From its inception, ABC’s “Monday Night Football” was a risky experiment that defied American sports tradition. From Howard Cosell’s pontification to Don Meredith’s down-home songs to Dennis Miller’s arcane analogies, it dominated TV viewing in homes and bars across the nation.
The broadcast was a hodgepodge of personalities and indelible images, defining moments and follies, eye-popping on-the-field performances and the kind of impromptu silliness that only sheer boredom can create.
In short, it was exactly what ABC Sports boss Roone Arledge hoped it would be.
It was theater.
Television sports reaches the end of one era and the beginning of another tonight when ABC signs off on its prime-time weeknight coverage of the NFL for the final time and hands off to sister network ESPN.
The 555th Monday night game on the network is itself of little consequence: The dismal New York Jets play the New England Patriots, who already are playoff bound but have no chance to improve their position.
The series switches networks next season, when ESPN begins paying $1.1billion a year for Monday night rights in an eight-year deal.
“‘Monday Night Football’ is the premier property in sports television,” ESPN president George Bodenheimer said. “All the players get up for it. All the teams watch. It’s a national showcase. To be able to transition it to ESPN is an honor.”
There was no ESPN when ABC began its “MNF” run Sept. 21, 1970, with the Jets playing at Cleveland. It was the beginning of 36 seasons of one of television’s most valuable franchises.
Municipal Stadium was jammed with 85,703 fans that first night as ABC began a broadcasting odyssey with Keith Jackson doing play-by-play and ex-quarterback Meredith sharing analysis and wisecracks with Cosell. The three-man booth was new territory for sports television. But then, so was this whole “MNF” adventure, the invention of NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and Arledge.
It was a bold step because, for the longest time, football in America fit neatly into a three-day weekend. Friday night was reserved for high school games. Saturday belonged to college football. The NFL played on Sunday.
Rozelle wasn’t about to lock the NFL into that pattern. The league had experimented with occasional weeknight games, and the commissioner thought it was a perfect place to grow his product. Similarly, Arledge believed sports was the perfect product for television.
Rozelle needed a network partner, and Arledge needed a foot in the NFL door. With CBS and NBC locked into NFL games on Sundays, ABC was the perfect fit for “MNF.” But it took some persuading.
Rozelle’s trump card was syndication on the Hughes Sports Network. On and off for two years, Rozelle and Arledge would meet for lunch, usually at Manhattan’s posh 21 Club, haggling over details. Arledge felt he was always on the defensive, especially when Rozelle mentioned Hughes.
“I had about as much clout as the Dalai Lama has dealing with the Chinese army,” he once said. “You know where the power was.”
Arledge persuaded reluctant ABC higher-ups to sign off on the deal, but then Rozelle almost took it away.
“He said, ‘Of course, you understand we have to offer it to CBS and NBC first because of existing contracts,’” Arledge said. “I was about to slit my throat.”
The other two networks passed, and the deal went to ABC for $8.5million a year, a rights fee that ballooned over the life of the partnership to $550million a year, half of what ESPN will pay.
It was the start of something big.
Arledge’s plan was to use the up-close and personal approach he had applied to ABC’s coverage of the Olympics. There would be nine cameras instead of the usual four or five. Producer Dennis Lewin was there at the start and later moved to the NFL as head of broadcasting.
“We approached every game as if it was the Super Bowl,” Lewin said.
The selection of the announcing team was vital. The plan was to have ex-NFL star Frank Gifford in the booth, but Gifford had a year remaining on a contract at CBS, and he recommended his pal, Meredith. Arledge added the bombastic, often abrasive Cosell for analysis, with Jackson doing play-by-play.
The interplay between the urbane Cosell and Meredith the country boy made the broadcasts tingle with electricity. Cosell took to calling Meredith “Dandy Don,” and the quarterback would serenade blowout games by singing, “Turn out the lights. The party’s over.”
Once, when the cameras zeroed in on stony-faced Minnesota coach Bud Grant, Meredith changed his tune, singing, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine …”
The first game included an electrifying 94-yard return of the second-half kickoff by Cleveland’s Homer Jones, played and replayed by ABC’s army of cameras, and a dramatic portrait of Jets quarterback Joe Namath, shoulders slouched at game’s end after an interception that sealed the victory for the Browns.
It was must-see TV, and the country responded. The first-year rating was 18.5 with a 31 percent share of the viewing audience. When Gifford replaced Jackson to do play-by-play the next year, ratings went up to 20.8.
Rozelle and Arledge had a hit on their hands.
Much of the success had to do with Cosell. His nasal, New York tones delivered a know-it-all message that often infuriated audiences.
“Howard made people listen,” Lewin said. “He made people think, and he made people watch. You didn’t always agree with Howard, but he was never afraid to say what he thought.”
Then there was Arledge’s unique production.
“Roone felt it was important to personalize the athlete, to transport the viewer from the couch to every part of the stadium,” Gifford said. “Roone Arledge turned a football game into live theater.”
Gifford functioned as a traffic cop, an X’s and O’s football fundamentalist, while Cosell and Meredith provided comic relief. It worked famously, benefited by some terrific games and occasionally interrupted by some dramatic news. It fell to Cosell on Dec. 8, 1980, to announce, in the middle of the broadcast, that Beatle John Lennon had been shot and killed.
Over the years, the package changed. Meredith fled Cosell’s overbearing presence, joining NBC in 1974 before returning three years later. Arledge moved to head ABC’s news division in 1977. Cosell departed in 1983 but not before taking a parting shot at the NFL, calling it boring.
“MNF” always battled boring. ABC dressed its announcers in outrageous canary yellow blazers for a while. When ratings began to dip, the network tried different starting times and different broadcasters, even hiring comedian Miller for two seasons. Some ex-players-turned-announcers stayed longer than others. Fred Williamson never made it out of the preseason in 1974. Gifford stuck around for 28 years.
There was a tawdry cross promotion involving Philadelphia wide receiver Terrell Owens for ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” series last year that raised some eyebrows. The signature opening recently has had country star Hank Williams Jr. singing, “Are you ready for some football?”
Al Michaels took over play-by-play duties in 1986 and will follow the series to ESPN next season, joined by ex-Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, who provided one of the more dramatic “MNF” moments in 1985 when his leg was broken on a sack by Lawrence Taylor.
Bodenheimer said ESPN will try to turn “MNF” into the kind of defining event the program was in its early years.
“ESPN plans to create an immersive experience for the fans,” he said. “It will be a happening in each ‘MNF’ city. We look to take the best that ABC has done in 36 years and create a new era on ESPN.”