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Tuesday, 5 December 2006

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PHILADELPHIA -- ESPN's Monday Night Football dropped the ball Monday night as a series of celebrity interviews forced viewers to watch an entire quarter of action without the accompaniment of play-by-play or in-game analysis.

At the onset of the second quarter in last night's game between the Philadelphia Eagles and visiting Carolina Panthers, lead announcer Mike Tirico invited the stars of "The Bachelor: Rome" into the booth to join him and color commentators Tony Kornheiser and Joe Theismann.

While the camera panned the playing field, the ESPN broadcast trio exchanged pleasantries with "Bachelor" Lorenzo Borghese and his freshly-picked flame, Jennifer Wilson. The soul mates united during last week's season finale of the hit dating show on ESPN's sister network, ABC.

During the segment, which spanned nine minutes of regulation time, viewers saw, but didn't hear, the Panthers extend their first quarter lead by 14 points off a 48-yard Steve Smith touchdown reception and a 66-yard punt return touchdown by cornerback Chris Gamble. A controversial fourth down catch by Philadelphia's L.J. Smith that provoked a spirited instant reply challenge from Carolina head coach John Fox also went undetected and unexplained by ESPN.

The "Bachelor" stars left the booth with 5:45 remaining in the second quarter, an exodus that created a seat for Philadelphia native Will Smith, who joined the telecast moments later. The Oscar-nominated actor bounced his son Jaden on his lap as he spent the balance of the first half promoting his upcoming movie, "The Pursuit of Happyness." Smith was originally slated to join the booth in the third quarter, but a rescheduled flight to Miami forced the "Ali" star to leave the game at halftime, said Monday Night Football producer Jay Rothman.

"Hey, it's Will Smith," Rothman said. "We're going to make every possible effort to accommodate him here his hometown. Plus, we had (Philadelphia Mayor Ed) Rendell in the building to fill up any unused guest time in the third."

Some viewers felt snubbed by the lack of attention placed on in-game analysis and sensed that the unorthodox coverage added little to the enjoyment of the game (which Carolina won 30-14).

"I have no problem listening to 'The Bachelor,'" said Eagles fan Frank Zanetti, who watched the game from McFadden's restaurant near Lincoln Financial Field. "My wife and I watch the show together every week, but it didn't really have anything to do with the game and Tony (Kornheiser) wouldn't stop making jokes about how much better looking he is than 'The Bachelor.' It really got annoying when (Brian) Westbrook was down on the field for a few minutes and we had no idea how badly he was hurt."

"It wasn't the end of the world," said Wayne Kenny, who tuned in from Smokey Bones BBQ & Grill in Charlotte. "All of us at the bar could pretty much tell what was going on, but some information would have been nice on all the penalty flags and injury timeouts."

ESPN brass defended the nature of its telecast and maintained that the current cross-promotional format has achieved better-than-expected popularity.

"While we respectfully heed the concerns of football enthusiasts dissatisfied with last night's broadcast, ESPN believes that its courtship of the casual viewer will only enhance the Monday Night Football experience for the fans at home," said ESPN President George Bodenheimer. "And this season's ratings plainly illustrate our success in that effort."

This year's Monday Night Football ratings have nearly matched those of last season on ABC, an impressive feat for a cable program. The show has become the top weekly draw on cable television and scored a cable-record 12.8 rating for the October 23rd game between the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys.

Bodenheimer also praised the announcers' experience and expressed confidence in their ability to cut back to the game if anything "big" happened.

"Mike, Joe and Tony have continued to exhibit the highest degree of professionalism with nearly a quarter century of broadcasting experience among them," he said. "As our lead play-by-play man, Mike remained alert for any suspicious crowd uproar or press box commotion typically associated with game-altering plays."

Previous Monday Night Football in-booth guests have included late night host Jimmy Kimmel, hip hop impresario Jay-Z, actor Jamie Foxx, country star Hank Williams, Jr., NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. ESPN has already confirmed appearances by rapper Nelly and St. Louis Cardinals Manager Tony LaRussa for next Monday's Bears-Rams broadcast from St. Louis.

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