ABC football drop-kicks Lesley Visser

July 23, 2000|By Susan Reimer

So ABC's "Monday Night Football" has dumped the old girl and gotten itself a trophy wife.

In the network television version of a mid-life crisis, "Monday Night Football" producer Don Ohlmeyer has replaced veteran reporter Lesley Visser (age 46) with pretty young thing Melissa Stark (age 26).

Stark, a Baltimore native who works at ABC's sister network ESPN, will be doing those bite-sized interviews with players and coaches from the sidelines during timeouts and from outside the locker room at halftime.

Not exactly Edward R. Murrow stuff. But the change was part of a prescription Ohlmeyer hopes will improve the show's limp performance in the ratings.

Ohlmeyer called the age difference between the women a "non-issue," and I am sure that is true. Visser's age isn't the issue. Neither is Stark's.

The issue is the age of the viewers Ohlmeyer wants to attract: 18- to 35-year-old men with the money to spend on advertisers' products, the ones who have so heavily defected to professional wrestling on Monday nights.

He figures those guys don't want to be looking at Visser, no matter how good she is at what she does. They want eye candy.

I can hear him say it: "This is business, Lesley. Not personal."

And he'd be right. Youth sells in this country. There is a place of distinction for men graying at the temples, but women fade to invisibility as they age.

I am sure Melissa Stark, who went to the University of Virginia and has put in four years at ESPN, is competent. But she is also young, blonde and pretty, and she didn't get those credentials slogging through long, steamy days at NFL training camps. She is the latest in a lengthening line of perky, blonde sports babes.

Through all this, Visser is behaving like the dignified soon-to-be-ex-wife.

"It's a producer's privilege to recreate a broadcast," she told USA Today. "I loved 'Monday Night Football' and I wish them well."

She's still on the ABC Sports payroll, and I suspect she will have plenty of good assignments, at least until the network settles a $50 million age and sex discrimination suit filed last month by Donna deVarona, who was 52 when she was fired.

(I have to wonder: Might this be about Ohlmeyer's age, too? The guy is 55 years old and, according to his official biography, is currently separated from his wife of 22 years. Has anybody checked his parking space in the ABC lot? I'm guessing red sports car.)

Lynn Swann was unceremoniously dumped by the show two years ago, and it was probably because of his age. Nobody in the target demographic is old enough to remember his acrobatic Super Bowl catches with the Steelers in the late 1970s.

The garrulous Hall of Fame wide receiver knew his stuff, but he wasn't anything special to look at, so ABC replaced him with ... Lesley Visser.

(If there is an irony in Visser's replacement, it is this: She worked alone, but ABC is teaming Stark with Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson, undoubtedly to boost credibility.)

Television cares only for youth and beauty and does a laughable job of disguising its preferences. But what happened to Lesley Visser could happen to any of us anytime management scans the room and decides to freshen things up a bit.

I wonder what they will say when they come for me?

"We have been thinking this through," they might begin. "And we've decided we need to make a change.

"We are looking for someone with younger kids."

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