Last Night for Monday Night Football
ABC signs off on Monday nights
By Dan Caesar
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Monday night football 1971
Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford and Don Meredith for Monday Night Football in 1971.
Don Meredith used to warble those verses more than three decades ago when "Monday Night Football" games became blowouts, and those words will be meaningful again tonight.
After 36 years on ABC, the second-longest run by a prime-time program in network television history ends with the airing of the New England-New York Jets game. Only "60 Minutes," which is in its 38th year on CBS, has aired longer.
Although "MNF" isn't going away - it will move to cable's ESPN next season - its departure from free TV signals the end of one of television's most innovative, storied and successful shows.
"I'm very sad," "MNF" analyst John Madden said in a recent interview with HBO. "I mean, it's not the right thing. It shouldn't have happened that way."
But the rapidly changing business culture has made "MNF" too expensive for network television, which derives all its revenue from advertising. It is estimated to have lost $150 million last year. The Walt Disney Co. owns ABC and ESPN. So by moving "MNF" to a station available only via cable or satellite subscription, Disney taps a substantial additional revenue stream that doesn't exist with over-the-air TV - subscriber fees.
"Retaining 'Monday Night Football' simply did not make smart financial sense for ABC," ESPN and ABC Sports president George Bodenheimer said when the move was announced. "We could not reconcile the fees against the revenue. ... We love football at ABC. It's been a love affair for 36 years. It will go down in the history of sports television, being created on ABC and with this magnificent run. But at this point, given the success we're having with our entertainment product and the financials, we deemed that this was the proper move for us. ... We're not looking back."
The "MNF" crew will do a wild-card playoff game in January and has the Super Bowl in February. But tonight is the finale for ABC on Mondays. An era ends.
"It's an American television institution," said Al Michaels, who is completing his 20th season as the show's play-by-play voice and has been in that job longer than anyone in the program's history. "I think the median age (in the United States) is around 35 - so for more than half the people in this country, they've never had life without 'Monday Night Football.' We've always considered it an honor to be part of this show."
Michaels will remain with "MNF" when it moves to ESPN, but Madden is moving to NBC where he will work on its new Sunday night package of games. Michaels will work with Joe Theismann on Mondays.
"I'm a traditionalist and I'm sorry to see that it's changing," said Dan Dierdorf, who was an analyst on a record 200 "MNF" telecasts from 1987-98. "There still are going to be games on Monday nights next year, it's just going to be on a different channel. So maybe we shouldn't be maudlin about it. But by the same token after this many years if you really have a love of the game, you realize you ought to give it their due. It was part of all of our lives."
Sowing the seeds
"Monday Night Football" hit the airwaves in 1970 in a vastly different television world than exists today.
There were just three major networks - ABC, NBC and CBS - and many markets received just two or three other stations. Cable was in its infancy, and available only in remote areas.
NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle wanted to sell the Monday night package to CBS, which had experimented with a few Monday games in the '60s. But CBS had a strong Monday lineup and passed. So did NBC.
Sports were seen then as weekend-only network TV fare. At the time, there never had been a World Series night game. The Super Bowl was strictly an early afternoon affair. The NCAA basketball championship still was determined on a Saturday, not on a Monday night as it is now. And ESPN was nearly a decade away from its humble beginnings.
But Roone Arledge, the pioneering head of ABC Sports, convinced his bosses to take a shot with the NFL. There wasn't much to lose, because ABC was a distant third in the ratings. Still, there was much scoffing when ABC chairman Leonard Goldenson took Arledge's advice to buy "MNF." The deal was referred to in some circles as "Goldenson's Folly."
A national spectacle
With the deal cemented, Arledge had a novel concept - turn the broadcasts into an event, not merely standard football coverage. So he hired Howard Cosell, an outspoken, urbane New York lawyer, as an analyst. He paired him with Meredith, who said he agreed to his first ABC contract on the back of a napkin. Meredith's Texas-grown down-home humor and blue-collar approach played perfectly off Cosell.
Keith Jackson in the first year, then Frank Gifford for the next 15 seasons, served as referee and play-by-play broadcaster.
"Howard Cosell was neither a play-by-play announcer, nor was he an expert commentator in the sense of being a former football player," Arledge, who died in 2002, said in an NFL Films documentary several years ago. "In order to have him, I had to have three announcers instead of two. There never had been three announcers. Everybody said, 'You're out of your mind. They'll be tripping over everybody.'"
