NBC gets Michaels, ABC a Disney original

Published February 10, 2006

It's hard to say who feels luckier today - Al Michaels, or a little-known cartoon rabbit named Oswald.

ABC and ESPN agreed to trade the rights to Michaels for, among other things, one of Walt Disney's oldest characters. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, created in 1927, is back with the other Disney characters at ABC's parent company, and Michaels, 61, has been safely reunited at NBC with his favorite football partners, including John Madden and producer Fred Gaudelli.

While Michaels' formal separation from Madden lasted mere days, Oswald - a black and white floppy-eared bunny bearing a suspicious resemblance to a famous mouse - had been "lost" to Disney almost since the beginning. Disney and partner Ub Iwerks created him at the request of Universal president Carl Laemmle and made 26 silent cartoons. When Disney realized Universal owned Oswald, he and Iwerks created the similar-looking Mickey.

ABC was willing to let go of Michaels, but only if it could acquire the rights to Oswald. NBC chairman Dick Ebersol said Disney had tried at various times to acquire Oswald and his cartoons from Universal, to no avail. Ebersol was more than happy to help make it happen, especially since he said the rights "have had no value in the United States."

Michaels, meanwhile, was a huge grab for NBC Sports. Ebersol said he regrets pressuring Michaels to make a decision about his football future in July, before the 2005 season started. After what Michaels said were many sleepless nights, he decided to stay with the Monday Night Football franchise in its move to ESPN.

"This was as tough a call as I've had to make," Michaels said. "It wasn't 80-20, it was 51-49."

As it became clear to Michaels in late fall that not only Madden but Gaudelli and director Drew Esocoff would be leaving MNF for NBC's new Sunday night broadcast, Michaels said he began to regret the decision. He said he made a "total front-door" approach to ABC about getting out of his new contract. He said he was unsure until a few days ago that it could happen.

ABC and ESPN quickly made other plans to replace him on next season's MNF broadcasts with Mike Tirico and Tony Kornheiser. In addition to the rights for Oswald, ABC/ESPN also asked for cable rights to the next four Ryder Cups, which Ebersol said it paid a fair market sum for, and more highlights from NBC's coverage of the Olympics.

Michaels, who has worked for ABC for 30 years, said his only regret is he will not finish the NBA season as ABC's lead announcer.

As for Oswald, Disney's not saying what, if anything, will be done with him. Can he coexist with Pixar? No matter; Walt's family reportedly is thrilled Disney president Robert Iger pulled off the trade.

"As the forerunner to Mickey Mouse and an important part of Walt Disney's creative legacy, the fun and mischievous Oswald is back where he belongs," Iger said Thursday.