PORTLAND, ORE. — I wouldn't be surprised if the folks at ABC decided to officially change the company name to Anything But Conventional. This is, after all, the network that decided to push the journalistic envelope by having Leonardo DiCaprio interview President Clinton about Earth Day.
And now the sports department has made an end run around standard practices by hiring comedian Dennis Miller for the Monday Night Football broadcast team.
It's hard to step outside these days without bumping into a new media paradigm. ABC Sports president Howard Katz was quoted as saying the changes on Monday night were intended "to remove some of the sameness. We wanted to reinvent a little bit." That's no great revelation. TV viewers have known for years that in sportscasting, the presentation rather than the game is often the real product. Unfortunately for ABC, the presentation of Monday Night Football has been slowly deflating ever since Howard Cosell departed.
My only quibble with Mr. Katz is his use of the terms "reinvent" and "little bit" in the same sentence. There's no reason to open a new door if you're just going to stick one toe across the threshold. Why not take a bolder approach and try to knock the whole barrier into a pile of splinters? That's what "Saturday Night Live" did when it debuted in 1975, and the show ended up transforming the structure of TV comedy.
If ABC wants people talking about Monday Night Football again, I'd suggest a maximalist strategy combined with the voyeuristic aspects of "Survivor." Select a wide range of announcers, each broadcasting directly onto the World Wide Web. Every week, the online audience would vote to pare down the field, with the final winners covering the Super Bowl. Some of the talent on my starting lineup would include:
*Gov. Jesse Ventura and Bobby Knight: Brash, opinionated, and outspoken, both have extensive sports backgrounds and plenty of experience when it comes to shouting into a microphone and tossing chairs around.
*The McLaughlin Group: Intellectual fireworks of the early years can be reignited by signing up Eleanor Clift, Jack Germond, and Morton Kondracke for gridiron analysis. Bombastic John will find the NFL scene bristling with opportunities for energetic erudition as he barks out queries such as, "Oakland Raiders: Bound for glory, or Gtterdmmerung? What do you say, Mor-TONNA-munda-mundo?!"
*Brad Pitt and Bart Simpson: It's not your father's play-by-play. Luring younger viewers is always important, and the cinema teen idol is a perfect demographic partner for popular animated iconoclast. Ay caramba!
*Dr. Laura Schlessinger: Interactive emphasis allows fans to call in and ask questions on the air, exploring complex tactical issues such as, "Dr. Laura, is it morally right for the quarterback to make abrupt head movements during the snap count as a way to lure the defensive linemen offside?"
Additional innovation would occur at field level. Instead of instant replay, Judge Judy can roam the sidelines to quickly and decisively arbitrate all disputes between coaches and officials.
On a lighter note, Martha Stewart offers practical tips on how to combine discarded Gatorade cups with strips of used athletic tape to create a festive centerpiece for your halftime refreshment table.
Action. Drama. Controversy. Excitement. Surprises. ABC wants the Monday Night fans to have it all, in abundance, every week.
I hope they succeed. And once in a while, maybe we'll even get to watch a good football game, too.
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