Memo to John Riggins, Joe Theismann and all other high-profile, prime-time jocks who are deciding whether to play one more season or go straight into the booth: There's no more room in the booth.
Next stop, Edmonton. Write when you get work.
ABC has gone and dropped The Big One. Boom goes Joe Namath, boom goes Frank Broyles. We won't be seeing them anymore. Namath, who had a heckuva tendency to tell us who'd made a heckuva play, was a heckuva mistake, and an expensive one, too, at $850,000 per year, which buys a heckuva lot of gifts on "Sale of The Century," which is as close as Namath will get to prime time this season. Kiss Broyles goodbye, too. No more of his whiny adorations: "Keith, in all my years of football commentating, I have never seen a group of student ath-uh-letes as thoroughly prepared as these. Their game plan is just sen-sa-tional." Broyles, who had the job as ABC's top college football color man for nine years despite an apparent conflict of interest as athletic director at Arkansas, may well be replaced by O.J. Simpson, a heckuva student athlete and a snappy dresser.
Bump goes O.J., down from "Monday Night Football," perhaps into the waiting embrace of Keith Jackson, who undoubtedly knows O.J. is a hoss and a half, but merciful goodness, what a grandaddy gullywasher for his pal Broyles. Bump, too, goes Frank Gifford as ABC brings Al Michaels in for the play-by-play on "Monday Night Football," giving The Giffer some kind of demotion to color man.
It's a good thing Brent Musburger didn't jump to ABC last year when he had the chance. Today he'd be doing bowling.
What's this all about?
Capital Cities, which took over ABC late last year, is a company that is in the business of streamlining businesses to make money. The Capital Cities execs are the kinds of people who take cabs, not limos; who eat lunch at their desks, not at 21; who fly coach, not on corporate jets. This is sacrilege in TV, where status is defined by limos, Lear jets and lunch. They are bottom-line guys, and in TV, guys like these are very bad for the American Dream.
Capital Cities took one look at Roone Arledge's payroll and ordered a flame thrower. Now Namath is gone, Broyles is gone, Lee Grosscup, who was ABC's No. 2 color man on college football, is gone and so is Beano Cook, who was so rumpled and charming on ABC's college football wrap-around shows. So much on-air talent has gone flying out the window, you'd think Capital Cities was auditioning human cannonballs.
No more three in a booth. That's history. It's also expensive. The goal now is to cut costs and raise profits. "Monday Night Football," the most culturally significant continuing sports show in television history -- the one that persuaded the prime-time family audience that sports was socially acceptable -- shrinks from three to two, as does "Monday Night Baseball," where Jim Palmer will comment on American League baseball games, Tim McCarver on National League games. Now that they've gone from three to two, how soon until we see one man in the booth like on radio? For that matter, what about no announcers at all? Do you think Western Civilization would collapse if Keith Jackson weren't there to scream, "Fum-ble! I do believe the Longhorns have recovered."
It would appear that the big winner, and deservedly so, is Al Michaels, who now will become ABC's most visible face, anchoring its NFL and baseball telecasts. This, too, is cost-effective. Michaels is ABC's highest-paid sportscaster, but he had nothing to do with the network's flagship sports telecast, "Monday Night Football," and how many people saw him on the backup college football game? This way ABC gets more bang for the buck and, in effect, amortizes Michaels' contract.
By making these moves, ABC also sent a strong, clear signal to the NFL that the days of automatic escalating rights fees are over. All three networks lost lots of money on the NFL last year. Despite higher ratings, revenue from sales was down distressingly. The $2.1-billion contract between the networks and the NFL expires immediately after the next Super Bowl. ABC may have fired the first shot in the negotiations. By restructuring "Monday Night Football" to look like all the other football telecasts, by uprooting its cast and whirring its fabled chemistry through a Waring blender, ABC has said: "Monday Night Football" is no longer sacred. Wise up NFL, or we might dump it entirely.
If anyone has a right to say I told you so, it's Howard Cosell. The book he was pilloried for predicted the inevitable economic cutbacks, and his critique of "Monday Night Football" presaged ABC's more dramatic personnel moves. By its deeds, ABC has resolutely confirmed Cosell's evaluations.