another weekend day to shop and work around the house.

What will be more appealing for both viewers and advertisers on Oct. 14, for example--cops trying to combat public drunkenness in Miami Beach, Stone Phillips, or Michigan at Penn State? If Saturday college football gets even half the ratings of "MNF" last year, it will win the night handily.

Besides revenue potential, the Saturday franchise--billed as the first college football series in prime time on broadcast--gives ABC the much-needed chance to appeal to young males with promotions for other programming. That is, if there is anything worth promoting to them. A glance at ABC's fall line-up--save for "Lost"--looks like males may desert the network in droves. From "The Bachelor" to "Dancing with the Stars" to "Extreme Makeover," it's not exactly ESPN.

But viewed from another perspective on the promotional front, women watch football, too--and ABC could use the Saturday game to remind them to rip the remote away from their NFL-hungry husbands watching the following night and switch to "Desperate Housewives" and the new "Brothers & Sisters."

With prime-time football back before it left, ABC looks to have a winner all around.

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