Monday Night Football

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Monday Night Football

Monday Night Football appeared on the American pop-cultural landscape at a time when professional football was becoming the nation's preeminent televised sport. As conceived by National Football League commissioner Pete Rozelle, Monday Night Football was to be a weekly prime-time showcase for the fast-growing game. ABC Sports, itself an aggressive innovator in the production and marketing of televised athletics under the stewardship of Roone Arledge, was the NFL's partner in this bold endeavor. Together, the NFL and ABC created a ratings behemoth.

Monday Night Football debuted September 21, 1970, with a game matching Joe Namath's New York Jets against the Cleveland Browns. Keith Jackson provided the play-by-play that first season, with color commentary from the unlikely duo of Don Meredith and Howard Cosell. Meredith, a folksy former quarterback, was soon nicknamed "Dandy Don" by the acerbic Cosell, a one-time lawyer whose pomposity was matched only by his verbosity. The oil-and-water team became a mainstay of the Monday night telecasts. When ex-Giants great Frank Gifford replaced Jackson in 1971, the crew that would dominate the program's glory years was in place.

The Monday night broadcast was an instant ratings success, in no small part thanks to the uniqueness of the concept. By covering only one game a week, ABC could devote sufficient resources to Monday Night Football to make it into a prime-time extravaganza. The production used nine cameras, instead of the four or five used for other NFL telecasts. Other technical innovations included the deployment of hand-held cameras to capture sideline action and the regular use of Goodyear's blimp to provide aerial views of the stadiums. "We approached every game as if it was the Super Bowl," commented NFL senior vice president Dennis Lewin, a one-time Monday Night Football staffer.

However innovative the concept and execution, Monday Night Football could not have succeeded without the interpersonal dynamics of its broadcast crew. Eschewing the two-man approach used on most sports telecasts, Monday Night Football became the first national sports program to place three men in the enclosed space of the play-by-play booth. The mostly male audience found much to hate in the bewigged, professorial Cosell, but that was just the point. He was the man Everyman loved to hate, and his constant needling of the good-natured Meredith and the mush-mouthed Gifford provided some great theater-of-the-absurd exchanges. Even blowouts and mismatches drew huge audiences, as viewers tuned in to hear what "Humble Howard" would say this week.

The show took a hit when Cosell retired from the Monday Night Football booth after the 1983 season. It lost much of its unique claim on the viewers' attention and reaped a harvest of bad press when the outspoken former analyst refused to go quietly. After taking every opportunity to gloat publicly over the show's precipitous ratings decline following his departure, in 1985 Cosell produced a scathing memoir, I Never Played the Game, in which he lambasted his former boothmates. Grammatically challenged ex-jocks O. J. Simpson and Joe Namath gamely tried to fill Cosell's analyst's chair, with predictably stupefying results.

For the 1986 season, ABC shunted Gifford to the color commentator's chair and brought in veteran play-by-play man Al Michaels to call the action. The facile Michaels quickly established himself as a strong presence in the booth, though Gifford seemed a bit uncomfortable with his new role. The following season, former NFL lineman Dan Dierdorf was added as the inevitable third wheel. The garrulous Dierdorf did not seem to mesh well with Gifford; nevertheless, ratings picked up, and ABC did not make a change in the booth (but for the brief addition of Lynn Swann in 1988) for the next eleven years.

During that time, ABC saw its franchise grow into even more of a ratings powerhouse. Young viewers were coming back to Monday Night Football in droves, in part due to the use of a rollicking Hank Williams, Jr. theme song. "Are you ready for some footbaaaaaallll?" the scruffy country-and-western scion wailed in the opening number, which went on to invite "all [his] rowdy friends" over for a "Monday Night Party."

Monday Night Football was thrown for a loop in 1997 when color man Gifford was caught on film by a supermarket tabloid in the arms of a buxom flight attendant who bore no resemblance to his wife, perky TV chat show hostess Kathie Lee Gifford. Although "Giff" later claimed he was set up by the paparazzi, it was an enormous public relations hit for a man whose appeal largely rested on his squeaky clean football hero image. Gifford's indiscretion was only one of many reasons he was ushered out of the broadcast booth in time for the 1998 season. The on-air chemistry between him and Dierdorf was dreadful, and Michaels too often had to play traffic cop between two blabbermouths instead of calling the action. Worst of all, viewers began tuning out this pigskin McLaughlin Group in ever increasing numbers. Ratings for the 1997 season were down seven percent from the year before.

In need of a fresh face, ABC turned to Boomer Esiason, a genial former quarterback with little broadcasting experience. To make room in the booth, the suits moved Gifford into a nebulous co-hosting role on a new twenty-minute pre-game show, Monday Night Blast. Start time of the games was moved up to 8:20 P.M. Eastern, to the consternation of many viewers out West. An obvious attempt to inject some energy into the wheezing Monday Night franchise, Monday Night Blast was a raucous sports bar party hosted by loud-mouthed ESPN anchor Chris Berman. The push was on to recapture the attention of younger viewers—at the risk of alienating older ones with its high-decibel puffery, but at the end of the century, as football ratings continued to decline across the board, it was unclear whether the benchmark Monday night telecast would ever regain the appeal it had in its heyday.

—Robert E. Schnakenberg

Further Reading:

Cosell, Howard, with Peter Bonventre. I Never Played the Game. New York, William Morrow, 1985.

Gunther, Mark, and Bill Carter. Monday Night Mayhem. New York, Beech Tree Books, 1988.