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Pre-game pep talk

Scheduling shifts look good to 'MNF'

NEW YORK — ABC is not making any blue-sky predictions about better ratings for the 2001 “Monday Night Football” season, but it doesn’t hesitate to point out a couple of scheduling advantages that could make this year a Nielsen touchdown.

“MNF” wound up with its worst average Nielsen rating ever in 2000, a 12.7. But Dennis Miller, the comedian who moonlights as a color commentator for “MNF,” said Wednesday the rating should have fallen even further because “we had four games compromised last season” by running on audience-challenged nights.

Miller was speaking during a conference call with reporters featuring the show’s five on-air commentators and its producer, Fred Gaudelli.

The gloomy Mondays of 2000 that Miller referred to are Labor Day and Christmas Day, which are among the worst nights for TV viewing, and the two nights “MNF” competed directly with NBC’s Olympics coverage from Sydney.

This year, the “MNF” season starts on Sept. 10, a week after Labor Day, and the NFL will not schedule any games for either Monday, Dec. 24, or Monday, Dec. 31, instead shifting the contests to separate Saturday nights (Dec. 22 and 29).

And, to ABC’s relief, the Winter Olympics from Salt Lake City on NBC will not take place until Feb. 8-24.

“There’s no question that we have a more favorable schedule this year,” Gaudelli said.

Most of the reporters directed their questions at Miller, who’s coming back for his second season as one of the three men in the “MNF” booth (with Al Michaels and Dan Fouts).

“One of the things I learned is to be constantly aware during the broadcast of where we are in the game,” Miller said. “When a close game is on the five-yard line, I don’t want to be whipping out a profile of one of the players.”

For the new season, Miller said his watchword will be: “Less is more.” Then he added, “I survived the first year by doing the rope-a-dope and taking body blows from the media, which find it much easier to write stories about somebody not doing so well.

“This season I’ll be more demure. I call it the bonsai school of broadcasting — I’m pruning back a little.”

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