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From The New York Times Magazine
September 3, 2000
From New York Times Magazine: Monday Night Football’s Hail Mary
Rush Limbaugh almost became the new Howard Cosell. Instead, Dennis Miller got the nod, but the challenge remains the same: Make sports more like the rest of what we see on TV – just as Vince McMahon wants to do with his crazy new league.
By Julian Rubinstein
Last spring, newspapers across the country were publishing articles almost daily about ABC’s search for a new “Monday Night Football” announcer to join the veteran Al Michaels in the broadcast booth. With the N.B.A. playoffs in full swing and kickoff still four months away, this kind of publicity would have ordinarily been a testament to the strength and power of the N.F.L. and its top-rated weekly telecast. But, as the N.F.L. commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, knew too well, exactly the opposite was true.
Tagliabue had been feeling the heat from the networks that televise the league’s games. In the last go-round, ABC, CBS, Fox and ESPN anted up a record $17.6 billion over eight years, which, they quickly discovered, made it impossible for them to make money. During those negotiations two years ago, Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports, had angrily ended his network’s 33-year relationship with the league, saying that he “refused to put the livelihood of its employees at risk” by entering into such an imprudent deal. The continued ratings slump last year only hammered home his point. In March, following the worst season ever for “Monday Night Football,” ratings-wise, ABC convinced the programming guru Don Ohlmeyer to come out of retirement and retool the show he produced in its heyday. Now, if the newspapers were to be believed, the conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh was up for the announcer’s job.
Tagliabue knew Ohlmeyer as the man who had taken NBC’s entertainment division from dead last to the top of the TV universe, and he hoped that the Limbaugh reports were either a joke or a marketing ploy. But ABC was refusing to confirm or deny the reports. He picked up the phone and called Ohlmeyer at his home in Beverly Hills to set up a meeting.
The two men sat down to breakfast a few days later at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles, where Tagliabue suggested Ohlmeyer consider the veteran ESPN reporters Tom Jackson and Robin Roberts for the job. But Ohlmeyer wasn’t there to talk about announcers. Instead, he steered the conversation toward what he felt was the bigger issue and the reason he had decided to go back to producing football games at age 55. “This is a critical year for sports and television,” Ohlmeyer remembers telling him. So-called reality shows like “Survivor” were about to transform viewers’ expectations for entertainment on television. And a new pro football league, dreamed up by the wrestling impresario Vince McMahon and brought to NBC by Ebersol, would begin play in 2001, promising to bring fans closer to the game than they had ever been before. If the N.F.L. wanted to stay ahead in this environment, Ohlmeyer said, it would have to change its ways.
By the end of the two-hour meeting, Tagliabue had only one question: Would Ohlmeyer come to the N.F.L. owners’ meeting in two weeks and tell them what he had just told him?
When the new “Monday Night Football” makes it regular-season debut tomorrow night, Ohlmeyer’s innovations won’t exactly leap out of the TV set. With great effort, he helped persuade the league to mount miniature cameras on the referees’ caps and to allow more reporters to roam the sidelines and interview players coming on and off the field at halftime. The greatest change, however, will be the comedian in the broadcast booth, Dennis Miller, the first nonsports announcer ever to join a major sports telecast.
The criticism that greeted Miller’s appointment shows what Ohlmeyer is up against. “I thought the game was the entertainment,” sneered John Madden of Fox. The purists have a point: sports remains a staple of network TV, and the N.F.L. is the single biggest draw. But there is so much product on the air (by one calculation, 235 hours a day of sports programming pours into the typical American home) that it’s impossible for even the mighty N.F.L. to maintain its dominance. More than that, sports is losing the golden demographic it once owned: young men. Forty-seven percent more of them tuned in to the Monday night telecast of McMahon’s “Raw Is War” last year than to “Monday Night Football.”
Sports had always been considered the ultimate formula — the original “reality TV” that unlike every other type of show on television never needed reinventing. But the way that Don Ohlmeyer and Dick Ebersol are attacking the problem this year, even that notion is being challenged. As former proteges of Roone Arledge at ABC — and old friends themselves — they have made their reputations as entertainment producers. And in their view, relative to what else is on television, sports has lost its spark. Viewers love the highlight reels, but persuading them to sit through an entire game is getting harder all the time.
