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NFL coverage tries to draw fans with funny bone

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Sports television, like life, is filled with delicious little ironies. The latest little one unfolded the other day on a preseason NFL conference call when a Fox official and some announcers were peppered with questions about Dennis Miller.

The irony, of course, is while ABC is getting attention for opening up the sport to entertainment for placing Miller, a comedian, in the hallowed booth, it's been Fox that cleared the brush, with a decidedly lighter approach to televising the game, over the past six years.

"You have to give them [ABC] credit for stepping out of the box, so to speak," said pre-game analyst Howie Long. "My one concern is there are certain facets of the game that aren't humorous. As long as he can understand and differentiate between what is humorous and what isn't, I think he'll be fine."

Oddly enough, Fox drew heat last season for bringing in a comic, Jimmy Kimmel, onto its pre-game show, and Fox Sports President Ed Goren couldn't help notice the irony of the overwhelming and mostly good press that Miller is getting.

"How many writers a year ago jumped on us for having Jimmy Kimmel on our show picking games? And how many of those same writers will take that approach with Dennis Miller?" said Goren. "If Dennis Miller has as good a year as Jimmy Kimmel, he'll do well. We'll see."

Of course, there is a bit of a difference between what Fox has done and what ABC is attempting, and John Madden, Fox's lead analyst, has been paying attention to the distinction.

"I have a problem with the fact that [fans] need more entertainment. Because if pro football in itself is not exciting enough, if it can't create enough interest, passion and love for the game in viewers, than everyone really overpaid for that product," said Madden. "This may be none of my business, but what happens before the kickoff is called a show. What happens after the kickoff is called a game. And there is a big, big difference."

Perhaps, but clearly Fox, and more to the point, its ratings successes for both its game coverage and its pre-game show, have had an impact, good or bad, on how the NFL is aired.

Normally staid CBS, for example, has been forced to tinker with its "NFL Today" over the past two seasons to try to stay within hailing distance of Fox's weekly pre-game yuck-fest.

This year's re-vamping includes bringing in former Chicago and New Orleans coach Mike Ditka as a fourth studio analyst and adding the component of a window that looks out on Central Park and the promise of an outdoor audience to try to jazz things up.

"What we need to do is to find a hook to get people to tune in," said CBS Sports President Sean McManus. "I think adding the quality of having a live audience will get people to tune in. Once they do, they'll appreciate our show."

Meanwhile, Miller, the Descartes of announcers ("I make occasionally obscure cultural references, therefore I am.") is pledging to "dial it back" with his comments a bit as he approaches Monday night's regular-season opener, between St. Louis and Denver (Channel 2, 9 p.m.).

"To define the perimeter, you have to go out there and find out where the fence is and that's what I was doing," said Miller. "I'll probably knock out every fifth comment and go with the four best."

Miller says he understands why his naming has become the most over-covered story of the year, this side of "Survivor."

"You guys [writers] are parched out there," said Miller. "It [his selection] is an odd choice, a quirky choice. If I'm good at it, it will become a non-story. If I'm bad, it will be time to weigh in like wildebeests on the Serengeti. It will be feeding time."

The local scene

The expected improvement of the Ravens hasn't touched off the fever-pitched coverage that is being felt down the Parkway and I-95 in Washington over the Redskins.

For instance, the only new team-related television show for the new season is the new program featuring defensive lineman Michael McCrary from the ESPN Zone each Sunday at 12:30 p.m. Channel 13's John Buren will host the Ravens' pre-game show each Sunday morning at 11:30.

On the radio side, however, there is a flurry of activity, not so coincidentally coming in the final year of the team's five-year deal with Infinity Radio.

The broadcast day begins with Gary Stein's excellent "NFL on JFK" studio show at 10 a.m. on WJFK (1300 AM). Sun columnist Mike Preston joins the pre-game show on WJFK and WLIF (101.9 FM) with host Tony Harris and Bruce Laird, which airs two hours before kickoff.

Scott Garceau and Tom Matte return to call the games, with Stein and Laird doing the halftime. Stan "The Fan" Charles returns after a one-year hiatus as host of the Ravens' post-game show, joining Laird and Paul Mittermeier, and Matte and Garceau will do a post-game show from the Sliders bar after home games.

Not to be outdone, WBAL (1090 AM) will weave in Ravens game day coverage around its Orioles commitments. Gerry Sandusky will host a pre-game show one hour before kickoff, while Greg Sher will anchor a post-game talk show.

Around the dial

NBC opens another season of Notre Dame football (home games only) tomorrow with the Fighting Irish meeting Texas A&M; (Channel 11, 1 p.m.) followed by a pre-Olympic basketball doubleheader, as the U.S. women's team meets Canada, then the men's squad plays a select group of collegians.

Dick Enberg will be front and center during CBS' coverage of the U.S. Open from New York this weekend. The network goes on the air tomorrow at 11 a.m., takes Sunday off for football, then returns Monday at 11 a.m., all seen locally on Channel 13. On cable, USA continues its daytime and evening coverage today at 11 a.m. and 7:30 p.m., with six hours at noon on Sunday and more in the evening at 7:30.

ESPN will have a boatload of baseball Monday, highlighted by the Seattle-Boston game at 1 p.m., where Carlton Fisk's number will be retired.

Over on ESPN Classic, the channel premieres daily reruns of the best sports-themed entertainment show ever, "The White Shadow," the chronicle of a former NBA pro turned high school basketball coach each morning at 10, starting Monday. And later that day on ESPN Classic, if you don't already have it on tape, set the VCR for the 9 p.m. re-air of the 1995 game where Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive games played streak.

Week's ratings

The ratings for the top 10 most watched sporting events on broadcast television in Baltimore, Aug. 24-30: R-Rating; S-Share

Event Day R/S

Ravens-Giants Fri. 13 8.5/16

Ravens pre-game Fri. 13 5.4/12

Orioles-D. Rays Sat. 13 5.4/12

Golf Sun. 13 5.0/11

Orioles-D. Rays Sun. 54 4.9/12

Golf Mon. 2 4.8/8

Golf Sat. 13 3.3/10

Comets-Liberty Sat. 11 2.9/9

'Skins-Pit. (R) Sat. 24 2.5/8

FSU-BYU Sat. 2 2.4/5

Note: Each rating point equals 9,992 homes in Baltimore area.

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