Historical

The NFL’s first prime time series: 50 years ago Monday Night Football hit ABC and wowed America!

 

Fifty years ago last September 21st, television and the NFL changed forever.

Monday Night Football hit the airwaves on ABC and in short order, the weekly broadcasts turned into appointment viewing. The primetime presentations transcended hits and tackles. They were fresh, unique and novel; blending football, entertainment, colorful personalities and unseen halftime highlights. 

Lots of events prior to 1970 can be identified as catalysts for the NFL’s growth, the 1958 NFL Championship Game, dubbed the Greatest Game ever played, the first one to go into sudden death overtime. Then it was Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers, personalities like Broadway Joe Namath, the merger of the competing AFL and NFL and in 1967 the first Super Bowl .

In the 50s, the number of television households in America spiraled and in the 60s and 70s, color sets sprouted across the landscape. Because football is a game perfectly configured for TV screens at home, its marriage with the networks has been mutually profitable

The very first Monday game, when the Browns beat Namath and the Jets, drew 33% of the timeslot’s viewing audience.

Through the 70s, baseball lost its hold on our country. MLB’s ratings through a couple generations have now declined by 75%. 

In 1961 when the NFL was permitted to negotiate television contracts on behalf of its member clubs, CBS officially acquired the rights to the NFL. The American Football League which started in 1960 was first on ABC and a few years later migrated to NBC. After the merger in 1966 and later the unification of the two leagues on the field, CBS and NBC owned the NFC and AFC packages respectively.

As 1970 approached, the league was eager to do what many then thought was impossible, create a weekly network package on Monday nights. There were three networks NBC, CBS and ABC. They dominated television.  Some 90% of evening viewers had their eyeballs fixed on one of these three networks. There were no others. Fox wasn’t born yet and national cable wasn’t even an embryo. The other TV choices were locally owned independent stations and they had little compelling programming.

When then commissioner Pete Rozelle broached the idea of a primetime series to partners CBS and NBC, it was dismissed immediately. The thought of running non-scripted programming in the heart of evening viewing was considered by the two ratings leaders as blasphemous. ABC though was a fledgling network, always last in ratings behind the other two. It needed a boost.

The NFL had a backup strategy too. If ABC turned down the idea the league planned to independently syndicate its own Monday night package.

Our columnist Rich Podolsky is in the process of writing a book about the early years of NFL Today, You Are Looking Live! Rich spoke with Bill Fitts who was then a member of the CBS production team. Bill shared this, “He (Rozelle) and Bill MacPhail (CBS Sports division chief) were great friends…and (Rozelle) asked him if he could talk to me about setting up his own NFL network because he was worried that ABC wasn’t going to do it… I didn’t think it would be a huge problem to do.”

As the weakest of the three networks, ABC knew full well that the league could very well pick away some of ABC’s affiliates through syndication. If so, it would further taint ABC’s image.

ABC Sports’ Roone Arledge was an immediate protagonist. He got his bosses on board, details were hashed out and Monday Night Football was born. 

Arledge’s key lieutenant was Jim Spence, a Senior VP who was generally engaged in many of ABC Sports’ key decision. Spence wrote a juicy book about his 26 years at ABC and went into depth about the acquisition of NFL rights and the early years of Monday Night Football. Up Close and Personal made for a great read when it was released in 1988 and I recently revisited the text. Its 346 pages are full of beefy material.

There were those who suggested that it was a tell-all book, written after Spence left the company disappointed that he didn’t succeed Arledge as the head of ABC Sports. Arledge himself was promoted to head up both ABC News and Sports.

There’s an entire chapter dedicated to MNF in addition to a sprinkling of nuggets about the series throughout the book.

Roone Arledge - WikipediaIn that first year, there was no question who ABC would pick for play-by-play. Spence says, “You put your best foot forward in any new venture.” Keith Jackson was assigned. It was clear according to Jim that Arledge (left) wanted Howard Cosell involved and Commissioner Rozelle agreed. In 1970, Cosell was known for his boxing work, support of the controversial Muhammad Ali and regular commentary that was often trenchant.

How did Don Meredith end up being their first year third-man? Spence says that Arledge and Frank Gifford were good friends and Frank recommended Meredith to Roone.” The thinking was that Meredith, with his Texas drawl and cornpone humor, would play well off Cosell. It happened exactly that way, although not without a few struggles.”

Surprisingly, after the first season, Jackson was taken off the NFL. Roone brought Gifford in from CBS where he was an analyst. The onetime NFL standout had no play-by-play experience. Spence writes that he opposed the change and told his boss Arledge so. Jim felt that Jackson did a fine job and he saw no reason for change. He intimates that Jackson had the respect of the difficult to please Cosell.  “Gifford’s star status was what Roone was after,” he wrote. 

“Keith has a hard straight style, and in some ways a no-nonsense manner about him,” Spence says, “while Gifford is a much softer personality. Gifford’s presence brought more of an entertainment side to the broadcasts.” As for Meredith, Spence noted, “I think the guy sitting there in his easy chair really identified with Don, saw him as a good old boy with a pretty good outlook on life.”

Spence told me this week that two of the announcers he admired most were Jackson and Chris Schenkel. In the book, he points out, and almost sadly so, that Jackson was spurned by ABC three times, losing the MNF gig, later taken off MLB and when he was told that he’d split the college football package with Al Michaels. At that point Jackson contemplated retirement. Schenkel, according to Spence, would do anything the company asked. He was a good soldier. In the end you’d say Chris is best remembered for covering bowling, albeit he was an excellent football announcer..

Criticism of Cosell mounted right from the outset, from many corners including by advertisers. Ford, one of the major sponsors, threatened to pull out unless Cosell was dropped. Arledge and ABC held firm. Spence believes that the criticism of Cosell “had much to do with his support of Ali. To be brutally frank, a lot of Americans looked at him, not a handsome man, and listened to that gratingly irritating voice and perceived in both demeanor and tone, a haughty manner, and decided he was first and foremost a Jewish guy from New York who supported blacks.”

Spence recounts the time that Cosell was on the ground floor in an elevator car with a well known sports figure. They were headed up to the 28th floor where ABC Sports was situated. Into the elevator came Jim’s secretary. Spence described her “as a generously proportioned woman.”

Cosell then immediately spewed an impromptu speech, “I’ll have you right now, in this elevator, my dear. Take off your clothes this very minute. You realize my dear, it is destiny that has brought the two of us, to this moment in our lives.” Jim says that at that point his assistant flashed him a casual remark, “Sure Howard, just like always.” (This was obviously over forty years ago, well before the #Me too movement.)

Meredith left the trio in 1974 to join NBC where he was also given an opportunity to “grow as a performer.” Dandy Don returned to ABC later. With Meredith gone, ABC first used Fred Williamson, albeit briefly, then Alex Karras, Fran Tarkenton, O. J. Simpson and Joe Namath. Spence covers anecdotes and thumbnail profiles of these characters in his book.

As for O.J., Spence sums it up this way: “Just as I believe that a certain amount of the criticism directed at Cosell arose because he is Jewish, I think some of the sniping at O.J. came because he’s black.”

When Cosell left after the 1983 season, ratings suffered. “Cosell would have you believe that every rating point lost was directly attributable to his departure,” Spence writes. After 1985 when Meredith left for a second time, none of the three original members of the MNF crew remained.

By the mid 1980s, Al Michaels had made his mark at ABC. Al’s hockey call at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, “Do you believe in miracles,” resonated throughout the country and his work on baseball was noted too. Meanwhile, the Monday night series needed a fresh look after ratings had declined.

In 1986, Michaels was assigned the gig and would preside over the series through its course on ABC in 2005. Gifford was moved to the role of analyst. A year later Dan Dierdorf joined the crew and the trio of Michaels, Gifford and Dierdorf remained intact for over a decade.

Interestingly, Spence says that initially Arledge wasn’t sold on Michaels. “Roone liked stars,” he said, adding that at one point he had to save Al’s job. If so, Arledge, for all his success, was about to swing and miss. You might say that Michaels, over the last four decades has become ‘America’s play-by-play voice.’

Jim Spence - TV Guide Magazine Cover [United States] (4 June 1988)As for ABC Sports, it was hardly an idyllic spot to work. Arledge is portrayed as a conquer and divide boss, playing one underling against another. Spence writes that Roone “jealously guarded his relationship with the commissioner.” As such,  he says, “it took me so long to know Pete Rozelle better.”

Arledge admired Rozelle to a point where he wouldn’t challenge him. Jim says that former NFL broadcast head Bob Cochran told him that. “ABC Sports could have had the Super Bowl before it finally happened if Arledge had been tougher in negotiations. But you don’t tough it out with one of your heroes.”

The late Elton Rule, former ABC president, comments in Spence’s book about Arledge: “There can never be any question about his genius. But when it came to dealing with people, well, that’s a different matter.”

Spence himself started at ABC in 1960 and left in early 1986. Arledge was his boss for 25 years. Spence, a Dartmouth man who was reared in Westchester County outside New York City, says that his contract stipulated he would ascend to the presidency of ABC Sports after Arledge left.

But when Cap Cities bought ABC and Arledge was promoted to run ABC News and Sports, the new ownership group viewed ABC Sports under Arledge’s aegis as somewhat reckless with its spending. Cap Cities was always considered more frugal. Because he, Spence, was joined at the hip with Arledge, Cap Cities brought in a new face in to run sports, Dennis Swanson. “I was tarnished by a broad brush,” Spence told me.

At that point, Jim left ABC and ran his own production and television negotiations business for twenty years. He then moved to Williamsburg, Virginia where he taught at William & Mary through 2018.

 

Year                                       Commentators

1970                                       Keith Jackson, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith

1971                                       Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith

1972                                       Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith

1973                                       Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith

1974                                       Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith, Fred Williamson

1975                                       Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Alex Karras

1976                                       Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Alex Karras

1977                                       Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith

1978                                       Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith

1979                                       Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith, Fran Tarkenton

1980                                       Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith, Fran Tarkenton

1981                                       Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith, Fran Tarkenton

1982                                       Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith, Fran Tarkenton

1983                                       Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith, O.J. Simpson

1984                                       Frank Gifford, Don Meredith, O.J. Simpson

1985                                       Frank Gifford, O.J. Simpson, Joe Namath

1986                                       Al Michaels, Frank Gifford

1987                                       Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf

1988                                       Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf

1989                                       Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf

1990                                       Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf

1991                                       Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf

1992                                       Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf

1993                                       Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf

1994                                       Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf, Lynn Swann

1995                                       Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf, Lynn Swann

1996                                       Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf, Lynn Swann

1997                                       Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf, Lesley Visser

1998                                       Al Michaels, Dan Dierdorf, Boomer Esiason, Lesley Visser

1999                                       Al Michaels, Boomer Esiason, Lesley Visser

2000                                       Al Michaels, Dan Fouts, Dennis Miller, Melissa Stark, Eric Dickerson

2001                                       Al Michaels, Dan Fouts, Dennis Miller, Melissa Stark, Eric Dickerson

2002                                       Al Michaels, John Madden, Melissa Stark

2003                                       Al Michaels, John Madden, Lisa Guerrero

2004                                       Al Michaels, John Madden, Michele Tafoya

2005                                       Al Michaels, John Madden, Michele Tafoya, Sam Ryan *

2006                                       Mike Tirico, Tony Kornheiser, Joe Theismann, Suzy Kolber, Michele Tafoya

2007                                       Mike Tirico, Tony Kornheiser, Ron Jaworski, Suzy Kolber, Michele Tafoya

2008                                       Mike Tirico, Tony Kornheiser, Ron Jaworski, Suzy Kolber, Michele Tafoya

2009                                       Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Ron Jaworski, Suzy Kolber, Michele Tafoya

2010                                       Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Ron Jaworski, Suzy Kolber, Michele Tafoya

2011                                       Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Ron Jaworski **

2012                                       Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters

2013                                       Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters

2014                                       Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters

2015                                       Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters

2016                                       Sean McDonough, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters

2017                                       Sean McDonough, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters

2018                                       Joe Tessitore, Jason Witten, Booger McFarland, Lisa Salters

2019                                       Joe Tessitore, Booger McFarland, Lisa Salters

2020                                       Steve Levy, Brian Griese, Louis Riddick, Lisa Salters

 

*This was the last year Monday Night Football was on ABC TV. In 2006, the package moved to ESPN.

 

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David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History.

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Michael Green
13 days ago

Great piece. I’d read Mr. Spence’s book when it came out and as I recall, ABC was interested in Curt Gowdy or Vin Scully to do play-by-play (the amusing part to me is that the two of them didn’t get along well in those days). That certainly would have been a strength and star power. I vaguely recall Arledge thinking that Gifford would attract women. I thought, how long is Gifford going to be on camera! I also was curious about Chris Schenkel. He had long NFL experience, but I do understand why he was better suited to college football… Read more »