ABC, further blurring the line between sports as competition and sports as entertainment, on Thursday named comedian Dennis Miller as one of its two new commentators to work alongside veteran play-by-play announcer Al Michaels on ''Monday Night Football.''
Dan Fouts, a Hall of Fame quarterback for the San Diego Chargers who had been announcing college football for ABC, will be the other commentator.
Melissa Stark of ESPN will replace Lesley Visser as a sideline reporter, and former Los Angeles Ram and Indianapolis Colt Eric Dickerson, another Hall of Famer, will join her on the sideline despite limited broadcasting experience.
But the hiring of Miller caused the biggest stir.
''It's a quirky hire,'' he said. ''But I'm also confident I can do the job.''
Don Ohlmeyer, the producer of ''Monday Night Football'' in its so-called glory days of the 1970s, was brought in by ABC Sports president Howard Katz earlier this year with an edict to put entertainment back into the series.
Ohlmeyer expressed confidence that he had done just that. He said that there were 15 to 20 candidates that were considered, but Miller was the one he wanted all along.
''He was the first one I thought of, but initially in a guest or spot role,'' Ohlmeyer said.
He said Miller's representatives recently contacted him, telling him Miller was interested in doing the job full time and that his shooting schedule for the comedy show he does for HBO was compatible with that.
Ohlmeyer arranged for Miller to do an audition with Michaels in Los Angeles 2 1/2 weeks ago.
''Al and I were both blown away with his knowledge of football and his observations,'' Ohlmeyer said. ''What I look for in a commentator is someone who is good at observing the obvious and delivering comments with a sense of discovery, and that's Dennis.''
Of the audition, Miller said, ''I was at peace that I did as well as I could have done.''
A deal with Miller was completed Thursday morning.
Asked his reaction, Miller said, ''To borrow a line from my new partner, it was, 'Do you believe in miracles?' ''
Said Ohlmeyer: ''He will not be doing a stand-up comedy routine, but rather providing a knowledgeable fan's point of view and look at the game and the sports with distinctive style.''
Miller said, ''I've been watching sports on TV since I was a child, and I know what I like and what I don't like and when someone is talking too much.''
He also said, ''I won't be ranting,'' referring to one of his routines on his HBO show. He said he will not be expressing political views, a reference to controversial talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who was seriously considered for the job.
Asked about Limbaugh and what took him out of the running, Ohlmeyer did not mention anything about Limbaugh's political views, instead saying it was his five-day-a-week national radio show.
''We are planning to do a lot of things with the telecast, and Rush, who is a talented broadcaster, simply doesn't have the time to devote to the job that would be required,'' Ohlmeyer said.
Miller and Fouts replace Boomer Esiason, who spent two seasons in the ''Monday Night'' booth and then was not invited back for the third year of his contract. The new team will make its debut July 31 at the annual Hall of Fame game.
''When I watched 'Monday Night Football,' I didn't enjoy watching it as a fan,'' Ohlmeyer said. ''It did not provide as much pleasure as I felt it should.''
The hiring of Miller has broad implications as to the direction television is going.
It's another example of television's desire to reach a younger audience, an MTV or generation X audience with short attention spans, said David M. Carter, USC professor of sports business.
''Ohlmeyer and ABC know they must bridge the generation gap,'' Carter said. ''They know they needed someone who was an entertainer first and a football aficionado second.
''The danger is, will the hard-core football fan be turned off by someone who lacks credibility, no matter how well they know the game.
''It's a trade-off, and the viewer will ultimately decide if this is a desperate gimmick or if Miller will actually be someone who compels people to tune in week to week.
''The product on the field of course remains a critical issue.''
Carter also said ABC is trying to recapture the audience it has lost to Monday night wrestling.
''There is a faction of the audience who views wrestling to be more exciting with more soap opera-type drama,'' he said.
Wrestling's popularity can be gauged by the pay-per-view numbers it draws. Wrestlemania 2000 in April had 800,000 buys and brought in $30 million in revenue. By comparison, last Saturday's Shane Mosley-Oscar De La Hoya fight in Los Angeles had 700,000 buys and $37 million in revenue.
Miller said, ''I don't know football broadcasting, but I know how to work in front of a camera and I will bust my ... coming up with lots of information. I'll do the best I can, but I can only be me. I can't change.''
Said Fouts, tongue in cheek: ''Unlike Dennis, I can change to keep this job.''
Said Michaels: ''What gets lost in all this is we have hired a tremendous commentator in Dan. Not only was he an outstanding football player, but he grew up in a broadcasting family. He father, Bob, was the original play-by-play announcer for the San Francisco 49ers. I'm thrilled for Dan, and I think people are going to be impressed.''
The reassigning of Visser, who will remain at ABC, came as a surprise. She has been telling friends that she was told she would be back on the 'Monday Night' crew.
It might have hurt her cause when she committed a blunder at the recent Belmont Stakes. Interviewing the winning horse Commendable's owners, she said, ''Congratulations Bob and Beverly Lewis. How does this compare to your other Belmont wins?''
The Lewises had never had a Belmont winner.
However, an ABC source said that had nothing to do with her reassignment.
According to one report, halftime host Chris Berman will have a lesser role and Michaels will be the main halftime host. But Ohlmeyer said nothing has been decided about halftime and Michaels later said the same thing.
''We'll have an announcement about halftime in a few weeks,'' Ohlmeyer said.
Miller, showing off the wit Ohlmeyer and ABC are counting on, said, ''What they are going to announce is that they are moving the halftime to the end of the first quarter.''
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