HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” recently did a segment about Monday Night Football and its upcoming switch from ABC to ESPN, a move that would mark… the end… of an institution.

I don’t consider Monday Night Football to be an “institution” of the same significance as, say, an organized religion, or Congress, or marriage, or a university, but I’ll grant them that a change has occurred. An incredibly minor change, because while the Monday night game will be on cable, the Sunday night game will now be broadcast by NBC. By my math, it evens out.

Anways, at one point, Gumbel was interviewing one of the higher-ups in the company that owns ABC and ESPN, an up-and-comer called “Disney.” They were discussing the switch to cable, and the end of an institution and blah blah blahGumbel smugly asked this Disney exec, [I’ll try to get the exact quote from a rerun] You’re switching Monday Night Football to cable, what about the little guys who can’t afford cable? Is it tough luck for them, now that they have to pay for something they used to get free?

A few thoughts occurred to me:

First, an economic point: it’s imprecise to say that the little guys get broadcast TV for nothing. Businesses pay billions of dollars to broadcast networks and cable channels for advertising time, and they earn billions of dollars when the viewers buy the products they saw advertised. In other words, you indirectly pay for “free” TV when you purchase the stuff you see in the ads. The difficulty is that because it’s indirect, the signals from the viewer (buyer) to the networks (seller) can be difficult to interpret.

Then I thought Bryant Gumbel had a lot of nerve challenging this guy when Gumbel’s own show isn’t broadcast and isn’t even on regular cable—it’s on HBO. “The little guys” have to pay even more to watch Gumbel’s show than they would to watch Monday Night Football on ESPN. Is his show meant for the elite who can afford HBO, while Monday Night Football is simply to pacify the slovenly masses?

Gumbel’s questions implied that people are somehow entitled to watch Monday Night Football gratis—or they should be. If so, that’s a warped sense of entitlement. Is the NFL supposed to arrange a game between two teams with payrolls in the tens of millions of dollars, playing in a stadium worth hundreds of millions of dollars, over a television network worth billions of dollars—and broadcast it at zero cost to the viewer? Well, even at the supposed price of “free,” a lot of those viewers are evidently watching something else on Monday nights.

I’ve heard three types of response to these complaints so far:

1. “Oh, come on, you’re reading too much into Gumble’s questions; yes, it’s a business decision, but just admit that it sucks a little that Monday Night Football will be on cable now.”Maybe so. As long as you acknowledge that broadcast TV is not an entitlement, I will admit that I am reading too much into it.

2. “Why should the people who can’t afford cable have to suffer? Why should the rich guys be the only ones who get to watch Monday Night Football?” There’s the entitlement mentality at work. Not being able to watch football is not “suffering.” And when ABC is hemorrhaging $150 million a year because Monday Night Football’s ratings are terrible, the solution is to show it to more people who give you money and fewer people who don’t.

3. “Who cares?” I do, and you should, too. Hopefully this historic event of unsurpassable importance (the switch to cable) will mean the end of those Hank Williams, Jr. intros we’ve been suffering through for 16 years, and the end of those stupid halftime recap medleys by Cowpoke McBumpkin or whatever his name is.

This entry was posted on Saturday, December 10th, 2005 at 4:59 PM.

3 Responses to “Gumbel.”

  1. scrappy Says:
    December 10th, 2005 at 11:36 PM

It is the probably the change from Monday Night Football being a non-excludable good to an excludable good that has gotten a few people’s goats. People must not like it when they aren’t allowed the possiblity to free ride any longer (the ones that don’t buy what is advertised during MNF. The invisible hand (or is it the socially conscious bird?) noticed a bit of a deadweight loss being created by an overproduction of football on the public (publicly paid for and enjoyed)… the marginal cost was greater than the marginal benefit and now the market must creep back towards equilibrium.

I sure hope I got an A my economics exam.

  1. Vincent Viscariello Says:
    December 11th, 2005 at 1:34 PM

Ah! The economic analysis is strong with this one. Be careful of your use of the word “public,” because in econ it means “government-funded” or “taxpayer-funded.” Taxes don’t pay for MNF.

Either way, I am pleased enough by your post that I will buy you a beer on your 97th birthday.

  1. jmanpc Says:
    December 14th, 2005 at 8:52 PM

… and he’ll dig you up to assure that he gets his beer.