A moment later they had switched roles. In the final six minutes Esiason tried again and again during commercial breaks to get Michaels to tee him up to talk about his own experience trying to lead a drive in the waning minutes of a Super Bowl. Michaels ignored him. With 0:31 left and the Titans driving, Esiason said Tennessee should burn its final timeout. Michaels disagreed, and three plays later was shown to be correct when the Titans used their last timeout to stop the clock at 0:06 and set up the final play. Esiason had to be sick, but give him credit: He said, "Way to go, Al!" and laughed.
Then came the worst moment of all. After the game ended and the trophy was presented, Katz pulled the plug on Esiason. Instead of finishing with his play-by-play announcer and his analyst reflecting on the greatness of the game, Katz, citing a shortage of time, told Wolfe to tell Esiason he was done for the day. Michaels would close the show alone. It was a harsh move against a star analyst, and Esiason knew it. He stormed out, flagged down a car and got in with his family. While they were leaving the grounds, Michaels ended the broadcast with a perfect summation, at once wry and full of wonderment.
It was a great close to a great game, and the pictures and replays had been, as usual, superb. Within a few weeks Wolfe and Janoff received letters from Eisner. "The Super Bowl was fantastic," read the note to Janoff. "Congratulations on a show well done. Everything looked great and I know that you worked hard to make it happen. Thank you." When Katz called to fire him on March 8, Janoff was stunned. He still has no idea why he was sacked. "Does [ Eisner] write letters to everybody?" Janoff asks.
Many believe Esiason wounded himself by accusing Michaels of undermining him, but Esiason isn't backing off. "Not at all," he says. "It's one thing to be arrogant and hypocritical, and it's another to be arrogant and honest. They hired me to tell it like it is—Howard! Shades of Howard!—so I told it like it was. There's nothing I can do now. But it should make a wonderful book one day. I've got the title: They Told Me So. Either that, or it's going to be The Making of ABC—Al's Broadcasting Company?
No, not Al's. Two months before next season's first Monday Night broadcast, with most television critics lauding Ohlmeyer's hire of Miller and with a season yet to unfold, it is Ohlmeyer's network, if only for the moment. He came back on the condition that he could choose his own team, so Ohlmeyer also replaced sideline reporter Lesley Visser with ESPN's Melissa Stark and Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson. He also hired Drew Esocoff to replace Janoff as director and made it clear that he wants a high wall between Monday Night Football and any other Disney property. "I always thought synergy was a s——- word," Ohlmeyer says.
He has Katz watching his back, too. "It's interesting," Katz says. "I am guilty of having created part of the problem, because when I was at ESPN, I thought that having a similarity between Sunday Night Football and Monday Night Football would be great, and ESPN would benefit greatly by it. But when I took the job at ABC, I had a totally different perspective on things. For Monday Night Football to be special, it needs to be different."
In early May, Ohlmeyer, a first-class flier, wanted production assistant Brian Lockhart to sit next to him on a flight from New York City to Los Angeles. When ABC colleagues heard about this, they joked that Ohlmeyer was going to like sitting in coach. Lockhart's request for a first-class seat was turned down by Apter's office, but Ohlmeyer insisted that Lockhart sit with him up front. "And he did," says one Monday Night staffer. "So we're all thinking, Finally, the Wicked Witch is dead."
The show, Ohlmeyer promises, will feel different from the start. "We'll have no exploding helmets," he says. Each game will be milked for maximum emotion. "Selfishness, selflessness, drama, envy, hubris—things everybody can identify with," Ohlmeyer says. "The opening of the Jets- New England game will be something along these lines: 'These two organizations hate each other. You thought the Hatfields and the McCoys was a battle? It doesn't matter what their records are. What matters is the owners don't like each other, the coaches don't like each other, the staffs don't like each other, the players don't like each other. They want to knock the living crap out of each other.' We're going to get that message across in the promotion and the tease, and that will be the underlying theme of the game until some other underlying theme takes over."
It is all his call. He is, at 55, a player again. "I admire Ohlmeyer's cojones," Miller says. "He dwells halfway between a creative world and a corporate world, but you're not talking about a house man here. I think I'm a pretty quirky hire. I admire him for that."
Whether such warmth will last depends on what happens this fall. Television is a slippery business, one in which, Ohlmeyer says, "not only do most people desperately want to succeed, but they believe everybody else must die a slow and painful death." He has little to prove, and he has no intention of staying on the job very long. His mentor, Arledge, writing his memoirs now. Ohlmeyer less lofty ambitions.