On March 8, ABC's Monday Night Football told color commentator
Boomer Esiason to, in effect, "turn out the lights, the party's
over" after two years on the show. Esiason's firing from TV's
second-longest-running (30 seasons) prime-time program was
closely related to MNF's Nielsen ratings. In 1998, Esiason's
rookie season, MNF did an alltime-low 13.9 rating. Last year it
sunk further, to 13.7.
Whether Esiason, who first teamed with Dan Dierdorf and Al
Michaels and last season worked only with Michaels, should have
been the scapegoat for MNF's decline was last week's news. This
week's topic is, What must ABC do to restore the telecast to its
Cosellian heights? A few suggestions:
1) Get Over the 1970s. Disco is dead. So are Howard Cosell, major
network hegemony and marquee rivalries such as Cowboys-Redskins
and Raiders-Steelers. Cable television not only provides viewers
more choices but also has dulled the specialness of a televised
weeknight pro sports event. ABC was thinking retro last week when
it named Don Ohlmeyer, who produced MNF in the '70s, to do so
again next season. He'll be hard-pressed to duplicate the buzz
MNF had then.
2) Drop Hank Williams Jr. and all his rowdy friends. Like the
theme for SportsCenter, the old MNF instrumental anthem was a
goose-bump-evoking classic. Bring it back.
3) Don't set the schedule in stone. "When you go back and take a
look at it," says ESPN Sunday Night Football color man Paul
Maguire, assessing 1999's Monday night slate, "they had some
awful games. You can only do so much with two bad teams." The
NFL would only help itself by giving MNF flexibility in
selecting its games, a possibility that the league is pondering.
4) In the booth, three's company. "When you're doing a major
game, it is imperative that you have three guys to play off of
one another," says Maguire, who for the past two seasons has
worked with play-by-play man Mike Patrick and co-analyst Joe
Theismann. O.K., but who? What MNF must do is...
5) Court candor. In the days following Esiason's dismissal, John
Elway, Dan Marino, Bill Parcells and Steve Young (who was still
deciding whether he'll play in 2000) were prominently mentioned
as being among Boomer's possible replacements. No, no, no and
no. All are future Hall of Famers, but none has anything
provocative to say. Our short list would include Jimmy Johnson,
who is not afraid to be critical and is naturally entertaining.
Tom Jackson and Sterling Sharpe, former jocks now working as
studio hosts for ESPN, also deserve a serious look. Sharpe,
who's more outspoken and has, well, more sex appeal than
Jackson, might play better to the MNF audience.
Finally, there's the affable Maguire. Entering his 30th season of
NFL broadcasting, Maguire is largely responsible for the terrific
chemistry in the ESPN Sunday night booth. Has anyone recommended
him? "Not that I know of," he says. "I might've recommended me,
but nobody else has."
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