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  • Starring: Dennis Miller, Alex Karras, Howard Cosell
  • Summary: "Monday Night Football really got on the air because of Pete Rozelle," recalls former producer Don Ohlmeyer. Indeed, it was Rozelle's reputation for public relations and marketing that created a prime-time venue for the National Football League.

    The prototypes for Monday Night Football
    were those annual Monday night games staged from 1966 to 1969 inclusive on CBS. St. Louis hosted three of them, and it seemed natural for the NFL to make Monday night their regular turf.

    The only trouble was, Rozelle couldn't get a network to agree. CBS did not want to lose Gunsmoke. NBC had Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, TV's highest-rated show the past two years. Even ABC, floundering in third place in the ratings, was unsure. Rozelle then threatened to put the Monday night package in syndication via the Hughes Television Service. So ABC bought in.

    NFL owners themselves weren't keen on Monday Night Football. Some thought the gates would be dormant. But then-Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell, who knew a thing or two about marketing himself, agreed to host the first MNF game. He asked that the Browns face the Jets to maximize ABC's first-night audience. The result was a smashing success.

    For 36 years, Monday Night Football would air on ABC at Mondays at 9pm ET/6pm PT ever since (except for when it aired at 8pm ET). Though two teams would always meet on the field, viewers often got their fill from watching the original ABC broadcasters.

    Don Meredith and Howard Cosell were, along with Keith Jackson, part of the original team that started in 1970. After Jackson returned full-time to ABC's college football broadcasts, the network hired Frank Gifford away from CBS. From there, Monday Night Football began its most memorable years. It got ratings thanks to the wide appeal that Cosell, Meredith, and Gifford collectively garnered. Except for a shift in the mid-70s that sent Meredith briefly to another network, ABC played a strong football card for twelve years.

    The separate departures of Meredith and Cosell left the Monday Night Football booth in a shaky transition period during the mid-80s. Though they sometimes got it right on the field, with the high-water mark being Miami's romping of the eventual Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears in 1985, it was plain that the booth could not work with three ex-players (what Howard Cosell had labeled "jockocracy"). The likes of Fred Williamson, O.J. Simpson, and Joe Namath were quickly disposed.

    The second-most-stable team was assembled in 1986, when veteran ABC sportscaster Al Michaels joined Gifford. Rounding out the booth was future Hall of Fame offensive lineman Dan Dierdorf. They would share more than a decade of prime time football coverage, including three Super Bowls.

    For all its considerable charm and novelty, one thing Monday Night Football did not achieve was a proper farewell to Frank Gifford. After the 1997 season, the booth welcomed the recently-retired Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason. Gifford was cramped in a studio to introduce pregame and halftime stories for the 1998 season. Neither change worked, as Gifford was out of ABC after one year and Boomer Esiason agreed to a contract settlement in 2000.

    The next two years were the least successful. Joining Al Michaels was ABC college football analyst Dan Fouts and, of all people, Dennis Miller. Even though their first season had an abundance of nail-biters (witness the Jets' Midnight Miracle over the Dolphins), the new recruits were unable to get in focus. Miller in particular was over-rehearsed in the hours leading up to a broadcast. Both he and Fouts were out of the booth after January 7, 2002.

    ABC needed a lift for the show, and thought they had it when John Madden (who had recanted on his offer to join ABC in 1994) came over from another network. Monday Night Football went from planes to buses for the next four years. Again, though, the players were meant to be bigger stars than Madden or Michaels. Sometimes it showed, such as the Colts' stunning comeback over the defending World Champion Buccaneers in 2003. But in all honesty, the hundred forces that had emerged after 1970 to compete with Monday Night Football, were collectively getting the better of ABC.

    Thus, on April 18, 2005, a new eight-year contract sent Monday Night Football to ABC's adopted sister network, ESPN.
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  • Genre(s): Sports, Sports, Talk & Interview
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