`Monday Night Football' to move to ESPN in 2006

Show helped turn sports into entertainment in '70s

April 19, 2005|By Ray Frager and David Zurawik | Ray Frager and David Zurawik,SUN STAFF

Monday Night Football, for 35 years a network staple and a program that once made pop stars of Howard Cosell and "Dandy" Don Meredith, will leave broadcast television after the 2005 season and move to the cable network ESPN.

Though Monday Night Football was still a Top 10 program, it had become a money drain for ABC and corporate parent Walt Disney Co. - losing a reported $150 million per year - so the program will move to another Disney property in ESPN.

Neither ESPN nor the NFL gave dollar figures in yesterday's announcements, but the rights to Monday Night Football will cost $1.1 billion per year, according to sources cited by the Associated Press. ABC has been paying a reported $550 million a season.

Also announced yesterday, NBC will get back into the NFL business for the first time since 1997, taking over the Sunday night package from ESPN starting in 2006. The NFL previously reached deals to keep its games on Fox and CBS.

"I think it's a huge day for ESPN," George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN and ABC Sports, said in a conference call yesterday. "I really don't think of it as an end of an era, but as a beginning of one."

Mark Shapiro, ESPN executive vice president, said the show is headed where it belongs.

"It makes sense to put it where the sports fan goes to first," Shapiro said.

However, what made Monday Night Football a phenomenon was its appeal beyond the sports fan.

Producer Roone Arledge held the conviction that for sports to succeed in prime time, the broadcast had to embody the same show business elements as entertainment dramas and sitcoms. That meant clear and strong story lines, conflict, humor and, most of all, a broadcast that was visually dynamic.

The game itself was secondary. If it was a great contest, all the better. But one couldn't control the game the way that one could create eye-popping camera work on the field and drama in the broadcast booth.

To create visual excitement, Arledge and director Chet Forte used the latest TV technology to offer slow-motion replays, special effects, camera work that took viewers closer to the action than they had ever been and near-instant highlight reels that telescoped the game down to a few intense moments. The reel could be played over and over during the telecast to bring latecomers up to speed and into the game.

Arledge also brought to Monday Night Football the "up close and personal" style of storytelling that would work so well for ABC on Olympics coverage. The profiles were, in effect, mini-biographies of the star athletes. These personal stories - a form of celebrity journalism often focusing on athletes' off-field lives and struggles - were used to further hype the main story lines of the game.

And, finally, if nothing on the field was working, there was always drama in the booth with the outspoken and irascible Cosell or comedy with former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Meredith. Some weeks there was both when Cosell and Meredith were feuding.

Arledge's formula was such a success that Monday Night Football ultimately changed the culture - ushering in the notion of a three-day sports weekend. The games didn't have to end late Sunday anymore with the last contest on the West Coast.

And with that came broadcasters as superstars, having a prime-time platform with millions of viewers to debate the hottest story in sports that week or conduct an interview with the top-performing or most-controversial athlete in the game.

The Monday Night booth became a place to be seen - Ronald Reagan, John Lennon and Burt Reynolds were among those who dropped by.

Monday Night Football first aired in 1970, with an original announcing lineup of Keith Jackson, Cosell and Meredith. Frank Gifford replaced Jackson the next season. Meredith left after 1973 before returning in 1977. The trio's last season together in the booth was 1983.

ABC used other announcers, ranging from O.J. Simpson to Fran Tarkenton to Dan Dierdorf to even a two-year experiment with comedian Dennis Miller. Though its current pairing of Al Michaels and John Madden rates as a favorite of fans and critics, it doesn't have nearly the same impact of Monday Night Football's signature crew.

No one is staging a brick-through-the-TV scene because of how much he dislikes one of the announcers - as once happened because of Cosell. And before the network audience fragmented into smaller pieces in a mega-channel universe, much of America learned of John Lennon's death when Cosell announced it on Monday Night Football.

ESPN plans to change the Monday night start time to an 8:40 kickoff, about a half-hour earlier than on ABC. As for changing the announcing team, Bodenheimer said: "We have an entire year to formulate our plans. ... It's premature to say anything."

About 90 percent of the country's TV households subscribe either to cable or satellite services, but the NFL deal assures Monday night games also will be available on over-the-air stations in the teams' home cities.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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