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Mouse pulls Rabbit out of NBC’s hat

Toon character's rights traded for Michaels

Al Michaels, one of the top NFL sportscasters, was in effect traded from ESPN to NBC for the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

Announcing in a conference call that Michaels has signed to do the play-by-play for NBC’s new “Sunday Night NFL Football” package beginning this fall, NBC Universal Sports and Olympics chairman Dick Ebersol said the net wanted some concessions in exchange for letting Michaels out of his eight-year contract with ESPN.

The weirdest of these was Oswald, a cartoon character that Disney prexy-CEO Bob Iger calls “the forerunner to Mickey Mouse and an important part of Walt Disney’s creative legacy.”

Ebersol said he contacted Ron Meyer, president of Universal Studios, with a “you’re not going to believe this” phone call. Lawyers for NBC U and Disney got to work on the Oswald deal, wrapping it up earlier this week.

And Michaels is apparently worth a lot more than just Oswald. To get Disney to tear up Michaels’ contract, NBC has also had to hand over to ESPN the cable rights to one of the big golf events, the biennial Ryder Cup, which ESPN will get every two years beginning in 2008. NBC keeps the broadcast rights to the Ryder Cup but will allow ESPN to rerun NBC’s coverage, as well as get extended highlights to the NBC telecasts.

Oswald is “something I had no idea about,” Ebersol said. “Apparently, Walt’s first really big production for the cinema was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. But Walt ended up losing the rights to another cartoonist,” Walter Lantz (“Woody Woodpecker”). Disney produced 26 cartoons featuring the hyperactive rabbit before Lantz took over, going on to produce another 169 for distribution by Universal Pictures through 1943.

In recent years, Ebersol said, “Oswald has had no value in the U.S. We’re earning nothing from it.”

“But Oswald is worth far more than a fourth-round draft pick,” said Michaels on the conference call.

Other goodies NBC has funneled to ESPN include expanded video highlights of the Winter Olympics from Turin starting today, along with all of the future Winter and Summer Olympics through 2012. Ebersol said this clause was a no-brainer because the ESPN highlights could prove a benefit as cross-promotion for the NBC coverage.

Expanded highlights for ESPN will also apply to such NBC-owned sports events as Notre Dame football games, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.

NBC has also pledged to use its Sunday-night NFL showcase to schedule a video promotion for ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” game each week throughout the season.

After 20 years as the main anchor of the Alphabet’s “MNF,” Michaels will rejoin his “MNF” analyst John Madden, who signed last summer to do NBC’s Sunday NFL games. Also moving to NBC’s Sunday games is Fred Gaudelli, the longtime executive producer of “MNF.”

The co-hosts of NBC’s pregame “Football Night in America” studio show are Bob Costas and Cris Collinsworth.

Michaels and Madden make their NBC debut Aug. 6 for the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame Game. Peacock’s NFL package calls for 16 regular-season Sunday primetime games and the Super Bowl in 2009 and 2012. Also in the deal are each season’s “NFL Kickoff” Thursday game, two postseason Wild Card games and three preseason games in primetime.

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