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ABC TAKES BIG GAMBLE BY USING TWO-MAN CREW

Books were written about it. Careers and legends were made because of it. Bowling alleys went dark because of it.

I'm talking about the three-men-in-a-booth concept created for "Monday Night Football" by the legendary sports (and later news) producer Roone Arledge.

But as Dandy Don Meredith might sing, "Turn out the lights, the party is over."

This season ABC's new president, Howard Katz, has decided that America can be quite entertained with only veteran play-by-play man Al Michaels and second-year analyst Boomer Esiason in the booth.

In preseason, the decision looked as shaky as Esiason's old team, the Cincinnati Bengals.

If any game needed some spice, it was the yawner between San Francisco and Oakland on Aug. 30.

By the time Michaels went deep in his bag to mention how little use former Bills coach Marv Levy had for the preseason, I longed for the return of Dan Dierdorf or Frank Gifford. Well, almost.

As good as Esiason is in explaining what quarterbacks see and what choices they should make, he needs a different analytical voice to bounce off or argue with -- or even sing with -- to make the games more entertaining.

At the very least, the decision to go to two men on Monday night is television blasphemy.

After all, Arledge knew when he put Howard Cosell next to Gifford and Dandy Don in the early '70s that Monday night audiences have to be more entertained than those fanatics who will watch and listen to anything or anybody on Sunday afternoons.

Esiason and Dierdorf's arguments last season made some people question whether they liked each other (they claimed they did), but at the least their debates were interesting.

Some have questioned whether the two-man booth is a cost-cutting move. It's a silly suggestion. What's another million or so for an announcer when you spend a billion to keep football.

Obviously, ABC hoped to find someone to team with Michaels and Esiason and came up empty.

The logical choice is on its own cable network, ESPN. Paul Maguire has the humorous Meredith attitude down in his job as part of the Sunday night package with Mike Patrick and Joe Theismann (who can be unintentionally funny).

With the Monday games returning to a 9 p.m. kickoff this season, Michaels and Esiason certainly are going to have to be fun to listen to in order to keep those fans in the East.

ABC's experiment with an earlier 8:20 p.m. kickoff last season was blamed for a ratings slide that just as easily could have been blamed on lopsided games.

The later start is supposed to increase interest on the West Coast, where the kickoff is at 6 p.m. However, as the escalating ratings for TV morning news prove, the nation is going to bed earlier and waking up earlier so this decision to head back to 9 p.m. could be as misguided as the idea of going to a two-man booth.

Of course, the big news this season is that the NFL is going to come out of the dark ages and allow sideline reporters to actually talk with the coaches on the air at halftime rather than rely on the reporters to paraphrase them. The sideline reporters also are being given better access. And each week, the NFL is allowing a network to put a microphone on a player during the pregame show.

This isn't exactly revolutionary stuff. HBO has been carrying NFL Films footage of miked players for years. The networks are just getting equal access.

After a disastrous noon pregame show in its first season since returning to the NFL scene, CBS is getting its act together. It has added some personality by grabbing Jerry Glanville from Fox, Randy Cross from its own booth and Craig James from its college games to team with host Jim Nantz.

In other words, there may actually be a reason this season for Buffalo fans to watch the pregame show that focuses on the American Conference. It is unlikely, however, that the CBS team will be as smart and sassy as the Fox pregame show featuring James Brown, Terry Bradshaw, Cris Collinsworth and Howie Long. But at least CBS should be in the game this season.

That said, Buffalo fans are more likely to head to cable to get ready for the games an hour early anyway.

ESPN's 11 a.m. pregame show features Bills booster Chris Berman and former Bills quarterback Jim Kelly. Kelly will have to overcome his a tendency as a rookie to play it safe and dwell on the obvious.

Fox Sports Net is challenging ESPN with an 11 a.m. show of its own featuring Chris Myers, Jackie Slater and Levy. The show, which will include appearances by the Fox crew of Bradshaw and company, is being carried locally on Empire.

Levy demonstrated on his WBEN-AM radio show in his first year out of coaching that he has lost his habit of relying on Coachspeak and actually can be opinionated. And why not? At age 74, most people say what is on their minds without worrying about what people think.

If Levy gets really good and is willing to be controversial, perhaps his buddy Michaels might end up wishing he were the third man in ABC's booth.

Once again, it is my annual task of explaining the television rules that apply to NFL games.

If the Bills have a home game on Sunday afternoon, the CBS (Channel 4) and Fox affiliates (Channel 29) get to carry one game each.

If they are on the road on Sunday afternoon as they are for their opener against Indianapolis, the network affiliate that is carrying the doubleheader gets two games and the other network one game.

If the Bills play a Sunday night or Monday night game home or away, the same thing applies.

If you buy the NFL Sunday Ticket package from satellite television, you will get all the Sunday afternoon games except any Bills home games that aren't sold out 72 hours in advance.

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