Jewish World Review March 21, 2000 / 14 Adar II, 5760
Monday Night Football memories
NASHVILLE One of the things that's different here
from the way things were 30 years ago is that
there's a National Football League team in town.
They're quite popular in Nashville, and all over
Tennessee. But the presence of the Titans -- and of
expansion teams in other places heretofore not in a
sports context widely considered to be "major
league," as if that phrase still has any meaning --
says a lot about why the American Broadcasting
Co. may be dealing with an impossible task.
ABC is in the midst of revamping "Monday Night
Football," one of its ratings leaders for 30 years.
Boomer Esiason was fired from the announcing
team last week; also let go were producer Ken
Wolfe and director Craig Janoff.
Because, in the words of ABC Sports president
Howard Katz, "We've got to make it special again."
Toward that end, Katz hired to run the show Don
Ohlmeyer, who was in charge of things during the
first seven years of "Monday Night Football," when
the three-man booth of Frank Gifford, Don Meredith
and Howard Cosell allegedly made every Monday
night, in Cosell's phrase, a "happening."
Which is what Ohlmeyer evidently believes his
assignment is now. He told a reporter: "One of the
things we'd like to recapture is a sense of
unpredictability, a sense of -- I hate to use this word
because it might be misinterpreted -- danger. . . .
People were afraid to go to bed because you never
knew what would happen."
In the broadcast booth, not on the field. That was
the lure of "Monday Night Football," or so ABC
always told itself: that the three men in the booth
provided such scintillating television that even people
who weren't much interested in sports had to tune
Actually, the secret of "Monday Night Football's"
huge ratings in the early '70s had less to do with the
Gifford-Meredith-Cosell alchemy than with
something rather more basic:
There were only three national commercial
television networks -- and no cable.
And other than "Monday Night Football," there were
no sports events on at night nationally on a regular
So viewers around the country had three choices
about what to watch at night. None of those choices,
nationally, involved sports events.
"Monday Night Football" capitalized on that in a way
that can never be repeated. It's a different world --
cable television has come along with more than 100
national channels available on some systems. New
generations are growing up with no idea what it was
like when, if you didn't watch NBC, CBS or ABC,
then in most cities you didn't watch television at all.
No MTV, no TNT, no AMC, no CNN, no Comedy
Channel, no Food Network, no A&E, no History
Channel, no VH1 or HBO or Showtime or MSNBC
or TBS . . .
And, most significantly, no ESPN or Fox Sports
outlets, or any of the other cable channels that have
successfully gobbled up huge chunks of the
discretionary viewing time of America's sports fans.
"Monday Night Football" was a hit because it was
an anomaly: big-time sports, coast to coast, at night.
You couldn't get that anywhere else.
Now you can't escape it. And a case can be made
that the ubiquity of sports in prime time has
diminished the appeal of sports. It, and expansion,
has watered down what big-league sports events
once felt like -- it has made the big game
commonplace: small. For all the hyperbole, for all the
effort to sell "storylines" for even something as
mundane as a Thursday night contest between
basketball's Charlotte Hornets and Cleveland
Cavaliers, the public, on some level, realizes that it
has been overfed.
"Monday Night Football," when it was a new hit, felt
like a creamy slice of chocolate pie that you were
allowed to bite into only once in awhile. If you didn't
eat that chocolate pie on Monday night, you weren't
going to get another chance until the following
Monday. Yes, there were Sunday afternoon games
-- but those games were the pot roast and boiled
potatoes. Monday night was dessert -- the sports
fan's only dessert of the week.
Now sports fans can be excused if they feel as if
they are the last competitors in a pie-eating contest.
It may have sounded great to them, at the beginning:
all the pie you can eat. All the sports contests you
But you can become gorged rather quickly when the
pie supply is endless. Here comes "Monday Night
Football," promising newer, fresher dessert. Bad
timing. Everyone at the table is
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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