Firings show ABC desperate to put pizzazz in `Monday Night'

MEDIA WATCH

March 10, 2000|By Milton Kent

Have you noticed how big 1970s nostalgia has gotten these days? Bell bottoms are back, the Afro hairstyle is in vogue, and you can't get away from Scooby-Doo, no matter how hard you try. Even Steely Dan crawled out of a time warp last week, releasing its first album in 20 years.

Apparently, the relatively new regime at ABC Sports is reelin' in the years, too, what with Wednesday's shocking announcement that the "Monday Night Football" booth and production truck would be virtually swept clean for next season.

Howard Katz, the division's president who cut his television teeth in the early 1970s in the "MNF" truck, tossed out former Maryland quarterback Boomer Esiason, 12-time Emmy winning director Craig Janoff and producer Ken Wolfe, a five-time Emmy winner.

Katz replaced Wolfe with Don Ohlmeyer, the producer who rode herd over "Monday Night Football" in those early, wild and woolly days when Frank Gifford, Don Meredith and Howard Cosell squawked, sang and cajoled their way into the nation's consciousness, making the show a cultural phenomenon.

Ohlmeyer said he and former director Chet Forte used to use Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" as a model of what "MNF" needed to be, the kind of show that people were afraid to go to bed and miss.

"That kind of unpredictability and danger were there," Ohlmeyer said. "That was something as a fan I would feel was missing watching `Monday Night Football' [now]."

But Ohlmeyer, who once decried having to carry the World Series when he headed the entertainment division at NBC in the 1990s, said he has no interest in trying to re-create what was.

"We can't bring Howard back from the grave, and we can't bring Don back from Santa Fe," Ohlmeyer said. "What we're saying is, `Is there another version of what happened in the '70s that can happen today?' "

The evidence suggests not. Hardly anyone would argue that "Monday Night Football" is the ratings behemoth it used to be. Indeed, last season's 13.7 rating and 23 share were down 1 percent from the previous season, and made for the lowest "MNF" ratings of all time.

Yet, the show likely will finish the season ranked in the top 10 of all prime-time shows, and will be either one of the two most watched ABC shows, supplanted only by "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?"

At the same time, both football and television have changed considerably since the gravy days of "Humble Howard," "Giff" and "Dandy Don."

For instance, while such characters as Alex Karras, Fred "The Hammer" Williamson" and O. J. Simpson were part of the Monday night experience, Katz and Ohlmeyer will choose from a list of analysts that is likely to be topped by former coaches Jimmy Johnson, Dick Vermeil and Bill Parcells.

Yawn.

When "MNF" was in its heyday, there were only CBS and NBC to compete with, and CBS provided the only serious competition. Today, there are three more networks, Fox, UPN and WB, to contend with, not to mention cable, where professional wrestling routinely takes a huge chunk of the young male viewership that used to flock to football.

Then, too, the NFL as a whole -- because of free agency or bland leadership -- is largely bereft of the larger-than-life characters and strong rivalries that regularly inhabited and dominated Monday night in the 1970s.

Who can forget director Forte's shot of a full moon, dissolved into a shot of the bald pate of Raiders tackle Otis Sistrunk, with steam rising from it, or the night John Lennon and a pre-presidential Ronald Reagan showed up in the booth unscheduled? You don't see much of that anymore, do you?

Of course, none of that has anything to do with the brilliant work of Janoff, Wolfe or even Esiason, who was largely critically panned. Yet they were sacrificed, proving once and for all that football, and particularly "Monday Night Football," is more about entertainment than the game.

College corner

The oncoming March Madness is going to be a little less mad, with the announcement this week that Al McGuire won't be a part of CBS' NCAA men's basketball tournament coverage.

McGuire, the former Marquette coach who teamed in the '70s with Dick Enberg and Billy Packer to form the best three-man announcing team in any sport, said he would retire immediately, a consequence of the anemia that he has battled in recent years.

The oft-wacky McGuire, who has hinted for years that he would retire from broadcasting, matched strategic brilliance with a zest for the game and for life, and his presence will be sorely missed.

James Worthy will work with Enberg during the tournament. Other top CBS tournament teams include Packer working with Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery paired with Verne Lundquist, and Gus Johnson and Dan Bonner.

Tournament coverage begins at 6: 30 p.m. Sunday, when CBS (Channel 13) and ESPN will present the men's pairings, though, technically, CBS will have them a second or so earlier. ESPN will have the women's pairings all to itself at 5 p.m. Sunday.

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