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BILLS-COLTS UNLIKELY TO BREAK THE FALL OF MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL RATINGS

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Monday Night Football fans? Buffalo Sabres fans?

Those are the television-related questions of the day. Let's start in the middle with Monday Night Football, which has experienced a 17 percent viewership decline in the final year of ABC's NFL contract.

And that's even before this Monday night's clunker between the 3-3 Buffalo Bills and the winless Indianapolis Colts.

Why are these two clubs on this season when experts speculated they both would be in decline?

The NFL has always rewarded Monday appearances on the basis of last year's records on the assumption no team will slip or improve that fast. In the era of free agency and salary caps, that assumption has holes in it.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, this year's early season surprise, are not on the MNF schedule.

Until now, weak matchups have not been the problem. Most of the games have been compelling and close.

In a way, that's part of the problem. As Bills quarterback Todd Collins and Buffalo News Sports Editor Larry Felser have noted, there are no dominant teams in the NFL.

And dominant teams are usually big TV draws. Without them, the MNF schedule is suffering from the same problem that hurts regular-season baseball. The games aren't special or particularly important.

MNF also has suffered from some bad luck. Its most attractive game of the season, between then undefeated Denver and New England, had to compete with a baseball playoff game on Fox and finished with a lackluster rating. Last Monday's game, Washington's victory over Dallas, also competed with a baseball playoff game. Teams in big markets like Chicago (0-7) and Philadelphia (2-4) are having their difficulties, while Los Angeles, Houston and Cleveland don't even have teams and placing new teams in small markets like North Carolina, Jacksonville and Tennessee surely doesn't help ratings.

The decision of NBC to make Monday night Must-She TV with a variety of female-oriented sitcoms and the addition of a female-oriented comedy-drama on Fox, "Ally McBeal," also may have driven more 30-something female viewers away from football, too.

Undoubtedly, the MNF losing streak will continue with the Bills-Colts game, which may be the least attractive game on ABC's schedule.

Now let's move on to the question that songwriter Paul Simon asked decades ago, "Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?"

That's the title of HBO's special on the Yankee Clipper, which premieres at 8 p.m. Monday on the pay-cable channel.

It plays like an installment of A&E's popular series "Biography." A variety of DiMaggio teammates, acquaintances and authors attempt to put his legend and life in perspective.

Among those interviewed are former President George Bush, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, former teammates Jerry Coleman, Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra and Tommy Henrich and writers Gay Talese, Joseph Durso, Maury Allen and David Halberstam.

Since DiMaggio was a proud loner who didn't let anyone too close for too long, the portrait of him beyond that is sketchy at best.

After his 56-game hitting streak was stopped, we're told that he went to a Cleveland bar-restaurant by himself.

His feelings about the rumors of affairs between the Kennedy family and his former wife, Marilyn Monroe, are demonstrated by his icy avoidance of Sen. Robert Kennedy at a celebration at Yankee Stadium.

We're told that DiMaggio didn't understand Simon's song and even considered suing because he thought it was an insult. Cuomo explains that the songwriter was lamenting the loss of heroes.

The HBO documentary is at its best when it shows some of the marvelous clips of DiMaggio gracefully roaming the outfield or swinging a bat.

It also shows that DiMaggio was as unprepared for the attention that his celebrity brought as was the late Princess Diana.

Eventually, he understood the power of his celebrity and learned to use it to his advantage. The literal answer to the question "Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?" is quite simple. He's gone to autograph signings, bat signings and special baseball nights, recognizing that his name is the ticket to big money.

Finally, the question of where Sabres fans have gone in the early season should just about dispel the notion that keeping their games off television will enhance the gate at Marine Midland Arena.

The Sabres' best performance of the early season was a 5-2 victory over the highly regarded Washington Capitals before a crowd announced at 10,000 and estimated at 3,000 less.

The Sabres' performance might have helped win back some fans if it had been televised. It was not. It is true that one can't cite any research that the televising of games has a positive or negative impact on attendance. But in October when the Bills are still playing, Sabre management should be reminded of the motto "out of sight, out of mind."

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