How far will they be able to go? Ebersol has a completely unproved entity in the XFL, but his costs are low and he can get away with practically anything. Ohlmeyer’s advantage is that he has the N.F.L., notoriously conservative and fiercely protective of its game but also far and away the pre-eminent brand in sports, and as tough and ruthless a competitor as Microsoft.
Don Ohlmeyer glides his black mercedes sedan through the crowded streets of Los Angeles toward Dodger Stadium. He’s running late for the night game between the Dodgers and the Angels, but he is in no rush. The most important lesson Roone Arledge taught him, he says, is never to be at the mercy of the game.
Ohlmeyer is tall and bearlike, with a mouth that curls playfully at the corners as if to suggest that he always knows more than he’s saying. He calls everyone, including his male friends, Honey, making a point of always seeming at ease. He made it through seven years as the West Coast president of NBC wearing black cotton Nike sweatsuits (perfectly pressed) and black loafers, the same outfit he’s wearing to the game.
As he settles into his regular third-row seat near first base, he admits that it was frustration with the limitations of sports broadcasting that drove him into the entertainment side of the business 17 years ago. “There was a sameness about it,” he says. “People have seen thousands of games. How do you get them to watch my telecast?”
When Ohlmeyer joined Arledge at “Monday Night Football” in 1971, the show’s second year, it was the only sports program in prime time. Initially, the network had been reluctant even to fork out the $8.5 million rights fee to put it on the air. But Arledge, then president of ABC Sports, promised to make the show like nothing anybody had ever seen. He deployed three times as many cameras as other networks and provided coverage not just of the plays but also of the players themselves and of the crowd’s reactions. The shots of stadium lights gleaming off the players’ helmets, backed by the staccato voice of Howard Cosell, made even humdrum matchups seem like once-in-a-lifetime epics. John Lennon, Burt Reynolds, Gov. Ronald Reagan and Vice President Spiro Agnew made guest appearances. While other networks lambasted Arledge’s “show biz” approach to football, the show became a juggernaut.
“Monday Night Football” not only defined how sports was packaged on television; it also changed forever the economics of the industry. The major sports leagues, suddenly aware of their value as prime-time fare, escalated their demands for fees. Though total ratings for many sports began to slip in the 1980′s, with the advent of cable, the leagues ratcheted up their rates at every contract renegotiation.
Ohlmeyer began to feel the financial pressure as far back as 1977, when he left ABC for the top job at NBC Sports. While there, he hired some of the top broadcasters in the business, including Bob Costas and Bryant Gumbel. But always seeking larger audiences, he put on a Jets-Dolphins game in 1980 with no announcers at all. It rated well, thanks to the hype Ohlmeyer engineered, but he knew it was a one-time gimmick.
By that point in his career, he had bought a house in Los Angeles and was commuting to New York every weekend in the fall to oversee the network’s N.F.L. programming. His patience with sports was wearing thin. Soon he not only stopped flying in; he stopped watching the telecasts altogether. On Sundays, he would get up in the morning, hit the golf course around 10 and by 11:30 — 2:30 in New York, the halftime show — he would be making the turn at the Bel Air Country Club. “I’d call the studio and say, ‘Tell Charlie Jones to stop talking so much and tell so-and-so to talk about why things happen, not what happens,”‘ he says. “They all thought I was watching.”
So when Howard Katz, president of ABC Sports, called him in December to ask if he would consider returning to “Monday Night Football,” Ohlmeyer, happily retired and golfing every day, had to laugh. But the more he thought about the offer, the more enticing it became. “This was the show that had launched my career,” he says. “Now I had the chance to go back and bring everything I’d learned in the interim to bear.” In March, Ohlmeyer decided he would take the job on the condition that he be given complete freedom. Only after he got assurances from Katz and Robert Iger, president of ABC, did he accept.
On his orders, the entire staff, except for his old golfing buddy Michaels, was dismissed. During the news conference announcing the moves, Ohlmeyer talked about wanting to bring “a sense of danger” and “unpredictability” back to the program, the same elements that would soon make reality TV the new craze.
He began working obsessively from home, often waking up in the middle of the night to jot down ideas. To the extent that he can script a game, he will, and he hired a friend, the television writer and producer David Israel, to help him develop compelling story lines based around the players and matchups each week. “Great storytelling is the key element in any medium,” he says.
