December 23, 2005

‘Monday Night Football’ on ABC: One last drive

By Paul J. Gough

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Turn out the lights, the
party's over.

After a 36-year run, "Monday Night Football" will air its
last touchdown Monday night on ABC. A change in the broadcast
rights will move the second-longest-running primetime series to
ESPN, leaving behind a legacy of memorable moments, high drama
and well-known characters that will live on in TV history.

In its heyday, it seemed like everyone was watching. Not
only did it showcase the best of America's most popular sport,
it did it with style and drama. "Monday Night Football"
revolutionized the way sports were shown on television -- but
not just that: "Monday Night Football" revolutionized when
sports were shown on television. Long before ESPN, "Monday
Night Football" propelled them from weekend afternoons to

And just as important, it was must-see TV for the complex,
combustible relationship among superstar commentator Howard
Cosell and his two co-stars, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback
Don Meredith and New York Giants halfback Frank Gifford. On
Tuesday morning, Americans talked about the game, the
highlights from the weekend's other matchups and what Meredith
and Cosell had said the night before.

"Just those words, 'Monday Night Football,' and America
knows what you're talking about," said Fred Gaudelli, who has
been executive producer for five years.

For many reasons, "Monday Night Football" was unlike
anything anyone had ever seen before. And just as surprising,
no one wanted it when it then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle
shopped the idea to the three networks in 1969.

CBS and NBC preferred to stick with such existing hits as
CBS' "Gunsmoke" and NBC's "Rowan & Martin's Laugh In." ABC,
long the third-place network, wasn't happy about the idea,
either. But it had more to lose. It was only after the league
threatened to give the rights to the fledgling Hughes
Television Service -- which could potentially steal ABC's
affiliates, much like Fox would do to CBS 20 years later --
that ABC agreed.

"They didn't think it would fly in primetime," said Dennis
Lewin, a longtime ABC Sports executive who was a producer on
the first "Monday Night Football" on September 21, 1970. "It
took the vision of Pete Rozelle and Roone Arledge to make it

Arledge wrote a new playbook on how to televise football,
pairing with NFL Films for highlights and convincing reluctant
owners to let ABC Sports install cameras all over the field,
two at the 50-yard line, one on each 25-yard line and at least
one in each end zone, as well as several hand-helds. That,
along with a groundbreaking association with NFL Films, gave
ABC a clear edge in drawing not only the die-hard fan but the
casual viewer.

"ABC showed the game in a much more intimate manner. It
wasn't just close-ups, and it wasn't just slow motion," said
Michael Maccambridge, author of "America's Game: The Epic Story
of How Pro Football Captured a Nation." "It was a sense that
this game is an event, and it (was) worth caring about. And if
we care about it as a game, we can also care about and
understand it as a drama."

That first game, between the Cleveland Browns and the New
York Jets, showed just what kind of drama could be seen onfield
for the first time. The cameras zeroed in on Jets quarterback
Joe Namath, whose late-game rally ended in an interception and
the loss of the game, 31-21. Namath -- hands on hips, head
down, dejected -- personified the loss.

"Even if you weren't a sports fan, there were things on
'Monday Night Football' that you could care about,"
Maccambridge said.

The drama went on in front of and behind the camera in the
interplay between Meredith and Cosell, who had chucked a law
practice for a broadcasting career and had gained notice as a
boxing announcer. But he became a megastar on Monday nights,
when he held court on football, sports and the virtues of their
host city as well as sparring with country boy Meredith.

"There's no question they were an instant hit. It became,
as they like to say in later years, water-cooler conversation,"
Lewin said. "People couldn't miss what Meredith and Cosell, and
later Gifford, would say."

It didn't take long for "Monday Night Football" to take
off, earning an 18.5 rating/35 share in its first year.
Restaurants close early on Monday, bowling leagues suffer, the
movie business softens as Americans stay home on Monday nights.
Tuesday, which many games spilled into on the East Coast
because of the late starting times, becomes more popular than
Monday for Detroit autoworkers to call in sick.

"Monday Night Football" even became an integral part of an
episode of "The Bob Newhart Show" in the early 1970s, even
though it aired on rival CBS, Maccambridge recalled.

