Why ESPN’s Manning experiment was a big success. And Dolphins-Bills getting small audience

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If ESPN hoped to simulate the experience of watching a football game with your knowledgeable, wise-cracking buddies — the guys who really are smarter than everyone in the room — then the network’s Manning brothers presentation of 10 “Monday Night Football” games on ESPN2 this season can already be deemed a rousing success.

Monday’s debut was compelling television, thanks to the chemistry between brothers Peyton and Eli, their superb knowledge of strategy, their wit (Eli’s deadpan sense of humor was a wonderful surprise) and a strong collection of guests, particularly Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who helped the Mannings dissect the fourth quarter and overtime of the Raiders’ overtime win against Baltimore.

As a coach would say, there are things to clean up. Peyton Manning spoke too quickly and too often in the early minutes. They went overboard mimicking presnap quarterback calls and spewing the type of football jargon that’s common in coaching clinics and team meetings but not the type of thing a typical viewer wants to hear repeatedly.

Peyton Manning — who instantly would be among the best game analysts in sports television if he decided to become a traditional one — must curb his penchant for punctuating most of his comments with the verbal tick “Right?” And ESPN2 should never shrink video of the game to less than three-quarters of the screen.

But for most of the night Monday, this was TV gold.

There was Peyton admonishing Raiders fans for being too noisy when their team had the ball. “They need to shut up and let [Derek Carr] call the play!”

During Ray Lewis’ second-quarter guest appearance, there was Eli recalling his 4-for-18, two-interception game (a zero passer rating) as a rookie against the Ravens and explaining “how hard it is to have a zero rating. You just can’t just go 0 for 10.”

There was the good-natured kidding between the brothers; Eli told Peyton “it looks like you sprayed PAM [cooking spray] on your forehead.”

There was Peyton cracking that it’s “so hypocritical to talk about running quarterbacks because we never did it. We don’t know anything about it.”

There was the amusing story that Peyton shared about once asking the league office for the address of a referee so Peyton could write him a note apologizing for yelling at him for a penalty, but the league office refusing to give it to him because they thought “I was going to egg his house.”

There was the revelation from the brothers about how few coaching adjustments — if any — actually get made at halftime.

There was Peyton, fed up, saying: “Memo to the Ravens: You don’t play zone well. Stop playing it!”

There was Eli — who’s particularly entertaining when he’s exasperated — justifiably criticizing Carr for using a hard count on a goal-line play — leading to an illegal motion penalty: “That’s what we told you not to do!”

And there was Eli in disbelief when the Raiders were going to call a timeout before a potential game-winning field-goal attempt by their own kicker, only to realize they didn’t have a timeout left. “They’re going to ice their own kicker! Brilliant!”

Peyton is the star, but Eli was the delightful surprise of the night. On his own, Eli would be worthy of at worst a third analyst spot on CBS or Fox, with potential for more.

They called Monday’s first game from different rooms in a New York studio and will be separated for the final nine games — with Eli announcing from his home in New Jersey and Peyton from a friend’s property in Denver.

They’re working the next two “Monday Night Football” games (Lions-Packers, Eagles-Cowboys) and then seven other games to be determined.

Why don’t the Mannings do all the games from the stadium? Peyton has said he doesn’t want to take on that level of travel and time commitment.

Their broadcast — which assuredly will take some viewers from the traditional ESPN presentation with Steve Levy, Brian Griese and Louis Riddick — “is kind of like you are watching the game at a bar and me and Eli show up and watch the game with you,” Peyton said recently. “We are not going to be in a booth. With my forehead and my neck, I couldn’t fit in a booth. I can fit on my couch at home and Eli can be on his couch.”

ESPN executive Lee Fitting said last week that “we’re looking to do something different with Peyton and Eli. That feeling is mutual. It’s pretty clear that if Peyton or Eli wanted to be in a booth, they probably would have been in some booth at some network by now.

“But they’re excited to do something like this that’s more casual, more conversational, two brothers talking ball as if they’re sitting in a living room or basement together where they can bring guests in and friends in and former teammates and current players and ex-players in.”

The grand experiment worked splendidly in Week 1, with a few kinks. At the very least, it’s absorbing, unique television, and there’s always a place for that.

FYI: Of the 15.3 million viewers for Ravens-Raiders on ABC/ESPN/ESPN2/ESPN Deportes, 800,000 of those were watching the Manning brothers presentation on ESPN2. It was MNF’s most watched opening-week game since 2013.

