ABC Broadcasts Final 'Monday Night Football'

ABC will broadcast its final episode of Monday Night Football Monday evening, 36 years after the long-running, highly rated show revolutionized television sports coverage. ABC's cable sibling ESPN will carry the weekly NFL games next season.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Farai Chideya.

Tonight is the end of an era in sports television. It's this season's final broadcast of ABC's "Monday Night Football" and the last time it'll be called ABC's "Monday Night Football." Next year the 35-year-old award-winning program will switch form free network TV to cable on ESPN. The change is significant. ABC created a show that became a cultural icon and helped introduce sports into the world prime-time entertainment. Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN reporting:

Classical music lovers have their four notes that stir the soul.

(Soundbite of first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony)

GOLDMAN: For the last 35 years, pro football fans have had theirs.

(Soundbite of "Monday Night Football" theme music)

GOLDMAN: The opening four notes to "Monday Night Football" have been a clarion call to action for fans. OK, not so much action involved in sitting on your rear watching a football game, but a call nonetheless to turn on and tune in the one pro football broadcast that wasn't on Sunday and that was, in its earliest days, truly different by design. Don Ohlmeyer produced "Monday Night Football" in the 1970s.

Mr. DON OHLMEYER (Former Producer, "Monday Night Football"): You know, our approach was screw the football fan; he's going to watch anyway. We need to attract other people to make this a successful show in prime time.

GOLDMAN: The way to do that? In a scene from the TNT movie "Monday Night Mayhem," ABC executive Roone Arledge, played by John Heard, lays out the plan during a round of golf with Hall of Fame football player Frank Gifford.

(Soundbite of "Monday Night Mayhem")

Mr. JOHN HEARD: (As Roone Arledge) You know, and the key--the key is going to be the announcing. You know what the big idea is? Three men in a booth.

Mr. KEVIN ANDERSON: (As Frank Gifford) Three announcers?

Mr. HEARD: (As Roone Arledge) Three announcers. And it's not going the play, the yard and how the tight end got open in the middle. No. I mean, come on, when the game is lousy, that stuff will kill you. And you know what? I'm going to go out and I'm going to get a guy that's going to stir things up. He's going to smash the toadyism that these announcers have been ruining the great game of football with.

(Soundbite of golf club being swung)

Mr. JOHN TURTURRO: (As Howard Cosell) Hello again, everyone. I'm Howard Cosell. Welcome to still another Monday night of NFL football, right here on ABC. We look for a super game tonight.

GOLDMAN: Howard Cosell was Arledge's bull in the china shop. Cosell was the anti-sports-broadcaster's sports broadcaster, pugnacious, funny, articulate, derisive. He became the focal point of the "Monday Night" booth, yet just one of three distinct voices, along with Frank Gifford and former pro quarterback Don Meredith. Again, here's Don Ohlmeyer.

Mr. OHLMEYER: You know, Frank thought everything about the NFL was terrific. Howard thought it was all a fraud. And, you know, Don thought the owners were a bunch of crooks and the players, they were terrific. They had three--you know, you could throw anything out there that you wanted, any question that you wanted, and you could have an interesting debate, argument, discussion, whatever you want to call it. And that's what makes for good television. That's what makes for good company in your living room.

GOLDMAN: And America loved the company and the humor, like when the camera zoomed in on a bored fan who reacted by flashing his middle finger.

(Soundbite of "Monday Night Football"):

Unidentified Man #1: Right there is a vivid picturization of the excitement at...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #2: They're number one in the nation.

GOLDMAN: And viewers particularly loved the odd-couple interactions between Cosell, an often grating New York with a masterful and hilarious command of the English language, and Meredith, who played the role of the `aw, shucks' country bumpkin.

(Soundbite of "Monday Night Football")

Mr. DON MEREDITH: (Singing) Turn out the lights, the party's over. They say that all good things must end.

GOLDMAN: Roone Arledge's vision of sports as prime-time entertainment became a reality, and the "Monday Night" booth became the place to be for movie stars, politicians, even Beatles.

(Soundbite of "Monday Night Football")

Mr. COSELL: Will The Beatles ever reunite?

Mr. JOHN LENNON: You never know. You never know. I mean, it's always in the wind. If it looked like this, it might be worth doing, right?

GOLDMAN: John Lennon was genuinely amazed by the "Monday Night" scene when he showed up in the booth during a game in Los Angeles. Frank Gifford remembers after the game when Lennon left the stadium with the three announcers.

Mr. GIFFORD: A couple thousand fans waiting for us to come out of the tunnel of the LA Coliseum, and they were a different kind of fans than John Lennon of The Beatles ever knew. I mean, these guys had put away a lot of beer that night, and they were raising hell. They wanted to get ahold of Howard. And it was fun for us, but I mean, he was a little awed by it.

GOLDMAN: Cities would hold parades for the announcers when they came to town. Tuesday mornings, Americans were buzzing about what Frank, Howard and "Dandy Don" said the night before. On December 8th, 1980, there was a somber illustration of how "Monday Night Football" had become a cultural touchstone. Instead of having the ABC News division break in, the network let Cosell make the following announcement during a game between Miami and New England.

(Soundbite of "Monday Night Football")

Mr. COSELL: Remember, this is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses. An unspeakable tragedy confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City. John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City, the most famous, perhaps, of all of The Beatles, shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, dead on arrival.

GOLDMAN: It's striking that Howard, Frank and Don worked as a trio for only five years. During the other 30 years of "Monday Night Football," there have been 12 more announcers, an eclectic mix ranging from O.J. Simpson to comedian Dennis Miller; numerous sideline reporters; even a rockin' theme song by Hank Williams Jr. to go along with those original four notes.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. HANK WILLIAMS Jr.: (Singing) Are you ready for some football, a Monday night party? Yeah, this is old Hank, and I'm back and I'm ready to get the thing started.

GOLDMAN: Despite the pyrotechnics, it's tempting to say "Monday Night Football" just isn't what it used to be, when people watched even if the games were lousy. In fact, the show's ratings are strong; it's consistently a top 10 prime-time program. Its announcers, Al Michaels and John Madden, are highly respected. True, "Monday Night Football" doesn't stand out the way it once did, but Don Ohlmeyer wonders what does.

Mr. OHLMEYER: It's a 200-channel world vs. a three-channel world. And you know, it's very difficult today to find any show that has the impact on the culture that tons of shows had back in the '70s and '80s, because in those days culture was determined by network television, and today culture is determined in a hundred different ways.

GOLDMAN: "Monday Night Football's" move to ESPN makes economic sense. ABC has been losing millions of dollars each year as ad sales haven't kept up with the huge amount of money the network has to pay the NFL to broadcast the games. With its subscriber fees, ESPN can pay the NFL: $1.1 billion a year for eight years. The switch will mean losing "Monday Night Football" viewers who don't have cable, but an estimated 83 percent of households with televisions do. Plus, ESPN will carry the program on its Spanish-language network, ESPN Deportes. That reaches 10 million homes in the US, perhaps some new fans ready to join Hank Jr. and shout (Spanish spoken). Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. WILLIAMS: (Singing) Are you ready for some football, a Monday night party? This is rocking randy Hank, ready to get this thing started. You...

CHIDEYA: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Farai Chideya.

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