Finding the right person for the booth took time, but the longer it dragged on, he realized, the more publicity the show got. “There would be days when we’d be playing golf and we’d go through 30 different possibilities, everything from President Clinton — hey, he needs a job — to guys who are in jail,” Al Michaels says. Ohlmeyer had Billy Crystal, Chris Rock and Dennis Miller on his list, but he initially thought of the entertainers as hosts of a souped-up halftime show. In mid-May, Ohlmeyer received a call from Miller’s agent telling him that Miller wanted to be in the booth. At that time, Rush Limbaugh was in fact the front-runner for the job; Ohlmeyer saw his divisiveness as a selling point. “People used to pay for the pleasure of throwing a brick through the TV at Howard,” Ohlmeyer says.
But executives at ABC, including Arledge, made it clear to Ohlmeyer that picking Limbaugh would be a mistake. Then there was Tagliabue. Ohlmeyer knew he had played it perfectly when they met for breakfast. But he still needed the league’s favor when it came to getting the gametime access and scheduling preference he felt were necessary
Ohlmeyer figured Miller was “worth a meeting,” and after a promising audition, he emerged as the favorite. The other top contender was more in the strident Cosell mold: Tony Kornheiser, a kvetching 52-year-old columnist for The Washington Post who had gained a surprisingly strong following for his show on ESPN Radio. But Ohlmeyer believed Miller’s iconoclastic image would better appeal to the key young male demographic.
As a courtesy, he called Tagliabue the week before he made the hire and got his blessing. The flirtation with Limbaugh had been shrewd. By comparison, even a comedian was taken seriously by the N.F.L.
Michaels, too, enthusiastically endorsed the choice. “If he’s as good as I think he can be,” Michaels says, “this will be trendsetting.”
Miller, whose weekly HBO show runs from January through August, the opposite of the N.F.L. season, is feeling the pressure. “I have shadow memories of ‘Saturday Night Live,’ the whole revival of a franchise,” he says. “I don’t know if I’m the guy to do this, but I’m a decent roll of the dice.”
Dick Ebersol is a studious, almost grandfatherly man of 53, an appearance that belies his reputation as the most dangerous man in the business. His ability to land huge deals before anyone else has even imagined them made NBC the leader among network sports divisions over the last decade. In 1995, he stunned the industry when, after secretly flying to the world track-and-field championships in GRated PG-13teborg, Sweden, he sneaked through the hotel’s service elevators to meet with I.O.C. members, locking up the rights to telecast every summer and winter Olympics through 2008. No one else had even begun to bid for 2000.
But Ebersol never moved quicker than he did last February, when his assistant popped her head into his office and suggested he flip on the TV. There was Vince McMahon presiding over a news conference at his W.W.F. Restaurant in Times Square, announcing the formation of the XFL, a new eight-team circuit that would begin play the following winter after the N.F.L. season was finished.
After bidding good riddance to the N.F.L., Ebersol had spent the last 18 months trying to create his own pro football league with Turner Sports. But he couldn’t figure out what would draw viewers to a league owned by a TV network. The XFL was a little different from what he had envisioned; it was a “brand of smash-mouth football,” McMahon said, “not for pantywaists and sissies.” It wouldn’t be scripted like his wrestling programs, McMahon insisted, but there was no doubt it would be a made-for-television extravaganza like no other in sports. Cameras and microphones would be everywhere, including in the locker rooms and in the huddles; the cheerleaders would not only be the prettiest in football — they would also be “encouraged” to date the players.
Ebersol was well acquainted with McMahon. In 1985, they went into business together. Then an independent producer, Ebersol sold “Saturday Night’s Main Event” to NBC, where it ran for six years, making both men a fortune and putting wrestling on the map. When Ebersol rejoined NBC in 1989, he had to sell his stake back to McMahon, but he had watched as the popularity of the W.W.F. mushroomed. “Raw Is War” was the most popular show on cable television last year.
As Ebersol listened to McMahon that afternoon, he realized that if he was going to put his reputation on the line and buy a football league, there was no surer bet. Producing each game would most likely cost less than NBC paid for a typical three hours of prime-time programming, and linking up with McMahon would all but guarantee a core audience of young viewers. By the time McMahon was in his limo heading back to his Stamford, Conn., headquarters, his cell phone was ringing. It was Ebersol. “Don’t do anything else yet,” he told McMahon. Two months later, they announced the historic deal: NBC was investing $30 million in the W.W.F. and would be a 50-50 owner of the XFL, marking the first time a major sports league would share ownership with a network. The games will be shown weekly on NBC, one of them as a prime-time lead-in to “Saturday Night Live,” the show Ebersol co-created in 1975.
