Two of the biggest names in the sport--"Monday Night Football” and John Madden--were paired in a blockbuster deal announced Thursday that reshapes the football broadcasting landscape and ends ABC’s failed two-season experiment with comedian Dennis Miller.
Luring Madden from Fox to work alongside play-by-play announcer Al Michaels was followed by a wholesale shake-up at “Monday Night Football”: Miller is out, along with commentator Dan Fouts and sideline reporter Eric Dickerson. The moves mark the network’s latest attempt to restore the show to its former stature.
For ABC, Madden may be the key to turning around its ratings. While it remained the network’s top-ranked program, ratings for “Monday Night Football” have steadily declined to their lowest in the show’s 32-year history. The show averaged 16.8 million viewers a week for the most recent season, down from 18.5 million the year before and 19.4 million in 1999, before Miller arrived.
“There is only one John Madden and he’s now part of ABC Sports,” said Howard Katz, president of ABC Sports. “I expect the ratings are going to be affected positively.”
The hiring of Madden comes as all the major networks face significant financial difficulties with the fees they are struggling to pay for costly sports rights. Several networks have written off massive financial losses on their investments--in ABC’s case, a commitment to the NFL of $4.4 billion over eight years--made even more severe by a downturn in the advertising market and poor ratings.
Experts say the hiring of Madden, the former Oakland Raider coach widely considered the top football analyst for more than two decades, harks back to the show’s heyday, when a larger-than-life personality named Howard Cosell ruled the booth.
“Madden certainly brings the cachet that is consistent with ‘Monday Night Football’s’ image,” said Jack MacKenzie, a senior vice president for the television research and consulting firm of Frank N. Magid Associates.
And though Madden may be 65, he already holds added appeal with younger audiences: The “Madden” line of video football games, wildly popular with boys and young men, is the second-largest source of licensing income for the National Football League, after apparel.
After retiring from the Raiders, Madden became even more famous as a broadcaster. His boom-boom, flamboyant broadcasting style and his Miller Lite and Ace Hardware commercials set him apart. He popularized the use of the telestrater, which lets a commentator mark up a screen to make a point.
His fear of flying and his preferred mode of transportation, a bus called the Maddencruiser that is equipped with a satellite dish and all the amenities of home, also make Madden unusual.
“Age is not the key factor in attracting young viewers. It’s more about style, and Madden has a unique and energetic style that is attractive to younger viewers,” MacKenzie said.
For Madden, the four-year, $20-million deal is a dream come true.
“This happened so quickly that I’m numb, but even in my numbness I realize just how lucky I am,” Madden said. “Every broadcaster dreams of being a part of ‘Monday Night Football,’ and now I have that opportunity.”
ABC was hoping to reverse sagging interest two years ago when it brought back former “Monday Night Football” producer Don Ohlmeyer, who, in turn, tried to appeal to a younger, hipper audience with the hiring of Miller.
Although ratings for the show declined in each of Miller’s two years, the maneuver seemed justified by the massive amount of publicity and press coverage generated by his hiring. Web sites sprouted up to translate the comic’s more obscure references, and critics weighed in, some with front-page reviews.
But more often than not, critics said, his presence in the booth served as a distraction and ultimately failed to improve ratings. Miller did not return phone calls seeking comment Thursday.
Whether an announcer alone can remedy the troubles of “Monday Night Football” or the decline of sports in general on TV, is doubtful, experts say.
Industry executives say a glut of sports on cable and broadcast television has reduced ratings across the board--and the prices advertisers have been willing to pay.
Prime time has changed dramatically since “Monday Night Football” was launched. Football in prime time was then a novelty. Today there are sporting events available nearly around the clock, with prime-time coverage of college football and basketball on multiple networks--including vintage games on ESPN Classic--as well as ESPN’s night NFL games on Thursdays and Sundays.
The major networks have had difficulty making money on the eight-year, $18-billion contract with the NFL, particularly during the current advertising downturn.
Earlier this month, News Corp., the owner of the Fox broadcasting network and Fox Sports Net cable channels, took the largest single write-off ever on a sports contract when it charged $909 million against quarterly earnings. About $387 million of the total was related to future expected losses on its $550-million-a-year NFL contract.
Analysts estimate that the Walt Disney Co. is losing millions of dollars a year on its $1.175-billion annual contract with the NFL. Disney is paying about $575 million a year for “Monday Night Football” and $600 million a year for the Sunday night package on ESPN.
Although ABC can control its broadcasting lineup, there are various factors over which ABC has no control. The NFL still sets football schedules well in advance of the TV season, and while “Monday Night Football” is frequently given marquee teams, a poor year by an anticipated title contender or too many one-sided games can significantly reduce ratings.
Madden had one year remaining on his contract with Fox, which would have paid him nearly $8 million next season. Fox, according to sources, offered Madden a three-year extension at $5 million a year.
The ABC deal came together quickly. Fox granted permission to Madden’s representatives Wednesday to negotiate with ABC, which Madden learned from his agent as he started driving from his second home in the Carmel-Pebble Beach area to his primary home in Pleasanton--about a three-hour drive.
By the time he arrived, the contract was there, ready to be signed and faxed back to ABC.
It was so quick, in fact, he forgot to tell his mother. “She heard it on the radio. . . . I had to tell her I was sorry I didn’t call her.”
Since ABC and ESPN are both owned by Disney, Madden’s contract calls for him to appear on such ESPN news and information shows as “Sunday NFL Countdown.”
Katz said that sideline reporter Melissa Stark will return and that Fouts will be reassigned within the network. He indicated Dickerson will not be replaced.
Madden said he is thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Michaels, whom he called the best play-by-play announcer in the business.
And Michaels, 56, offered similar praise for Madden.
“John sets the gold standard,” Michaels said. “He created the template by which all other football commentators are judged.”
ABC televises the next Super Bowl, so Michaels and Madden will be announcing it. But their first assignment together will be the Hall of Fame game Aug. 5.
With Michaels, Madden will have his first new play-by-play partner in 21 years. That’s how long he worked with Pat Summerall at CBS and Fox. Summerall stepped down as Fox’s No. 1 play-by-play announcer after the Super Bowl in February.
“I think the transition for John will be seamless,” Michaels said, “but I don’t think it would have been as seamless if he were to work in a three-man booth. John needs space to roam.”
Michaels said the hard part was saying goodbye to Fouts and Miller, whom he calls close friends.
“In Dennis’ case, what he tried to do was the hardest thing ever attempted in broadcasting. No other non-football person or someone of that ilk could have pulled it off as well as he did.”
Looking back, Michaels said that maybe Miller would have been better suited for a studio show.
“You have to let the viewers see his face, see his mannerism,” he said.
Times staff writers Brian Lowry and Sallie Hofmeister contributed to this report.
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‘Monday Night Football’ Booth
Broadcasters in the “Monday Night Football” booth over the years (*play by play):
1970: *Keith Jackson, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith
1971-1973: *Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith
1974-76: *Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Alex Karras
1977-78: *Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith
1979-82: *Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith, Fran Tarkenton
1983-84: *Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith, O.J. Simpson
1985: *Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Joe Namath, O.J. Simpson
1986: *Al Michaels, Frank Gifford
1987-1997: *Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf
1998-99: *Al Michaels, Boomer Esiason
2000-2001: *Al Michaels, Dan Fouts, Dennis Miller
2002: *Al Michaels, John Madden
Note: Fred Williamson was on broadcast team for two exhibition games in 1974.