Dennis Miller changed his game plan.
Through three preseason Monday Night Football broadcasts, the irreverent comedian-turned-commentator seemed to be saying each and every thing that popped into his rapid-fire mind.
When the game counted for the first time, though, he appeared to have hit upon a new and winning formula: moderation.
During the Super Bowl-champion St. Louis Rams’ 41-36 victory over the Denver Broncos in the regular-season opener for both the teams and ABC’s program, Miller refrained from too much over-the-top esoterica, picking his spots to go for laughs.
The network could not have asked for a better contest and the ratings brought good news for ABC, considering the game was played on Labor Day (the NFL has said it will start its season after the holiday in the future).
The overnight Nielsen rating for the broadcast was a 15.9 with a 26 share, down just slightly from last year’s 16.1/27 for the opener. More impressively, Monday’s preliminary rating was 9 percent higher than the last time the NFL opened on Labor Day weekend, in 1998.
The overnight ratings measure the country’s largest 48 markets. National ratings were due late today.
Hired to Spice Up Broadcasts
Miller was hired in June as part of a complete overhaul of Monday Night Football, which has seen its Nielsen ratings decline each of the past five seasons. Producer Don Ohlmeyer, with the show during its heyday in the 1970s, returned and handpicked a new cast, keeping only play-by-play announcer Al Michaels.
The thinking was Miller would create a “buzz” that could boost interest in the program, possibly with the same love-him-or-hate-him appeal Howard Cosell once had.
In a winking nod to the show’s past, Miller donned the banana-yellow ABC’s Wide World of Sports jacket the announcers wore decades ago.
But that was about as anachronistic as Miller would get Monday.
Sure, there was a reference to ancient Rome’s founding twins, and the occasional bizarre comment — “Schlereth has been scoped more than a redneck abducted by aliens,” about oft-operated-on Broncos lineman Mark Schlereth — but Miller held himself in check for the most part.
And it worked much better than his scattershot approach from preseason, when no line was too weird, obscure or scatological for Miller.
Only once did he really let loose, and it was an appropriate juncture.
Was He Too Stiff?
On a long Rams scoring play in the third quarter, Miller watched Torry Holt escort fellow receiver Az-Zahir Hakim down the sideline to the end zone, and pronounced: “They don’t need a football, they need a baton. Just put that Christmas tree lighting system up on the goal post, this is the NHRA Winter Nationals. … [Rams coach Mike] Martz has assembled a Murderers’ Row of haste. … Romulus and Remus going down that sideline. … Last time I saw speed like this was John Carlos and Tommie Smith in Mexico City.”
It was the type of funny stream-of-unconsciousness that Miller has mastered — and is a nice diversion if done in doses.
Another highlight was when Miller spoke about Broncos running back Terrell Davis having his ankle wrapped on the sideline: “The artist Christo didn’t use that much fabric when he wrapped the Pont Neuf.”
And in the first quarter, he keenly observed: “I got a feeling the guy working the scoreboard might wind up with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome today.”