Ebersol is not new to controversy. Critics have tarred him for moves like his decision to show the summer Olympics in Sydney entirely on tape, so he can package the events as shiny human-interest dramas for prime-time audiences. But the opprobrium brought on by the XFL deal was harsher than ever. It’s one thing, after all, to deal with McMahon on wrestling, but endorsing his brand of football? The New York Post headlined its story, “NBC Makes Deal With Devil.” The former CBS executive Rick Gentile calls the XFL “a fiasco.” Even his mentor thought Ebersol had gone too far. “At some point you have to decide how classy you want to be,” Arledge says.
But if Ebersol has been a visionary about anything, it is deal making. By becoming a partner in the XFL itself, Ebersol has declared sports leagues unnecessary middlemen. The game will belong to TV in every conceivable way. “Intimacy is coming, coming, coming,” he says. “But it’s been slowed down by the infrastructure of sports. With the XFL, intimacy is something the league is based on; it’s part of the deal.”\
At the house of blues in West Hollywood, Vince Mcmahon’s entrance is preceded by a booming, lights-out, videotaped introduction, in which Dick Ebersol calls him “the best promoter in America.” It is supposed to be a news conference announcing the XFL’s new Los Angeles franchise, but he is greeted with thundering applause and cheers. Dressed fashionably in a fitted black suit with a white shirt and no tie, McMahon gets right to the point. “The arrogance and the lack of common sense of the suits at the N.F.L. is not to be believed,” he says, mimicking the clipped rhythms of a preacher. “Put one hand on the quarterback — and the whistle blows! You’re not protecting the quarterback in the name of safety. You’re protecting him in the name of investments. That’s. Not. Football. Pause, sigh. The suits at the N.F.L. Head shake, pause. Penalize end zone celebrations? What the hell is that? Why that’s downright un-American.”
Tagliabue will not respond to McMahon’s taunts or even acknowledge the XFL’s existence (on the advice of his lawyers, concerned about potential antitrust charges). But he says the N.F.L. would never consider gimmicks like microphones in the huddle. “Obviously the reason is competitive,” the commissioner says. “You can’t put strategy on the air for other teams to watch. This is a game of surprise. We’ve done focus groups, and what they tell us is what sells football is the competition on the field. That’s what gives us the No. 1 audience in sports. It doesn’t depend on where the microphones are or who we interview at halftime. It depends on the national passion for the game.”
Just in case that’s not enough anymore, Ohlmeyer is returning to the same tactics he used to make NBC “Must-See TV.” He persuaded ABC, for the first time, to hire an outside ad agency to make “Monday Night Football” hip again. The catchy slogan, “Monday Night Football,’ It’s Powerful Stuff,” will be plastered everywhere, on television and billboards and even the floors of supermarket aisles. And he plans to go head to head against McMahon for young male viewers by attempting to buy ad time on W.W.F. programs in the local markets. “It’s going to be a battle,” says a senior marketing staff member at ABC Sports.
There may also be battles with the league; if ratings don’t improve, Ohlmeyer will surely turn up the pressure to be granted more liberties. Even if he can’t have microphones in the huddle, he has plenty more ideas where “referee cam” came from. Tagliabue says that he “feels like we’re in good hands with Don,” but it’s clear that unlike McMahon and Ebersol, he and Ohlmeyer aren’t in the same business.
“My only concern is the viewer,” Ohlmeyer says, leaning back in his seat at the Dodgers game. “That is why Nascar has been so successful. They’ve changed the rules in the middle of the season to change the air-intake valves, put restrictor plates on. What they’re basically saying is, ‘We want a race where a bunch of cars will have a chance to win on the last lap.’ That’s what the fan wants.”
By the seventh inning, the highest-paid pitcher in baseball, the Dodgers’ Kevin Brown, is giving out hits like Halloween candy, and Ohlmeyer’s team is down by four runs. “We’re outta here,” he says, standing up to leave. “They’re not coming back from this.”
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