Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Still Ready For Some Football

It occurred to me last night while watching ABC's goodbye to "Monday Night Football" that the generation that grew up in the 36 years the show has been on the air probably didn't understand all the hoopla.

After all, the only thing that's changing is the channel. Football will still be played on Monday nights next season, and it will still be televised, only now it will be on ESPN instead of ABC, with Joe Theisman sitting next to Al Michaels. Don't expect Hank Williams Jr. to ask next season, "Are you cable-ready for some football?"

All the reports mourned "the last over-the-air broadcast" of MNF, as if that matters anymore. Most of the nation's TV viewers have either cable or satellite and couldn't care less whether the content passes through a broadcast transmitter before getting to their house. For them, ABC and ESPN are merely channels in a multi-network universe, and the change won't keep football fans from watching the game (it may affect the casual fan, but that's not because of the hardware -- it's because of meaningless matchups like the Patriots and Jets last night, or ESPN's final Sunday night game this weekend between the Rams and Cowboys).

If it were all about technology, few people in St. Louis would have even seen "Monday Night Football" in the last decade, because the ABC affiliate here is a UHF station. A generation ago, that mattered, because UHF stations were hard to tune in -- you needed the skills of a safe-cracker to get the signal just right. But Americans under the age of 35 have no idea what VHF and UHF are, and have no memory of that weird loop antenna or the fine-tuning UHF knob on old TVs.

Yet, it's not really a generational matter. My mother is 81 years old, but she's had cable TV for three decades. Whether a show is on her local CBS affiliate or HBO or TCM is immaterial to her ability to watch it. Neither is the time it's on -- with her DVR, she watches what she wants, when she wants.

Having a TV show move from one channel to another isn't a big deal, either. "Law and Order" fans watch the show on both NBC and TNT without pausing for a moment to wonder about subscriber fees, distribution rates, etc. Tennis and golf fans understand that big tournaments air on USA during the week and CBS or NBC on the weekend.

And don't forget the millions of people who have bought DVDs of their favorite TV shows to enjoy again and again, or downloaded episodes of "Lost" and "Commander in Chief" from iTunes. They are loyal to the show, not the network.

Sure, ABC/NBC/CBS/FOX remain the most popular networks, because they've been around the longest and having the highest brand recognition. But just wait until "The Sopranos" returns to HBO in March. Wanna bet what will be the number one show that night?

Americans make viewing and listening choices based on content, not on some old-fashioned notion about who is delivering that content to them. Give'em the goods they want and they'll take'em, regardless of the route.