ABC Bids Farewell to 'Monday Night Football'

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ABC has broadcast its last Monday Night Football game. The show has been a staple in American sports broadcasting since its inception 36 years ago. Starting next season, the NFL program moves to ESPN. Steve Inskeep talks to USA Today sports television reporter Michael McCarthy.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep with Renee Montagne.

Last night marked an end to a television network tradition.

(Soundbite of "Monday Night Football")

Unidentified Man #1: The 555th and final episode as the New York Jets take on the New England Patriots on "Monday Night Football."

Unidentified Man #2: The atmosphere is as tense in this booth as it is on the gridiron. We have coming to vocal grips the ex-Giant Frank Gifford and the ex-Cowboy Don Meredith.

Unidentified Man #3: Look out! Ninety-nine yards and a half! William Perry spikes the football.

Unidentified Man #4: He did what?

Unidentified Man #5: Lord, you can take me now, I've seen it all.

Unidentified Man #6: (Singing) Turn out the lights, the party's over. They say that all good things must end.

INSKEEP: And so must that song. For 36 years, ABC played host to "Monday Night Football." The show is not going away, just moving to cable. But its departure from broadcast TV signals the decline of a program that became more famous than many of the players who appeared on it. One Monday night viewer is Michael McCarthy, who covers sports television for USA Today, and he's on the phone.

Good morning, Michael.

Mr. MICHAEL McCARTHY (USA Today): Good morning, Steve. How are you?

INSKEEP: I'm doing fine, thanks very much. Can you remind us what was so different about "Monday Night Football" besides moving a pro football game from Sunday to Monday?

Mr. McCARTHY: Well, I mean, what was so different about it was you really had sports going into prime time for the first time. You know, before that, football was a game for the afternoons, and prime time was the time for quote-unquote "real programs." You know, now you had football going into prime time and really not just football but a real merger of football with entertainment. And it became a huge hit.

INSKEEP: And we heard the voice of Howard Cosell in that montage of voices there, one of the stars that was made by "Monday Night Football."

Mr. McCARTHY: That's right. In many ways, Howard Cosell became bigger than the games he called. He was the first real celebrity sportscaster. Fans either loved him or hated him or loved to hate him.

INSKEEP: And he got in some trouble over the years with things that he said.

Mr. McCARTHY: He did. I remember watching some clips of fans having contests where they threw bricks through a TV set when Howard came on. But at the same time he did some incredibly valuable things. Remember, it was Howard Cosell that broke the news to the nation of the murder of John Lennon in 1980. And he did it professionally and with great sympathy, with great emotion.

INSKEEP: So it was a great show. What about the game?

Mr. McCARTHY: Well, you know, it was another kind of meaningless game. The Patriots had clinched the playoffs and the jets were out of it. The ironic thing about "Monday Night Football" is for years ABC had sought what's called flexible scheduling, where you could drop the real turkeys from the schedule and replace them with favorable games. Well, NBC, which is returning to the NFL next year, will get flexible scheduling, what ABC had sought for a long time with "Monday Night Football."

INSKEEP: Which we're touching on here. What we're touching on here is one of the problems that "Monday Night Football" faced as the years went on--was that the games were not always so great.

Mr. McCARTHY: Exactly. It was really a tossup in a way if you got a meaningful game or a bad game. And if you looked at the schedule before the season started, Patriots vs. Jets should've been a great game. Instead, it wasn't.

INSKEEP: You know, I was just noticing 36 years is roughly the median age in the United States, give a take a little bit. So about half of America was born after this program started. I have to ask, I don't know your age, are you old enough to remember when there wasn't a "Monday Night Football"?

Mr. McCARTHY: Barely. I'm barely able to remember. But it was one of those shows that was a touchstone of my youth. I remember the night that John Lennon was killed; I remember hearing Howard Cosell. People remember where they were during certain "Monday Night Football" games, which is something that you can't say about many TV shows.

INSKEEP: And will you be following it to cable, you know, other than for your job? I mean, will you be watching this still as it moves to ESPN?

Mr. McCARTHY: Absolutely. And I think what viewers should expect is a game on Monday night's that much like ESPN's "Sunday Night Football." Joe Theismann is going to be moving over to replace John Madden as the color announce, and Al Michaels will stay in the booth for his 21st year. So it's still going to be a football game, but it is going to be quite different from what we've seen for 36 years.

INSKEEP: Is the pressure off to have such a big show and such a great game?

Mr. McCARTHY: I don't think the pressure is ever off. You know, all programming is under pressure right now to produce viewers. People have talked about the declining ratings of "Monday Night Football," and it's true it only has half the ratings it used to. But guess what? It's still a top 10 show.

INSKEEP: Well, Mr. McCarthy, thanks very much.

Mr. McCARTHY: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Michael McCarthy covers sports television for USA Today.

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