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Madden: Madden won't be asset for MNF

Saturday, March 02, 2002

As sports broadcasters go, Dennis Miller is intelligent, original and provocative. Dan Fouts is that rare former athlete who knows how to take his experience and make it aurally accessible to TV viewers without being condescending. For the past two years, Miller and Fouts combined with play-by-play guru Al Michaels to give ABC's "Monday Night Football" its best announcing team since the glory days of Frank Gifford, Don Meredith and the late, great Howard Cosell.

Their reward? Miller and Fouts got bounced from MNF this week. Replacing them is tired, cliched John Madden, freshly released from his Fox deal.

MNF's ratings dropped 9 percent last season, hitting an all-time low of 11.5 (each ratings point represents about 1.05 million homes). But Fox -- with Madden and mercifully ousted Pat Summerall as its showcase duo -- also saw its football ratings drop 4 percent, down to 10.2.

Television is a ratings game regardless of subject matter. Madden, despite his devolution into rancid self-parody, is still popular among football fans.

But do you always give the people what they (think they) want? Or do you try to challenge them? Cosell was reviled almost unanimously by the great unwashed during his 14 years with MNF. He was too smart for the room, too arrogant for the planet. But Cosell was different. He was edgy. And to this day, no one has ever been better at getting people to watch football on TV. Take that, jockocracy.

Miller's style is nothing like Cosell's. But, like Cosell, viewers loved Miller or hated him. Miller was never going to claim Cosell's throne as the king of MNF. But given time, Miller would have gained more football broadcasting experience and more knowledge of the sport. He could have carved out a unique, Cosell-like niche, perhaps as the voice of the fan.

Instead, he has been replaced by a familiar voice from Sunday afternoon that yells "Boom!" once in a while.

Not only is Madden not as interesting as Miller, he's no longer even as good as Fouts at being a meat-and-potatoes football color man. Madden screams the obvious over and over. Then he does it again. "Hey, look how big that lineman is! He's a big guy!" Gag me with a telestrater pen.

I don't see any logic in Madden's appointment aside from him being a so-called broadcasting legend. There's no way he appeals to a younger demographic. There's no way he brings any extra casual football fans on board for Monday nights. He doesn't upgrade the quality of the broadcast. Madden's only advantage is his name.

Then again, does Madden have a bigger name than Miller? In football, yes. In the mainstream, well, I'm not so sure. Miller's "other" career as actor/comedian attracted a different audience to MNF. Some say Miller chased away hard-core football fans. Rubbish. Hard-core fans don't care about the announcers. The game is enough for them.

Michaels likely is walking around with a big smile on his face. He always seemed uncomfortable with the idea of not being the coolest guy in the booth, and his interaction with Miller often came off as forced. Michaels always had to get in the last word during his exchanges with Miller, which seemed to intimidate Miller after a while.

Now Michaels has what he (thinks he) wants: an old-school football guy to do old-school football broadcasts with. But teaming with Madden will ultimately be bad news for Michaels. Miller and Fouts kept MNF broadcasts (and Michaels) sounding fresh. With Madden, Michaels will soon deteriorate into a cliche.

Michaels and Madden will have the advantage of being a two-man team, which allows for more individual brilliance than a three-man booth while minimizing clumsy cross-talk. They'll be spared the embarrassment of pitching to mush-mouth sideline reporter Eric Dickerson, who got canned along with Miller and Fouts. And, hopefully, they'll be spared the embarrassment of having to call a lot of bad football. Lousy games have hurt MNF's ratings more than anything else the past few years.

Madden will recite the stats. He'll know the X's and O's. He'll deliver the Madden persona and yell a lot more than necessary (not that there's anything wrong with that). Madden will come through with exactly what's expected.

You might call that comforting. I call it boring.

It's ironic. MNF became an American institution because Roone Arledge, MNF's original executive producer, realized that to maximize the broadcast's success, he needed to forget about the football business and go into the entertainment business. So Arledge got Cosell, he allowed the personalities of the broadcasters to mean as much as the game, and he used multiple camera angles along with many other innovations. Arledge made MNF into a TV show, not a mere football game.

Now, ABC is back in the football business on Monday nights.

I won't be watching.

Mark Madden's talk show is heard from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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