By Seth Arenstein Much of the country has just come out of an awful heat wave, but here we are talking about (OK, obsessing over) football (see "The Reality of Monday Night Football," this issue). We’re in good company. Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine have featured gridiron personalities on their covers for weeks. This season marks a first for cable. ESPN will carry the iconic Monday Night Football, which it reportedly paid more than $1billion to acquire, making it Bristol’s biggest purchase. For cable purists older than 50 it’s a watershed moment, more proof that the industry has arrived. For cable operators emotions are mixed. They’ll enjoy club seats and local avails, but will worry about possible rate increases. ESPN’s MNF strategy seems a simple matter of carpet bombing. The raids begin at 6 a.m. on Mondays, when ESPNRadio’s Mike & Mike in the Morning broadcast from the game’s host city, and continue throughout the day on all of ESPN’s platforms. As Paul Maxwell observes in his column in this issue, there’ll be no escape. There’ll certainly be plenty of carping if ESPN doesn’t grab strong ratings for a franchise that attracted 25 million viewers in 1994, but has fallen to the mid-teens. Yet Bristol’s dual revenue stream can handle low-ish numbers. Incidentally, ESPN says it’ll attract 25 million customers for MNF across all its platforms. NFL Network isn’t concerned with ratings for its late-season package of eight games, starting Thanksgiving eve. As of this writing, it’s in 40 million homes and isn’t Nielsen rated. Yet it’s not to be ignored, particularly by those who were wrong about NFL Net not being able to produce compelling product 24/7, 365. They’ll be more wrong this fall, as NFL Net has figured out how to beat the schedule and show the best games. NFL Replay (Tues., Wed., 8 p.m. ET) will let viewers for the first time watch four to five games after they’ve been played, in 90-minute versions, most in HD and enhanced with mics on select coaches and players. There will also be press conference excerpts spliced into the games. Need more? NFL Network’s acquired four college bowl games and Deion Sanders. No wonder we’re talking football already.

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