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Trench Warfare in the NFL

As the NFL season prepares to kick off this week, TV rights to the games themselves are being passed around like an old pigskin.

NBC snagged Sunday nights from ESPN, which took Monday nights from corporate sibling ABC. And the NFL Network is in the game for the first time, borrowing Bryant Gumbel from HBO and Cris Collinsworth from NBC.

With the NFL raking in $3.7 billion in annual rights fees from CBS, ESPN, Fox, NBC and DirecTV, Fox Sports Chairman/CEO David Hill predicts a vintage year. “You have [media] organizations at the top of their games,” he says. “The beneficiaries will be the football fans of America.”

For some networks, it could be a trophy year. For others, it could be a whole season of punting into the wind. Here are some pressing questions and answers.

Can Tony Kornheiser exorcise the ghost of Dennis Miller?

Saints running back Reggie Bush dazzled fans in his first pre-season game, but the most watched rookie this year is sportswriter/TV host Tony Kornheiser, now an analyst on Monday Night Football.

The Pardon the Interruption host is a favorite of sports fans and fellow media members, so many, even at rival networks, hope he can successfully carve out a role in the booth with Mike Tirico and Joe Theismann as ESPN takes over the Monday franchise for $1.1 billion per year.

“Tony is whatever you want to call him—sportswriter, columnist, whatever he is,” says Jay Rothman, who oversees production of MNF. “But he's not an X-O football analyst, and that's going to make us better.”

Judging by his early performances, Kornheiser aims to tweak Theismann.

The former quarterback is more than willing to fire back. “I don't believe in being a wilting flower,” he says. “I don't expect us to agree on every point: 'Boy, Tony, that's a great point.' 'Gee, Joe, that's a wonderful analysis of that play.'”

Kornheiser's first week drew mixed reactions, including a harsh review in his own Washington Post. Staff writer Paul Farhi said Kornheiser's debut “was enough to make one yearn for Dennis Miller.” Farhi said Kornheiser “mostly spluttered, typically emphasizing the obvious.”

On ESPN Radio, Kornheiser later called Farhi a “two-bit weasel slug” and suggested he'd like to run him over with a Mack truck.

Kornheiser had earlier met with Miller. The comic confided that, as an MNF rookie, he was being too scripted and not natural enough. Kornheiser debuts with goodwill from fans that Miller didn't have. But to succeed, he still has to be informed—and funny.

Will flexible scheduling really help NBC?

Al Michaels and John Madden are the marquee names highlighting the NFL's return to NBC. But the big question surrounds the effect of flexible scheduling on Sunday-night ratings. NBC Universal Chairman of Sports & Olympics Dick Ebersol boasts that NBC will have “the best schedule that any network has ever had,” thanks to its ability to request games 12 days ahead of time for seven of the last eight weeks, as opposed to a locked-in schedule set before the season.

Fox and CBS can each protect a total of five games in those seven weeks, but NBC knows it won't be stuck with a battle of last-place teams late in the season.

Ebersol points out that, over the last four Monday-night games in each of the past three seasons, ABC had only one matchup between two teams with winning records. “One mismatch after another cost them about 5% or 6% of their rating for the year and put them down to the lowest number they've ever had,” he says of last season. “We do not have that issue at all.”

Is flex scheduling the answer? ESPN's Rothman says it's not just about good matchups: “It's proven that, even in the monster games on paper, when those two numbers in the little score box are out of hand, the viewers are gone.”

While Kornheiser has gotten the early attention in the booth, NBC has a rookie-of-the-year candidate, too, in former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis. A fan favorite, the “Bus” earned journalistic kudos early on for saying on-air he didn't expect Steelers coach Bill Cowher to return after this season. The scoop irked Cowher. It thrilled Ebersol.

Can Fox's NFL Sunday capture ESPN's College GameDay magic?

James Brown left Fox for CBS, so Fox is giving double duty to lead play-by-play man Joe Buck and taking the show on the road. Fox's NFL Sunday will originate from the stadium parking lots of the top NFC game site each week, with Buck playing traffic cop for Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long and Jimmie Johnson. Fox hopes it captures the electricity that makes ESPN's College GameDay one of TV's best studio shows.

Pulling off a weekly road show is no easy task. “We are all scared about doing this, I'll be very honest, because, technically, it is very hard,” David Hill says. “It's sweaty armpits at two in the morning.”

While he says it is only “marginally” more expensive to do such a show, a network executive who handles football says the mobile program costs upwards of $250,000 per week.

Will you have the NFL Network on Thanksgiving?

The NFL passed up $400 million a year to keep the new Thursday-Saturday package on its NFL Network, but now it must ensure that fans can see the games. Beginning on Thanksgiving with the Denver Broncos versus the Kansas City Chiefs at 8 p.m. ET, the NFL Network will air eight games, But the NFL Network is only in 41 million homes, 27 million of those being satellite owners.

Among cable systems resisting the NFL Network is Time Warner, which wants to put the network on a sports tier. The NFL is launching an all-out blitz to spread the word that fans will miss games. Its latest move included flying NFL Hall of Famers to satellite retail outlets to push fans to leave their cable providers. Look for that game to go down to the wire.

That represents just one of the many battles that will play out this season—on the field, in the booths, and in the boardrooms. Viewers might just need a scorecard to keep the players straight.