Miller points unneeded, thanks to Rams, Broncs

High-scoring game leaves booth satirist little room in debut

Commentary

September 05, 2000|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN SPORTS MEDIA CRITIC

If the blueprint of ABC officials was to begin to forge Dennis Miller's witticisms into the nation's weekly prime-time football ritual known as "Monday Night Football," they should consider adjusting the floor plan.

The talents of Miller, one of the country's brightest social commentators and satirists, was largely lost in last night's season premiere, not because of anything he said, but because the St. Louis-Denver game was too good for him to find a place to say.

With St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner and his Denver counterpart, Brian Griese, finding receivers seemingly at will, and the Rams' and Broncos' runners getting solid yardage, there was no need for entertainment.

Therein lies the paradox of adding admitted sports broadcasting neophyte Miller to the mix of longtime football telecast professionals Al Michaels and Dan Fouts in the booth.

When this year's Monday night games are good, there's really no need for Miller to be aboard. Fouts, who is essentially replacing Boomer Esiason, is talented enough to make the points that have to be made, with enough showmanship thrown in to keep things honest.

And if there are a spate of Monday night blowouts, as there have been in recent seasons, Miller's ability to draw laughs will be heartily welcomed by the audience, assuming, of course, there's anyone, outside the cities involved, who will want to watch a 35-14 game in the fourth quarter.

Miller mostly aped Fouts in his few first-quarter chances, but warmed to the task as the evening wore on, linking, for instance, Denver running back Terrell Davis and modern artist Christo in a reference to the amount of cloth needed to wrap one's ankles and to create the other's art.

By the second half, Miller was willing to challenge strategy and inject more of himself into the telecast, noting after Az-Zahir Hakim's second touchdown that the Rams and their speed more resembled the National Hot Rod Association than a football team and that the team should put Christmas tree lighting on its scoreboard.

Judging the success of this experiment after one week is folly, of course, but one certainty is that Miller's ability to find room around Fouts and Michaels, who does more analysis than any play-by-play man this side of Bob Costas, will be the key to this gamble.

While Miller's work in three exhibition games has been dissected, it's the plan's architect, producer Don Ohlmeyer, who deserves scrutiny for hatching what may turn out to be an ill-conceived plan.

Three months after Ohlmeyer's stunning decision to bring Miller into the "MNF" booth, the question of why still hovers over the project. Even coming off the lowest ratings in the 30-year history of the show, "Monday Night Football" ended last season as the third most-watched prime-time program.

Ohlmeyer, who produced "Monday Night Football" in the halcyon days of the show in the 1970s and early 1980s, left sports broadcasting 17 years ago to go first into production then to running the NBC entertainment division.

Last night's slickly packaged, over-produced telecast, what with live Super Bowl-style player introductions, and far too many ground-level replays, indicates that Ohlmeyer appears to be stuck in a mindset of giving viewers a production, rather than a football game.

Tellingly, ABC officials, namely Ohlmeyer, have been scampering in recent days to lower expectations about both Miller and "Monday Night Football" ratings.

Staring at three subpar exhibition ratings, Ohlmeyer noted that the "MNF" season would begin and end on holidays - Labor Day and Christmas - when viewing audiences are traditionally lower.

Add that to the fact that two games would air against Olympic programming, and Ohlmeyer practically conceded that ratings might not change significantly from last year. Given Miller's profession, the notion of making a big splashy switch and getting nothing from it would be pretty hilarious.

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