There may be a few souls out there who are genuinely surprised that ABC tossed Frank Gifford out of the "Monday Night Football" booth for Boomer Esiason, but they would be the same folks who haven't received the memo about the Easter Bunny.
Nope, what ABC did to Gifford is what a lot of Americans do when the car they've driven for years or the spouse they've lived with and raised kids with for decades no longer looks attractive: They trade him in for a new model.
This sort of thing happens all the time in big business, but especially in sports television. NBC, for instance, has made a habit of kicking seemingly perfectly serviceable analysts to the curb for a flashier model, most recently taking advantage of the Marv Albert imbroglio to bounce his partner, Matt Guokas, off the No. 1 NBA team, for Isiah Thomas.
Merlin Olsen got pushed aside, once upon a time, for Bob Trumpy, and Trumpy subsequently got knocked off for a procession of hot coaches like Bill Walsh and Bill Parcells, who just needed to let their ardor for the game cool off a bit until they got restoked, leaving NBC looking for the newest flavor of the month.
And don't think for a moment that it couldn't happen to someone else, even a person as solidly entrenched as, say, John Madden. Sure, Fox just gave him a five-year contract, but if there was a new guy that they couldn't live without or if Madden showed signs of slippage, the network would have no trouble booting him off the No. 1 team.
Now, that's not to say that Gifford didn't deserve to go. The former New York Giants great, who has been with the show for all but the first of its 28 years, provided yeoman's service in the early days of "MNF," acting as the sensible center surrounded by the likes of "Dandy" Don Meredith and Howard Cosell.
After Cosell and Meredith left and as "Monday Night Football" stumbled around to find its way, Gifford again was the calm in the storm, until the current trio, which includes Al Michaels and Dan Dierdorf, was assembled in 1987.
And while "MNF" has consistently been ABC's highest-rated show in recent years, and has been in the top 10 for eight straight years, placing in the top five the past three seasons, Gifford hasn't had much interesting or new to say for quite some time.
Gifford's recent marital difficulties, not to mention Esiason's youth and glibness ("I am a good sound bite and I pack a lot into my sound bite"), and the fact that CBS was prepared to go after the former Cincinnati quarterback made Gifford expendable.
Oddly enough, Gifford's wife, Kathie Lee, whose daily talk show makes gobs of money for Disney, ABC's parent company, may have kept the network from completely bouncing Gifford off "Monday Night Football," as she recently issued a not-so-thinly-veiled threat to leave her show if he didn't return to "MNF."
Frank Gifford will be the host of an abbreviated pre-game show but privately was said to have wanted to return to the booth. That, of course, didn't stop ABC from attempting to spin the activities as if everything was happening just the way Gifford wanted. Don't you believe it.
Meanwhile, in one of the most interesting sidelights to the whole Gifford affair, er, debacle, ABC, in a move that runs counter to its normal mode of staying away from controversy, took extraordinary pains Sunday to rebuke Madden.
On a conference call to introduce Esiason, a network spokesman accused Madden and his agent, Barry Frank, of "campaigning in the press" for a slot on "Monday Night Football," referring to a recent USA Today story in which a source, believed to be Frank, said Madden had always wanted to do "MNF" and would settle for less money than he was making from Fox.
"We turned down John Madden. We have the team that we want. We can't be pressured into making a decision. We got what we needed," said Mark Mandel, an ABC spokesman.
The 10 most-watched sporting events in the Baltimore area last weekend:
Event ........... Day ... Ch. .. R/S
Rockets-Bulls ... Sun. .. 11 ... 7.1/16
Pacers-Celtics .. Sun. .. 11 ... 6.1/14
Skating ......... Sat. ... 2 ... 5.4/12
Champ. Chase .... Sat. ... 2 ... 4.7/10
Golf ............ Sun. .. 11 ... 4.6/9
UCLA-Stanford ... Sat. .. 13 ... 4.0/9
Skating ......... Sun. .. 45 ... 3.3/7
Clemson-Duke .... Sat. ... 2 ... 2.4/7
Skiing .......... Sat. .. 11 ... 2.4/7
NHL pre-game .... Sun. .. 45 ... 2.4/6
Pub Date: 1/20/98