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Jewish World Review March 21, 2000 / 14 Adar II, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Consumer Reports



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. The Titans.

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 in.

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 basis.

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 can watch.

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 full.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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