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More Bang! for ABC's Bucks

Network is counting on Madden's grass-roots popularity to help pull 'Monday Night Football' out of ratings dive

September 09, 2002|LARRY STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Madden is an anomaly. In a business where youth and hipness mean everything, Madden is neither young nor hip.

Madden is quirky. You've probably heard he's afraid to fly, so he travels by bus. Also, he doesn't like to ride on an elevator if other people are on it. At stadiums, it's usually only Madden and the elevator operator. His claustrophobia is that severe.

And off the air, he's actually kind of bland. Believe it or not, he doesn't talk much. No booms! No bangs! Particularly on game days.

On the day of an exhibition game in Denver, Madden's bus is parked in front of the hotel housing the ABC crew. Madden walks through the lobby. There are a few oohs and ahs.

"That's John Madden," says a young woman to her husband. "I can't believe it."

Madden is on his way to a Monday night game between the Broncos and San Francisco 49ers. It's the second game he'll work with new partner Al Michaels.

Madden climbs aboard the bus and the first thing he does is get a sandwich out of the refrigerator. The bus has a kitchen, plus sleeping quarters with a king-sized bed, a computer and satellite television.

Two 23-year-old men are on the bus. One is sporting a buzz cut, the other is wearing a Randy Moss Minnesota Viking jersey. They are young and hip. They are wide-eyed and excited to meet Madden.

The one with the buzz cut went to great lengths for the privilege of meeting Madden and riding with him to the game. He won a "ticket to ride" contest sponsored by a restaurant chain that also sponsors Madden's bus. The other, a co-worker at an elevator company, is his guest.

"So what did you have to do to win this thing?" Madden asks as the bus pulls away.

"It's a little embarrassing," the young man tells him. But he seems to feel comfortable. He proceeds to tell Madden about going on a Howard Stern-type Denver morning radio show and answering questions about his parents' sex life. He says he had to listen while the show's co-hosts called his mother to verify the answers.

Madden's eyes light up. He enjoys the story, and all its graphic details. He and the two young men have a good chuckle. It's obvious that Madden, 66, has somehow made a connection.

ABC is counting on Madden to make a connection with all types, young and old, male and female. That is a key reason the network lured him away from Fox with a four-year, $20-million contract and paired him with Michaels on "Monday Night Football."

It's important to ABC, the No. 3 network and falling, that "Monday Night Football" have a successful season. It's the network's No. 1-rated show and maybe more than anything else can help turn things around.

The three exhibition games averaged a 7.4 rating, a slight improvement over last year's 7.3 average for ABC's preseason. But among young males, there was a 21% increase (from 4.3 to 5.2).

The regular-season rating last season was 11.2, down from 13.7 the year before. In 1994, ABC averaged a 17.8 with Michaels, Frank Gifford and Dan Dierdorf in the booth. There has been a steady decline for seven consecutive years.

The most important factor in reversing the ratings trend is the quality of games. But Madden may be a close second.

Michaels and Madden make their regular-season debut tonight, when the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots play host to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

After three exhibition telecasts, indications are that Michaels and Madden will be an outstanding team. They jelled coming out of the gate.

"It was so comfortable, it was almost scary," Michaels said before the game in Denver. "We were sharing the same thoughts, as if our minds were melding. I think we're going to be able to take John places he hasn't been before."

The appeal of Madden is his down-to-earth style, much in contrast to Dennis Miller's loutish, cerebral style.

Miller, gone after a two years, seemed to be always trying to show how smart he was.

Gone too is Dan Fouts, shifted over to college football, and sideline reporter Eric Dickerson. Fouts didn't do anything wrong; it's just that the ABC brass believed one John Madden in the booth is worth two of anybody else.

Miller, a recent guest on NBC's "Tonight Show With Jay Leno," told Leno: "When I heard John Madden [was available] I called Dan Fouts and told him we were whacked.

"Al is the preeminent play-by-play announcer and John is the preeminent color announcer. Put them together and it's a dream team."

So far it has all been sweet for this "dream team." The media coverage has been extensive and favorable. Madden's picture was on the cover of Sports Illustrated before he had worked his first game.

"I've worked Super Bowls and my picture hasn't been on the cover of Sports Illustrated," he said. "Now I'm on the cover for a preseason game."

But the honeymoon soon may be over.

Madden is now on the hot seat, and some critics will find reasons to pounce on him. His act is old, some will say. He talks too much, others will complain.

He's going to hear it, and he knows it.

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