NEW YORK (AP) – NBC says its re-entry into the business of televising NFL football is not an admission that it was a mistake to walk away eight years ago.

“We never really regretted that decision, simply because of the price,” said Randy Falco, president of the NBC Universal Television Group. “It wasn’t because we didn’t think that it had value, it was just what we thought that it was worth.”

That 1997 call meant for some quiet weekends at NBC, and directly led to the one-year fiasco that was the XFL.

By contrast, NBC’s re-emergence as part of the National Football League package in a decision announced last week could be a bargain: If NBC successfully starts a new tradition, it could also halt an alarming slide in prime-time ratings.

Starting with the 2006 season, NBC will broadcast the Sunday night NFL game that in recent years was shown on ESPN. ABC has abandoned “Monday Night Football,” with that weekly game shifting to ESPN.

NBC is reportedly paying the NFL $600 million for the six-year contract for Sunday night football and two Super Bowls, compared to ESPN’s $1.1 billion price tag for Monday games (and no Super Bowls). In 1997, NBC decided not to spend $4 billion for eight years of American Football Conference games, a package that went to CBS and was renewed last week.

Football’s primary value to a network is bringing often-elusive young men to the TV set, a demographic group that advertisers like breweries desperately want. Games are also a strong promotional platform, industry lingo for bombarding viewers with ads showcasing your upcoming programming.

Football is a solid ratings performer, although not a match for giant prime-time hits like “American Idol” or “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”

NBC has no such hit on Sunday, traditionally the most-watched night of the week. Its fortunes darkened even further last fall when the sudden emergence of “Desperate Housewives” made Sunday a big night for rival ABC. So when the NFL quietly approached NBC executives about this deal last November, they listened with interest. Hits of any kind are scarce at NBC, which faces the possibility, even likelihood, of finishing in fourth place in the prime-time ratings this season for the first time ever.

“I’m not going to lie to you and say it didn’t have an impact,” Falco said. “If we were in a position with a very strong Sunday night, it would have been very hard for us to make the difficult call and say blow it up and make a new Sunday night.”

With ABC’s Sunday schedule particularly appealing to women, football is perfect counter-programming, he said.

NBC can take the moderately successful shows it now has on Sunday nights – “Crossing Jordan” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” – and plug them into holes in its schedule later in the week.

“Desperate Housewives” may have actually worked to NBC’s advantage by eliminating a competitor for Sunday night football. ABC would have been a lot more interested in football if it didn’t already have a hit lineup on Sundays. CBS and Fox were less likely bidders because they have major parts of the football package on Sunday afternoons.

The Sunday night package gives NBC four hours to sell prime-time advertising time, which costs more than it does in the afternoon.

The Sunday games will start shortly after 8 p.m. on the East Coast, and NBC will precede them with an hourlong pregame show.

Since it’s Sunday, the games won’t disrupt NBC’s profitable weekday schedule of late-night programming with Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien. That wouldn’t be the case on Mondays, where the games often stretch past midnight in the East.

“We could never do ‘Monday Night Football,'” Falco said. “It was never a real option for NBC.”

The NFL also offered NBC the chance for flexible scheduling in the final seven weeks of the season. In other words, the network could abandon a previously scheduled game if it turned out the two teams involved were losers playing out the string and take a game with playoff implications instead.

It was primarily that feature and its promise of higher ratings that led Goldman Sachs to endorse the deal in a report to investors in General Electric, NBC’s parent company.

NBC’s deal is by no means a guaranteed 60-yard touchdown pass. Imagine the domestic quarrels it could spark: Will female fans of “Desperate Housewives” who have surrendered the TV remotes to their husbands for a full afternoon of football be willing to do the same in prime time? And how does NBC fill those four hours when the season is over?

Andy Donchin, a television analyst for the ad buying firm Carat USA, said he can’t see how any of the networks involved will actually make money on football. But it’s a prestige deal for NBC that will likely boost audiences for their other shows, he said.

Football can make a huge difference in a close ratings race. ABC, Fox and NBC are all within 300,000 viewers of each other now in the race for second place behind CBS in the prime-time standings, according to Nielsen Media Research.

“All they need is one, maybe two shows and they could be back on top,” Donchin said.

Falco is looking forward to being back in the game. Particularly on Super Bowl Sundays, traditionally television’s biggest day of the year, it was tough being on the sidelines every year, he said.

Or, in his case, away from the sidelines.

“I think I’ll be able to take my kids to the Super Bowl again,” he said.

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