There has been no shortage of action on the field, either.
Not all of the games have been as superlative as the 45-3
Dolphins blowout of the Jets in 1983, or this year's 42-0
drubbing of the Philadelphia Eagles at the hands of the Seattle
Seahawks, or the Washington Redskins' 48-47 loss to the Green
Bay Packers in 1983, which also is the series' highest-scoring

There's the triumphant, embodied in Phil Simms' final pass
to Lawrence Taylor in the same 1995 game in which the Giants
retire his jersey. Or the Jets fourth-quarter comeback on
October 23, 2000, from a 30-7 deficit to tie and later win the
game in overtime. Name an NFL star of the past 36 years, and he
has been here, often many times.

"Monday night is really your chance to shine. Your peers
are watching, you know the nation is," said Joe Theisman,
analyst for "Sunday Night Football" on ESPN who has played on
"Monday Night Football" and appeared on the broadcast crew.
"Careers have been made and not made on Monday night
television. It carries that kind of significance."

It was one of those games, on November 18, 1985, that
carried significance for Theisman, then the star quarterback
for the Washington Redskins. He suffered a career-ending
compound fracture in a tackle that was shown, in gruesome
detail, live on "Monday Night Football." Theisman said he has
never seen it despite it being replayed over and over on TV.

"It's probably one of the most unbelievable things to ever
happen on Monday night, and it's one that most people
remember," Theisman said. "I've never seen the shot. I've
chosen not to look at them, and I haven't changed my mind."

Another dramatic moment occurred December 22, 2003, when
Packers quarterback Brett Favre, a day after his father died,
led his team to a 41-7 victory with 399 yards and four
touchdowns. Gaudelli said that in his five years on "MNF,"
that's his most memorable game.

There have been some misfires as well. Comedian Dennis
Miller joined the broadcast team in 2000 in a bold experiment
in mixing humor and football; but after September 11, Miller
had less to do and was replaced when play-by-play announcer Al
Michaels was paired with analyst and former Oakland Raiders
coach John Madden.

Cosell generated controversy wherever he went before
quitting the broadcast in disgust in the early 1980s. And the
always outspoken civil rights activist, a strong supporter of
Muhammad Ali in his draft resistance in the 1960s, was
excoriated after calling a black player "a little monkey."

Last year saw "Monday Night Football" in the news again,
with a controversial opening sketch featuring Philadelphia
Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens and "Desperate Housewives"
co-star Nicolette Sheridan.

Ironically, while "Monday Night Football" became famous in
the three-network world of the 1970s, it wasn't until the early
1980s when it cracked the top 10 for the season. And it wasn't
until the '90s when it regularly took up residence there as
overall broadcast network ratings declined. But "Monday Night
Football" ratings have fallen in recent years, and earlier this
year, ABC decided it wasn't ready for football anymore.

Next year, ESPN will have "Monday Night Football." For the
first time, Sunday night will be the broadcast primetime
identity for the NFL, on NBC. It just made more sense for ESPN,
with its dual-revenue streams of advertising and subscriber
fees, to get "Monday Night Football."

And it's true that "Monday Night Football," like most
things on network TV, has been diminished by the 300-channel
universe. It remained a tradition, but not as groundbreaking as
it had been.

"When everybody starts broadcasting games the way 'Monday
Night Football' did, then 'Monday Night Football' is not as
exceptional and unique as it once was," Maccambridge said. "You
can turn on ESPN 2 now and see the same techniques being used
for the Kent State-Akron game."

Meredith used to sing, "Turn out the lights, the party's
over," in the broadcast booth during games that weren't even
close. And while Meredith won't be there in New York for the
last broadcast, he and Gifford will both be a part of it.

While the loss of "Monday Night Football" on ABC is the end
of an era, ESPN executives believe that it's just embarking on
a new tradition.

Maccambridge believes that one of the show's lasting
legacies is to give a higher profile to sports. Before "Monday
Night Football," most sporting events on TV were relegated to
weekend afternoons. But the NFL's success gave rise to
baseball, the Olympics, the NCAA men's basketball championship
in primetime and, eventually, ESPN and its revolution.

"The conventional wisdom on Madison Avenue was that pro
football, or for that matter any sport, was too male, too
marginal, too parochial to succeed on primetime network
television," he said. "Then we see what happens: It's an
instant hit, becomes a cultural phenomenon, Howard Cosell is
this national icon and Don Meredith is much more popular
retired than he ever was playing."

ESPN executive vp content John Skipper agrees.

"The NFL moving a game to primetime was clearly one of the
catalysts of the revolution of sports being available
everywhere, all the time, when you wanted it," he said. "I
think you could point to it as one of the spots where all that
started, where you proved that sports was social currency and
mattered around the clock and around the dial."

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter