When ABC decided to put an irreverent comedian on ''Monday Night Football,'' the thinking was it would freshen a stale show and improve ratings that have been slipping for five seasons.
The early returns are in, and while Dennis Miller added flavor to the program, the national rating for his preseason debut plummeted 28 percent from what the network drew for last year's Hall of Fame Game.
Monday's game between San Francisco and New England earned a 7.3 rating with a 13 share, well shy of the 10.1/18 for last year's matchup between Dallas and Cleveland, which was also on a Monday night.
Bringing aboard a love-him-or-hate-him lightning rod didn't electrify viewers in the largest markets, either. New York produced a 5.9 both years, while Los Angeles dropped 23 percent from an 8.2 to a 6.3.
The 1999 game had the advantages of starting an hour later, at 8 p.m. EDT, and of featuring ''America's Team'' and the return of the Browns.
Even so, the big difference in ratings can't be comforting to ABC.
Miller's 7-10 p.m. EDT broadcast peaked with a 7.8 rating from 9-9:30, indicating people tuned in even when no-names were playing and the outcome wasn't in doubt. But that was clobbered by CBS' ''Everybody Loves Raymond,'' which drew a 9.0 in that time slot.
Each rating point represents 1 percent of the nation's estimated 100.8 million TV homes. Share is the percentage of in-use TVs tuned to a given show.
While Miller was laugh-out-loud funny at times, and by the end of the show was working smoothly with boothmates Al Michaels and Dan Fouts, he has improvements to make.
His timing was often wrong. His one-liners sounded scripted, if wonderfully esoteric. His forays into statistical analysis were cloudy, poorly stated or just trailed off. Miller was rarely drab. He kept viewers on their toes with references to everything from the Vatican to Mesopotamia to Socrates to the Rosetta stone.
The comedian's next test comes Aug. 14, when the Titans and Rams play a preseason rematch of the Super Bowl. And the good news for ABC is that there are still five weeks until the regular season starts.
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