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'Monday Night Football' Today Isn't Close to What It Once Was

Dec 8, 2010 – 11:17 AM
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Milton Kent

Milton Kent %BloggerTitle%

Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith

The notion that the world would first learn of the death of a musical icon during the telecast of a mere football game seems laughable given our modern media sensibilities.

Yet, the confluence of the 30th anniversary of the shooting death of John Lennon this Wednesday – announced late in the fourth quarter of a Monday night game -- and the death Sunday of Don Meredith serves as a reminder that while the New England-Miami clash may have been just another football game, "Monday Night Football" was no mere telecast.

Indeed, the telecast that currently airs each Monday at 8:30 p.m. ET is connected to the four-act drama that kicked off each Monday at 9 p.m. then only by title and by the fact that there's a football game. Nothing else is the same.

The "Monday Night Football" of Dandy Don, Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford was part musical, part comedy, part satire and occasional tragedy with a football game thrown in for good measure.

Gifford, the former New York Giants golden boy, could only have been the sensible center, the Everyman, of sorts, in a world where he was partnered with Cosell and Meredith, the Vaudevillians.

Cosell, who delivered the news of Lennon's murder as New England kicker John Smith was preparing to kick the potential game-winning field goal on Dec. 8, 1980, was the pompous know-it-all with the outsized vocabulary and the ego to match. His gravitas gave the show and perhaps the sport itself a form of legitimacy that it wouldn't have had otherwise. In fact, Cosell interviewed Lennon during a game on Dec. 9, 1974.

Still, it fell to Meredith, the former Dallas Cowboys star quarterback who died Sunday in New Mexico at 72, to be the comic relief. Dandy Don, as Cosell so famously nicknamed him, took advantage of the prime-time showcase to make the previously meat-and-potatoes game of football into a weekly variety show.

Meredith, who was not in the booth the night Lennon was assassinated, -- Fran Tarketon was the third man by then -- was the down-home, down-to-earth guy that Gifford and Cosell never could be. Indeed, Meredith's ability to pierce through Cosell's facade was as vital to MNF's success as the games themselves.

Eventually, Meredith and Cosell left MNF. Meredith returned for a time, to be paired with Gifford and O.J. Simpson, but the magic was gone, never to return.

The argument can certainly be made that just as pop music changed when Lennon's band, the Beatles, broke up, so did MNF, when Gifford, Cosell and Meredith drifted apart. Football became the focal point in a way that it never had.

Try as they might, ESPN understandably tries to create linkage between the "Monday Night Football" of the 1970s and '80s and today's model.

There's a three-man booth, just as there was then. Hank Williams, Jr. musically invites all his rowdy friends over for the telecast, and there's a big spotlight on halftime highlights from the games the day before, as well as a gussied-up version of the theme song.

But the lightning that escaped from the bottle four decades ago to take the nation by storm can't be duplicated in today's multi-channel, multi-platform universe.

In many respects, ESPN has only itself to blame for the lack of specialness that exists with MNF today.

What made MNF so unique in its day was the notion of watching football on a weeknight at home. The concept of seeing greats like Joe Namath and Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach at a time other than 1 or 4 p.m. on Sunday was considered a decided gamble for the NFL and for advertisers, though not for ABC, which was lagging in third place in the ratings at the time.

Flash forward to today, when it is possible, once the college season is in gear, to have a prime-time football game on every night of the week. And most of those games air on – wait for it – ESPN. That kind of overexposure can only serve to water down what made the idea so unique in the first place.

MNF is also a victim of the times. When the show premiered in 1970, there were only three broadcast networks and a handful of independent stations. The idea of cable and satellite was as out of mind as the thought of colonizing other planets.

Now, the viewer not only has a host of general programming choices, he (or she) can get football in a variety of manners, up to including the mobile phone, which, of course, didn't exist then. And while sports is, in its own way, the ultimate reality show, MNF now competes against an actual reality show, "Dancing With The Stars."

Inside the booth, the contrasts between then and now couldn't be more stark. As a play-by-play man, Mike Tirico is superior to Gifford, though Tirico is rarely called upon to be a referee for his booth partners, as Gifford frequently was.

The current analysts, Jon Gruden and Ron Jaworski, are technically sound, but they don't possess a modicum of the charisma that Meredith and Cosell had. And while amusing in his own right, Chris Berman's halftime highlights are a mere shell of Cosell's breathless weekly narration.

Indeed, the argument can be made that the real "Monday Night Football" isn't even on Monday any more. When NBC grabbed the Sunday night package, which had originated on ESPN, it turned that game into the featured contest of the week, going so far as to hire away "MNF" play-by-play man Al Michaels and the Monday night production team away.

And Sunday Night Football has become the most popular show in prime-time television this season, dominating the overall Nielsen ratings, with the highest average viewership for a prime-time NFL package in 14 years. Sunday's Pittsburgh-Baltimore classic, seen in nearly 23 million homes, was the most-watched show on television last week, running that streak to 13 weeks in a row.

Meanwhile, MNF, while winning its time slot each week, averages about 14 million viewers a week. That's quite impressive, to be sure, but is there anyone who believes that MNF today is anywhere close to what it was the night John Lennon died?

Turn out the lights, indeed. The party's over.
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