When Monday Night Football made its debut on ABC in 1970 with a contest between the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns, America bore witness to the beginnings of a cultural phenomenon. The brainchild of former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, Monday Night Football ushered in a new era of prime-time sports; it would run on ABC every week for the next 35 years.
Key to the show’s success was the presence of Roone Arledge, the brilliant, innovative producer who doubled the amount of cameras covering the game, pioneered the use of graphics as part of the broadcast, created the instant replay, and added an extra person to the traditional two-man broadcast booth. Director Chet Forte gave the show its signature intimate look, and commentator Howard Cosell provided the personality.
The brazen Cosell was flanked by play-by-play man Keith Jackson and Cowboy great “Dandy” Don Meredith, who soon became his on-air foil. Thanks in part to the sparks between Cosell and Meredith, Monday Night Football took on a life of its own and soon evolved into something more akin to a weekly event than a television show. Sometime goad John Lennon appeared on the program in 1974, and both Meredith and Cosell encountered controversy of their own throughout their run. In 1973 alone, Meredith was publicly admonished for drinking during a game, alluding on-air to his personal marijuana use, and referring to President Nixon as “Tricky Dick,” also mid-broadcast. In the show’s inaugural season, Cosell supposedly vomited on Meredith’s cowboy boots after drinking before a game, and in his last campaign he referred to African-American player Alvin Garrett as a “little monkey.” The fallout from that comment sped his departure at the end of the season.
Current Monday Night Football commentator Tony Kornheiser was fresh out of Harpur College (Binghamton University, today) when Cosell mania first hit the country. Like Cosell before him, Kornheiser, a long time columnist for The Washington Post, has a face for radio and a playfully abrasive personality. By 1988, Kornheiser joined the ESPN family and, along with boothmates Mike Tirico and Joe Theismann, benefited significantly from the network’s acquisition of the broadcast rights to Monday Night Football. The show’s move from ABC to ESPN (indirectly attributed to the success of Desperate Housewives) was prompted by the cable-revenue potential for a program that had finally proved too costly for network television.
The new booth has generated mixed criticism — of Kornheiser, particularly, and often from his own newspaper. His loud, curmudgeonly demeanor plays well on ESPN’s enormously successful sports-debate show Pardon The Interruption, which he hosts with fellow Post sportswriter Michael Wilbon, but doesn’t always work on Monday nights. During comedian Dennis Miller’s ill-fated one-season run on MNF, a thesaurus proved a handy tool for viewers. For Kornheiser’s tenure, a TV Guide would probably suffice.
Kornheiser isn’t the only semi-weak link. Mike Tirico, while serviceable, is no Al Michaels, and Joe Theismann, who most fans remember from the gruesome, career-ending hit he received from Lawrence Taylor in 1985, often sounds like he’s regressed to once again doing commentary for American Gladiators. At one point during the Week 3 Saints-Falcons game, Theismann commented on the athletes and playing surface by uttering, “It’s going to force them to run with their bodies on top of their legs.”
For many NFL fans, producer Dick Ebersol’s Football Night in America on NBC is now where it’s at. Aside from providing the league’s showcase game of the week, the combination of broadcast legend Al Michaels and Hall-of-Famer John Madden in the booth with Ebersol’s Olympic flourishes make for an almost regal telecast. A blow has been struck for the everyfan: Sunday Night Football on free TV, it would seem, trumps Monday Night Football on cable.