Such an admission about TV's No. 3 show demonstrates how shaky the network's confidence is these days. Despite its high ranking, Monday Night's ratings share, like that of all network programming, has dropped precipitously with the mushrooming of choices on cable and satellite television. The show's 13.7 share last year was an alltime low. It's clear that with pro wrestling drawing young male viewers, with NBC and the World Wrestling Federation's Vince McMahon readying a take-no-prisoners football spectacle in next February's debut of the XFL, a sense of panic is in the air. The Monday Night Football buzz factory of Cosell's day had, in ABC's eyes, become merely a well-done football game—superbly called by Michaels and competently analyzed by Esiason—but in this brave new world of television, that wasn't enough.
"There is so much football on the air," Michaels says, "so much redundancy, so much jock talk—the same play analyzed the same way thousands of times, and that towel-snapping mentality. What's exciting now is that we've got two new guys in the booth who won't be anything like that."
That Katz tapped Ohlmeyer for the job of making the show "special" again is perhaps the most telling move of all. In the 1970s Ohlmeyer, a prot�g� of Arledge's, teamed with Monday Night director Chet Forte to create the look of the modern football telecast. In his most recent stint in television, as NBC's president of West Coast operations, Ohlmeyer helped shape the medium's last programming juggernaut: NBC's Must-See TV lineup of the '90s. An out-sized figure with a robust laugh and a profanely blunt delivery, Ohlmeyer is known for his eagerness to take chances (he once broadcast a game with no announcers), and Katz says he probably wouldn't have made any changes to Monday Night Football this year if he hadn't been able to pry Ohlmeyer out of retirement. "Don was the one person smart enough and strong enough to make a difference," Katz says. He's also no stranger to controversy.
In 1998 comedian Norm McDonald blistered Ohlmeyer after he removed McDonald from the cast of Saturday Night Live. In 1994 Ohlmeyer backed his friend O.J. Simpson during his murder trial, and three years later he angered many in baseball when he said he wanted the World Series to end in four games so it wouldn't hold up the beginning of the fall prime-time season. ("The playoffs were starting, but most of America couldn't have cared less," Ohlmeyer says dismissively. "That's why their ratings are so bad.")
Ohlmeyer's return sets up an intriguing dynamic. When he left ABC Sports in 1977, he was working for an operation in which money was no object. Helicopters were kept on stand-by at the stadium to ferry broadcasters to the airport. For the ABC-covered '84 Olympics in Los Angeles, Forte had his chauffeur drive Forte's limousine from New York to L.A. instead of simply renting a limo in California. But by 1986, after Capital Cities completed its purchase of ABC, belts were being tightened. When Michaels joined Monday Night Football that year, Alex Wallau, then an ABC Sports producer and now president of the network, called him and said, "Congratulations, you got invited to the orgy after the girls went home."
No corporation, however, is more notorious for its parsimonious, conformist culture than Disney, and when it acquired Cap Cities/ABC in 1996 and began trying to meld it with ESPN, the days of freewheeling expense accounts at ABC died forever. The thought of Ohlmeyer's working for Disney is somewhat like envisioning Hunter Thompson going to work for Scrooge McDuck. "Will it take?" says Brian Brown, who produced features for ABC's Super Bowl telecast last January. "Ohlmeyer's the 800-pound gorilla, and he's absolutely opposite to what the culture has become. He's all the things television was, and all the things ESPN is not."
What Ohlmeyer has going for him is Katz, a close friend who owes much of his career to Ohlmeyer. He hired Katz fresh out of college in 1971, made him a production assistant on Monday Night Football the next year and, in 1983, when he started Ohlmeyer Communications, hired Katz as president. When ESPN bought Ohlmeyer's company in 1993, Katz went to ESPN as a vice president and oversaw the network's rapid expansion, which led to his promotion to president of ABC Sports in March '99.
Ohlmeyer's return, however, has less to do with the performance of Janoff and Wolfe and even of the men in the booth than with the recent work of Katz's fellow executives at Disney and ESPN. For if Monday Night Football had recently become a small event plagued by "sameness," no one was more responsible for that than those who drained it of its uniqueness in the name of corporate synergy.
In 1996, ESPN president Steve Bornstein was handed the reins of ABC Sports, and his mandate was obvious: Merge the resources of ABC and ESPN into a sports leviathan. Problem was, nearly every public move Bornstein made weakened Monday Night Football. (Bornstein declined repeated requests for comment.) In January 1998, just after removing Gifford from the booth and giving him a token role in a pregame show, ABC tried to hire Fox's John Madden for the second time in four years. Irked by Madden's insistence on a deadline for making a deal, ABC and Disney executives gave up on him and leaped at Wolfe's suggestion that they hire the inexperienced Esiason. The first thing Disney CEO Michael Eisner said to Esiason was, "Good to have you on the team. Whatever you do, don't ever deadline me."
Esiason's first season, 1998, was arguably the worst in Monday Night history. Fears that ABC Sports had become a poor sister to ESPN were confirmed when it was leaked that Disney executives had considered renaming the show ESPN Presents Monday Night Football on ABC. In an effort to pump up ESPN's Sunday Night Football broadcast, both Monday Night's graphics and Hank Williams Jr.'s adrenaline-pumping anthem Are You Ready for Some Football? were lifted and moved to Sunday night. "It was a big mistake," Wolfe says. "It disgusted me, because it destroyed the uniqueness of Monday Night. Now there's this fight to get it back."