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Network insists the game becomes an extravaganza

We like to think tonight's Patriots-Colts NFL opener (Ch. 5, 9 o'clock) is all about football. That concept will be put to the test when a tsunami of pop culture rolls into our living rooms during the pregame "NFL Opening Kickoff" show at 8.

The ABC pregame show is right out of the playbook for Super Bowl halftime fare; unless, of course, you're in the Mountain or Pacific time zones, where it will be shown as a postgame show.

The ABC presentation is all about maximizing ratings. ESPN did such a good job of making the Thursday opener into a Big Event two years ago that parent ABC Sports now is bookending opening weekend with two "Monday Night Football" telecasts that figure to draw strong ratings while dropping the often meaningless Monday night game in the final weekend of the season.

On the marketing side, it's about building the brands. Take your pick. The NFL, Gillette Stadium, the Patriots, and the Colts all are in the spotlight. Musically, in the hourlong pregame show, the spotlight is on the Boston Pops, Mary J. Blige, Toby Keith, Lenny Kravitz, Destiny's Child, Elton John, and Jessica Simpson. (To avoid a repeat of Janet Jackson's wardrobe "malfunction" during the Super Bowl halftime show, there will be a 10-second delay on the broadcast.) Surrounding it all are the telecast's "partners" -- Ameriquest Mortgage, Campbell's, Canon, Coors, Pepsi, Sony PlayStation, Gatorade, Gillette, and Visa.

Two segments in the pregame show are targeted at Patriots fans. The NFL and Patriots video crews had access to the private party at owner Robert Kraft's home this summer as the Super Bowl champions received their rings. "Seeing the players' enthusiasm and emotions as they receive their rings is something that will energize the fandom," said Charles Coplin, vice president of programming for the NFL.

The second part is the pregame ceremony to unfurl the Super Bowl banner.

"The Patriots have been totally cooperative in this venture, and, in many ways, Gillette Stadium is the star of the show. We've got three stages inside the facility and one in the parking lot so each act gets its own look," said Coplin.

Especially the Boston Pops, situated in the end zone adjacent to the lighthouse. The Pops will do two performances with Elton, then accompany Blige for the national anthem.

However, that's the pop culture pregame show.

If you want football as your pregame fare, the better bet is "NFL Countdown" (ESPN, 7-9 p.m.), which will originate from Gillette with host Chris Berman and panelists Tom Jackson, Michael Irvin, and Steve Young.

Voice of experience
By the time the pregame extravaganza ends, ABC will have shown us overhead shots from a high-definition camera and football fans will be begging Hank Williams Jr. to ask: "Are you ready for some football?"

We'll be begging for the game at that point. Seeing it in HD (all "MNF" games are in high definition) will be a plus, and there may even be a few shots from the Goodyear Blimp.

So will having a set broadcasting crew.

Al Michaels, now in his 19th season, is a constant, nearing 2,000 hours of prime-time play-by-play announcing with more than 1,000 of them in the Monday night booth. For all his tough-to-work-with reputation, he seemed to show great patience with sideline reporters Melissa Stark and Lisa Guerrero in recent years, even though neither turned out to be suited to the job. And he seems to have a smooth relationship with analyst John Madden, helping Madden retain his larger-than-life persona.

This season, Michaels (and producer Fred Gaudelli) have Michele Tafoya in the sideline reporter's role. She displayed not only competence but also an easy repartee with Michaels during ABC's NBA telecasts over the winter. It wouldn't seem that getting the sideline job done well would be so difficult, but ABC has tried and discarded Lynn Swann, Stark, Eric Dickerson, and Guerrero. Only Lesley Visser proved a perfect fit, and she was tossed out when Don Ohlmeyer blew up the cast for 2000, ousting her along with Boomer Esiason, and bringing in Dan Fouts, Dennis Miller, Stark, and Dickerson in a gambit to recapture the once-in-a-lifetime combustibility of Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, and Don Meredith.

A lot of us would rather that the Michaels-Esiason-Visser trio still was doing the games, but the M&Ms -- Michaels, Madden, Michele -- make a strong group. Like umpires, you don't want the broadcasters to get in the way, and this crew should be fine.

As Gaudelli said, "When Roone Arledge pioneered `Monday Night Football,' it was different. Obviously, we still try to be the best, but we can do a lot around the show, with Al and John talking national sports issues, or reflecting the times with music and entertainment."

Last year's ratings went up, from an 11.4 to an 11.5, reversing an eight-year trend. But it's telling that "MNF" was in the Top 10 (third place in 2003) among all prime-time shows for the 14th straight year.

Will the Patriots be overconfident? Madden tells the story of calling Patriots coach Bill Belichick during the offseason to congratulate him on winning a fourth Super Bowl ring. "As soon as I congratulated him, he said, `Did you ever see a worse defense than ours in the fourth quarter?' He was all worked up. So I don't think there's any chance of him or his team being satisfied."

Gasping for air time
It's safe to say that any media outlet that does sports in this market is trying to latch onto the Patriots.

* WBCN (104.1 FM): The Patriots' flagship station will do both pre- and postgame shows as usual, with new host Gary Tanguay. He'll be joined in pregame by the Globe's Ron Borges and former Patriot Pete Brock, and on the postgame by Brock and fellow ex-Patriot Tim Fox. Highlights of the pregame include a Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning piece, plus the Kraft family's address to the crowd and banner-raising ceremony. Gil Santos, who's tied with the Eagles' Merrill Reese as the deans of NFL broadcasters, calls the action for the 28th season alongside Gino Cappelletti (24th season).

* WEEI (850 AM): Boston's all-sports powerhouse will be broadcasting live from Foxborough from 2-6 p.m. with host Glenn Ordway and Patriots specialists Fred Smerlas and Steve DeOssie. Ted Sarandis follows live from 6-9 p.m., and, following the game, Smerlas, DeOssie, and Pete Sheppard are back live from midnight-3 a.m. on WEEI-FM (103.7 in Providence) and WVEI (1440 AM) in Worcester with "The Real Postgame Show." No 'EEI-AM? They'll be staying with the Red Sox-Mariners game from Seattle. WEEI also is the local home of Westwood One radio, and will have the option of carrying "Monday Night Football" and postseason games when there aren't local conflicts.

* Channel 5, the ABC affiliate, has the local coverage for the game. The WCVB staff, with Mike Lynch, Mike Dowling, and Bob Halloran, also does its own "SportsCenter 5" pregame special from 7-8 p.m.

* Channel 38: WSBK will do the Viacom (CBS) "New England Ford 5th Quarter" show following the game with the Bob Lobel-hosted crew getting ready for a season when CBS will carry 10 of the team's games.

(For the record: The Patriots will have three "MNF" games, 2 Fox games vs. NFC opponents, and one ESPN "Sunday Night Football" game).

* Fox Sports Net: Tonight, the 6:30 "New England Sports Tonight" show with Greg Dickerson and Michael Felger will air live from Foxborough. The "Mohegan Sun New England Tailgate" show follows at 7 with host Ordway, DeOssie, and Smerlas. * Channel 56: "Patriots Football Weekly" is back Saturday nights at 11 with Mike Ratte and PFW editor Fred Kirsch and staffers Andy Hart, Bryan Morry, and Paul Perillo.

* NECN: Former Patriots Brock, Steve Nelson, and Steve Grogan have started their fall schedule, working with NECN sports hosts Mike Giardi, Chris Collins, and Mark Ockerbloom.

* NESN: Tomorrow night's "Sports Plus" (8:30) will feature Borges and Fox sitting down with Lobel to recap and analyze the opener.

Bill Griffith's e-mail address is 

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