The impending move of “Monday Night Football” from ABC to ESPN provides a sharp reminder that the millions of viewers who can’t afford cable or satellite TV are increasingly outcasts in the television world.

Free TV isn’t disappearing. It still has big events, the country’s most popular prime-time programs, and local news that cable networks can’t match.

But fare like movies and sports, two of the big reasons many people watch TV in the first place, have largely migrated to pay services, and there’s little chance they’ll return.

Once upon a time, movies were an anchor of free television. Today, broadcast TV is a ghost town for movies, and to add insult to loss, many of the cable networks that promised to show those movies without commercials now cram them full of ads.

Unless, surprise, you pay yet more money for “premium” channels like HBO.

Then there’s sports.

A hometown baseball or basketball game on free TV today is a novelty. The Olympics are to a large degree a cable event. So are most playoff games.

The broadcast networks periodically say the biggest mass-appeal events, like the Super Bowl and World Series, will remain free. Probably true. But not long ago, “Monday Night Football” and baseball playoffs were considered to be on that level.

Obviously, many factors are at work here. Cable networks have tens of thousands more hours of available airtime, and thus can carry programs that would be a luxury to broadcast networks.

But pay-TV services have also worked hard to position themselves as a basic utility of American life, like water or electricity. The reason 66 percent of U.S. households subscribed to cable in February and another 19.2 percent had satellite is not just the additional choices. To most people, 90 percent of those choices are clutter.

It’s because more and more of the programs they do want to watch are now in a place where they must pay to get them.

It’s ironic that television, probably the single biggest entity that draws us all together, is increasingly exclusionary to those who won’t or can’t pay $10-$40 a month to belong.

David Hinckley:

(c) 2005, New York Daily News.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-04-20-05 0923EDT

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