AROUND THE DIAL

Dolphins-Bills is as good as any of the seven games on Fox’s NFL schedule this week. But on a singleheader Sunday for the network, Fox is sending the game to just 4 percent of the country (Miami-Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and parts of upstate New York).

Most of Florida — including Fort Myers/Naples and Orlando — will get Atlanta-Tampa Bay instead. Brandon Gaudin and Matt Millen, the network’s emergency eighth NFL announcing team, will call the Dolphins game, which was moved from CBS to Fox to balance the network schedules.

Fox believed there was more interest in the game featuring Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champions than any of the other games on its schedule, including Dolphins-Bills.

Fox is sending Falcons-Buccaneers to 25 percent of the country, San Francisco-Philadelphia to 22 percent, Rams-Colts to 17 percent, New Orleans-Carolina to 14 percent, Cincinnati-Chicago to 10 percent and Minnesota-Arizona to 7 percent.

Fox, frankly, has no reason to create exposure for a Dolphins-Bills game that ordinarily would be part of CBS’ AFC package.

As part of flex scheduling, if CBS loses a game to Fox, then Fox must get a game from CBS. These decisions are made by the league, not the networks themselves.

On Sunday, because CBS has the doubleheader, the NFL took the attractive Dallas-at-Chargers game from Fox and gave it to CBS as a game to be seen in most of the country in the 4:25 p.m. window. Fox was given the Dolphins and Bengals games that would traditionally be on CBS.

Raiders-Steelers and Patriots-Jets are CBS’ most attractive 1 p.m. games on Sunday.

Dolphins-Bills is available anywhere in the U.S. on DirecTV’s Sunday Ticket package. DirecTV’s contract for those out-of-market games runs through 2022, and Amazon and Disney are among those reportedly with interest in securing Sunday Ticket in 2023 and beyond.

Incidentally, Sunday’s Dolphins-Patriots game on CBS was viewed in 13.2 percent of Miami-Dade/Broward homes with TV sets, a small increase over past years but not great compared with other NFL markets.

Former South Florida sports radio personality Jorge Sedano, a staple on ESPN’s NBA coverage, is expanding his duties to include NFL and college football play-by-play on ESPN Radio.

He’s the latest former Miami radio talk show host to try play-by-play, following Jon Sciambi, Bob Wischusen, Phil Schoen and others.

Another South Florida alum — former Fox Sports Florida Marlins host Allison Williams — announced she’s not working her ESPN college football sideline gig this season because she declined to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Throughout our family planning with our doctor, as well as a fertility specialist, I have decided not to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at this time while my husband and I try for a second child,” she said.

But U.S. surgeon general Vivek Murthy said recently that “there is absolutely no evidence that the vaccine has an impact on your fertility, whether you are a man or woman. We have seen many people actually get pregnant after they get the vaccine. We have seen many people who’ve gotten the vaccine during pregnancy and done very well.”

“Highly Questionable,” Dan Le Batard’s former TV show, ended its 10-year run on ESPN on Friday. It’s surprising, in a sense, that the program continued for nine months after Le Batard and ESPN parted ways. Another incarnation of the program, with a new name, will move to ESPN’s streaming service.

Max Kellerman — who parted with Stephen A. Smith on ESPN’s “First Take” — this week took over the 2 p.m. weekday slot on ESPN with his new show, “This Just In.” He also took over hosting of ESPN Radio’s morning show with Keyshawn Johnson and Jay Williams.

Smith told a New York radio station that “the rumors are accurate in terms of me wanting [Kellerman] off the show. Let’s get that out of the way.” Smith said he likes Kellerman personally but the chemistry wasn’t there.

“Sometimes it just stalls,” Smith said. “And the audience lets you know that it is what it is, and you feel the need for something fresh, you feel the need to retool. ... It’s not like I wanted the guy to be fired or anything like that. I knew that there were landing spots for him available at this network that would generate just as much, if not more, revenue for him and all of that other stuff. It wasn’t really about asking him to be off the show. It was about the fact that we, together, as far as I was concerned, was not a great partnership anymore, and that was something that needed to change.”

On “First Take,” ESPN now will pair Smith with a different sparring partner every day, with Michael Irvin a regular on Mondays and Tim Tebow on Fridays.

ESPN’s Todd McShay — the draftnik and college football sideline reporter — is taking a leave of absence to focus on his health. Besides dealing with the effects of a bout with COVID-19 last year, McShay also has been dealing with an undisclosed medical issue.

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