But "MNF" soon became a national spectacle, the talk around the water coolers of America on Tuesday mornings. From the announcers' canary-yellow blazers to celebrities as diverse as John Lennon, Burt Reynolds and Ronald Reagan dropping in the booth, "MNF" became much more grandiose than a typical football telecast. And the real show was the banter between Cosell and Meredith, as attested to by Chet Forte, the show's producer from 1970-86. Forte, who died in 1996, addressed the matter in the NFL Films presentation.
"People turned on 'Monday Night Football' to see and hear what Meredith, Cosell and Gifford were going to say, especially Meredith and especially Cosell," he said. "They became bigger than the game."
Meredith dubbed the show "Mother Love's Traveling Freak Show" because of its wacky appeal. Fans brought signs to the games poking fun at Cosell, and the phenomenon became so profound that Cosell was named the nation's favorite and most despised sportscaster in the same polls.
Cosell's popularity also soared because he anchored a halftime array of highlights from games played the previous day, which at the time was highly anticipated by fans who hadn't seen them. This was in sports TV's dark ages, well before "SportsCenter" aired clips ad nauseam all Sunday night.
"People became incredibly provincial," Don Ohlmeyer, "MNF" producer from 1973-76, said on the NFL Films documentary. "If their team wasn't on, we would have death threats ... which was why Chet and I decided to tell everybody the halftime highlights were selected by Howard when in fact Howard had nothing to do with it. If there were going to be death threats, we wanted them aimed at Howard!"
"Freak Show" ends
The first incarnation of the Cosell-Meredith marriage was short lived. Meredith left after the 1973 season to try to pursue an acting career. Alex Karras replaced him, but Meredith never made it big as a thespian and the Karras-Cosell team fell far short in generating the buzz of the original pairing. So Meredith returned to "MNF" three seasons later, replacing Karras. Although much of the spark returned, the flame eventually began to flicker in large part because Cosell was losing interest. He left after the 1983 season. "MNF" never would be the same, although the ratings numbers can be interpreted in different ways.
Although the raw ratings numbers have declined markedly from the era when Cosell and Meredith were wreaking havoc, and "MNF" figures to finish with its worst rating ever this year, viewership levels of all broadcast television programming have declined massively over the past three decades. That's because the vast amount of in-home entertainment options that exist now were unavailable in the halcyon years of "MNF." Included are the massive amount of cable and satellite channels, VCRs, DVDs, computers, etc.
Interestingly, in the new world of mass competition for viewing, "MNF" has been a staple in the top 10 of the Nielsen rankings for more than a decade. That happened just once in the Cosell era.
"I can honestly say that I'm proud of the fact that the years I did it, we were the No. 3 show on television," Dierdorf said.
But the ratings remained a constant sticking point for network executives, who tinkered often with the lineup after the Dierdorf-Gifford run ended in 1998. The biggest upheaval came in 2000. In an attempt to replant its entertainment roots, ABC put comedian Dennis Miller in the analyst's seat. The experiment lasted two seasons, until Madden - long coveted by ABC - became available and Miller was dumped. Also on the pizzazz front: Lisa Guerrero, who had posed in lingerie for magazines, was hired in 2003 as the sidelines reporter but was dumped after one rocky season.
ESPN plans to pump "MNF" as a big deal, and given that network's track record of hype and self-promotion, expect an avalanche of hoopla next summer.
"It's a landmark property in television," ESPN's Bodenheimer said when the deal was announced. "... It's a stellar day for our company."
Michaels' long history with the show - as well as a better financial offer - is why he decided to remain with "MNF" even though he was wooed by NBC for its Sunday night games.
"The three words 'Monday Night Football' just resonate like none others in sports television," Michaels said when he announced he was staying. "When I hear the words, 'Monday night,' 'football' just follows. There's something that's just spine-tingling about it."
But there won't be as many spines to tingle next year.
According to Nielsen, ESPN is in about 83 percent of homes nationally and just 78 percent of homes in the St. Louis market. ABC, in contrast, is available almost everywhere. That means about 17 million households nationally will be shut out of "MNF."
"Let's not kid ourselves, everything has changed in our business," Dierdorf said. "I feel bad for the people at ABC. This is hard. They're losing a franchise. They're losing a part of television history."
Man I remember those days of Merideth and Cosell, they were good to listen to. Going to have to watch tonights game for sure just to say I saw the last broadcast.