It's Quality Over Quantity for Michaels

Who were the best sports broadcasters in 1996?

In the category of commentators, John Madden and Pat Haden rank 1-2. Phil Simms is an up-and-comer, and Terry Donahue and Sam Wyche had solid rookie years.

Among studio hosts, Bob Costas had a good Olympics. Problem is, NBC didn't. James Brown, Greg Gumbel, Chris Berman and Mike Tirico deserve prominent mention in this category.

In the play-by-play category, Dick Enberg, Marv Albert and Pat Summerall rate highly. Vin Scully is still Vin Scully, the best announcer in baseball, and

Chick Hearn deserves an award for endurance. He will work his 2,900th consecutive game tonight when the Lakers play host to Boston.

But the overall choice for sports broadcaster of the year is ABC play-by-play announcer Al Michaels. He is smooth, prepared, straightforward and almost never makes a mistake. He works at his craft, and it shows.

Michaels, who has been with ABC since 1976, worked his first World Series in 1972 at 27, when he did play-by-play for the Cincinnati Reds. NBC used to use home-team announcers, so Michaels joined Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek.

Since then, Michaels has worked seven other World Series, three Super Bowls, five Olympics and this week completed his 11th season on "Monday Night Football."

These days, his visibility is lessened, since ABC no longer has baseball or the Olympics.

Michaels got into the business wanting to be an everyday baseball announcer, and still yearns to do baseball, his favorite sport growing up in Brooklyn and going to Ebbets Field with his father to see the Dodgers. Coincidentally, his family and the Dodgers moved to Southern California in 1958, and his love for baseball grew during his days at Hamilton High.

Now, recognition is no longer the driving force it once was.

"Sure, it's nice to have someone say something nice about my work, or to read something nice someone has written about me," he said. "But that really isn't what turns me on about my job. What turns me on is the electricity and the excitement surrounding any 'Monday Night Football' game. You feel it in the air. . . .

"I love the creative side of it, of working with everyone on the crew. And I'm not just talking about Frank [Gifford] and Dan [Dierdorf]. I'm talking about [producer] Kenny Wolfe and [director] Craig Janoff and all the behind-the-scenes people."

The "Monday Night Football" crew has one more game--Saturday's Minnesota-Dallas playoff game. Then they're off until next fall, although Michaels, as usual, will do some horse racing and other odds and ends for ABC.

That is, provided he signs a new contract with ABC. His old one, in effect since 1990, expires after Saturday's game.

"I don't expect to be going anywhere else," he said. "I can't imagine not doing 'Monday Night Football.' "

But wouldn't he like to work more?

"Sure, part of me would like to work more," Michaels said. "But it's not as important as it used to be. Another part of me enjoys the time off to spend with my family and friends. And play golf."

The ratings for "Monday Night Football" dropped from an average of 17.0 last year to a 16.2 this year, but it is still the fourth-highest rated series on television.

Michaels, a Brentwood resident, says his life is good.

"If only my golf game didn't stink," he said.

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It's 2,900 and counting . . . Some day, the epitaph may read: Broadcaster Francis Dayle "Chick" Hearn, who worked (fill in the blank) consecutive Laker games . . .

"If that's the way Marge [his wife] would want it to read, that would be OK," Hearn said. "I'm very proud of the streak, and Marge shares in that pride with me."

Hearn, who has been the voice of the Lakers since 1960, hasn't missed a game since Nov. 20, 1965, when bad weather grounded him in Fayetteville, Ark., after a USC football game. He came close to missing one in March 1994 before a bout of laryngitis cleared up just in time, and he came close again May 12, 1995, when he had to leave at halftime of a playoff game against San Antonio because of laryngitis. On that night, Magic Johnson was called up from his courtside seat to fill in for Stu Lantz, who moved over to do play-by-play.

TV-Radio Notes

Counting the four NFL playoff games this weekend, there will be 30 football games on television over the next seven days. Think that's enough? . . . It might be a mistake playing the national championship game on Jan. 2. A year ago, the Rose Bowl, a New Year's tradition, got a better rating than No. 1 Nebraska and No. 2 Florida in the Fiesta Bowl, 19.2 to 18.8. . . . ABC will use ESPN announcers Mike Patrick and Joe Theismann on Saturday's other NFL playoff game, Jacksonville at Buffalo. One reason is because Brent Musburger and Dick Vermeil have the Rose Bowl, which would allow them only two days to travel and prepare. . . . NBC and Fox have Sunday's NFL playoff games. . . . KLAC will offer radio coverage of the Rose Bowl, with Joel Meyers and Rick Walker, former Washington Redskin and UCLA tight end, announcing. . . . CBS will use Lou Holtz as a studio analyst during its coverage of the Sun, Cotton and Fiesta bowls.

NBC tried a movable Skycam, suspended on cables above the court, during the Detroit-Chicago NBA game on Christmas Day. Because of the wide-angle lens, the picture was distorted. It looked like something on public-access cable. It needs work. . . . For those who prefer Olympic history to football, Channel 4 is showing "The Wonders of Rome" Saturday at 1 p.m. The Brian Brown-produced show features five athletes from the 1960 Olympics: Rafer Johnson, Cassius Clay, Wilma Rudolph, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson.

The Nike Cup, a tennis exhibition on NBC at 2 p.m. Saturday, features John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier competing in a round-robin format. The event benefits the Tim and Tom Gullikson Foundation, which assists brain tumor patients and their families. Tim Gullikson died May 3 of brain cancer. . . . ABC offers another made-for-TV golf event Sunday at 1 p.m., the Wendy's Three-Tour Challenge, in which three-member teams from the PGA, Senior PGA and LPGA square off. The senior team of Jack Nicklaus, Raymond Floyd and Hale Irwin won last year. This year's Jack Nicklaus Productions event was taped a month ago at Lake Las Vegas in Henderson, Nev. . . . NBC won an Eclipse award for its coverage of the Breeders' Cup. . . . The season's best Christmas card came from Charlie Jones and Charlie Jones, the NBC announcer and the Charger rookie receiver from Fresno State who share the same name. Under a picture of the two was the inscription, "Separated at birth--together again--to wish you a merry Christmas."

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What Los Angeles Is Watching

A sampling of L.A. Nielsen ratings for sports programs Dec. 21-23.

SATURDAY

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Event Ch. Rating Share Pro football: New England at New York Giants 4 11.5 31 Pro football: New Orleans at St. Louis 11 8.7 22 Pro basketball: Lakers at Minnesota 9 6.9 15 Figure skating: Skating Challenge 7 4.5 10 Golf: Lexus Challenge 4 3.2 6 College basketball: UCLA at Illinois 2 2.8 7 Figure skating: Skate International 11 2.7 8 College basketball: Arizona at Michigan 2 2.5 7

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SUNDAY

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Event Ch. Rating Share Pro football: Dallas at Washington 11 17.0 38 Pro football: Minnesota at Green Bay 11 11.6 25 Pro football: Kansas City at Buffalo 4 10.6 23 Figure skating: Professional Championships 2 4.2 9 Golf: Lexus Challenge 4 3.5 8 Hockey: Kings at St. Louis 9 1.6 3

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Event Ch. Rating Share Pro football: Detroit at San Francisco 7 16.1 29

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Note: Each rating point represents 49,424 L.A. households.

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