`MNF' is gone, but the party was over ages ago

December 28, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

The world gives us enough real reasons to shed tears these days, so let's not shed any over something as trifling as the end of Monday Night Football's 36-season run on network television.

MNF, after all, was, in the final analysis, just another successful, long-running television show that finally ran out of steam, as all TV shows do.

It's not even disappearing, just being shunted to ESPN, which plans to repackage it with hours of heavily promoted wraparound coverage that will enable it to continue being something of a Big Deal.

Of course, no amount of shouting and synergy is going to turn it back into the cultural phenomenon it was for more than a decade after its debut in 1970. Now, it will be just another part of the NFL's almighty TV monster.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has already said he feels NBC's new Sunday night game broadcast will be bigger (he backpedaled from the comment when ESPN complained, hee hee), and the league is exploring Thursday night and Saturday night packages, so pretty soon Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday nights could be the only NFL-free prime-time zones.

I'm not sure we should call that progress, but it's the hand we're being dealt, and I have no doubt it will be a winner. The NFL is so popular, you could air games on C-SPAN2 in the middle of the night and people would find them and watch.

Amid all the looking back that accompanied MNF's final weeks, I found myself thinking about the sports and TV worlds it was born into - the circumstances in which it became such a hit. It's amazing how profoundly different things are now.

In 1970, pro football was still in the process of surpassing baseball as the nation's No. 1 sports obsession. Just four seasons earlier, the first Super Bowl had failed to attract a sellout crowd in Los Angeles. Weeknight TV games probably would have flopped then, too, so the timing was just right.

Still, it was radical even to think about playing NFL games at any time other than on Sunday afternoons; the football world had long been as simple and uncomplicated as a Doris Day movie, with high school games on Friday nights, college games on Saturdays and pro games on Sundays. (And, in my case, peewee games on Saturday mornings in which I played quarterback and mostly ran for my life after opposing defenders picked up my 78-pound right tackle and threw him at me.)

But a man had walked on the moon for the first time in 1969, so radical thinking was being encouraged. The idea of a game on a school night was impossibly exciting.

For those who weren't there or don't remember, one of the young MNF's main attractions was its halftime program, when the best highlights from the previous Sunday's games were shown, with Howard Cosell narrating. As unthinkable as it sounds now, you usually hadn't seen action from any games other than your team's and maybe one other. There were no national post-game wrap-up shows and no in-game network break-ins to show touchdowns.

The chance to see day-old highlights from other games was considered a cutting-edge advancement. You were offended if Howard didn't show your team's games and add a comment.

Need I say more about how things have changed?

The program's main attraction, of course, was the edgy chemistry between the verbose Cosell and twangy Don Meredith, who, unlike all announcers before them, were supposed to bicker and banter rather than analyze. Their successful pairing sprang unpredictably from the eternal animosity between nerds and jocks. It was endlessly entertaining.

MNF's days as must-see programming ended with Cosell's departure after the 1983 season, followed by Meredith's departure a year later. (Meredith had also left for three years in the 1970s.) The edge was gone.

The show has never stopped being special in its own way; fans and especially players always feel a tingle knowing all eyes in the football world are on their team. But as with most popular sports programming from that era, it was eventually diminished by the rise of cable and the Internet, which has splintered all audiences.

Interestingly, the NFL basically pushed its landmark show into cable-land in the end by choosing to emphasize NBC's Sunday night broadcast, which will be billed as Football Night in America. (The NFL is so unassuming.) I'm not sure it will be as successful as everyone thinks; even some hard-core fans will have had enough football after watching games all day.

But I can't blame the NFL for moving on. MNF's success was the product of a day and time, and that day is over, and all you can say is it was fun while it lasted.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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