Monday Night Football
Monday Night Football is a television broadcast of one of
the premier National Football League games of the week. It airs live on
the ABC television network on Monday nights during the NFL season, and is
one of the most popular shows on American television. Monday Night
Football (often informally abbreviated as MNF) is currently the
second-longest-running prime time show on American television, after CBS's
On April 18, 2005, the ESPN cable network signed a deal to televise Monday
Night Football beginning with the 2006 season, thereby ending the
NFL's 36-year partnership with ABC.
By 1968, the NFL was becoming very popular in the United States as a
broadcast television sport. Games were and still are mainly played on
Sunday afternoons. Then-Commissioner of the NFL, Pete Rozelle, began to
envision the possibility of playing at least one game during prime time
for a greater TV audience, and approached both the CBS and NBC TV networks
with the idea. Both networks rejected it, as they already had successful
prime time programming in place. (Reportedly, NBC turned down the idea
when comedian and talk-show host Johnny Carson became incensed that a
football game, if it lasted longer than the allotted three hours, would
pre-empt a portion of his popular show, The Tonight Show). Even so, a few
Monday night games were actually played in 1969, but were only telecast
locally; that is, to the market of the visiting team (all home games were
"blacked out" until a federal law was passed in 1971 permitting
such games to be broadcast so long as all tickets to the game had sold
out; the change took effect the following year).
As there were three major networks at the time, this left only ABC,
where producer Roone Arledge immediately saw possibilities for the new
show. Arledge set out to create an entertainment "spectacle" as
much as a simple sports broadcast. Chet Forte, the director of the program
for over 22 years, ordered twice the usual number of cameras to cover the
game. He created the "color man" position and used graphic
design within the show as well as "instant replay". The
controversial and idiosyncratic sports broadcaster Howard Cosell commented
on the action, along with veteran football commentator Keith Jackson and
former player Don Meredith. Monday Night Football first aired on ABC on September
21, 1970, with a match between the New York Jets and the Cleveland
Browns, in Cleveland, Ohio.
The show has run ever since, and the NFL has obliged by scheduling its
best teams and biggest stars for that night, so as to gain maximum
exposure; however, the league has sometimes been criticized for
reflexively excluding teams that had finished near the bottom of the
previous season's standings from the Monday night schedule; examples
include the 1981
season, neither of whose two Super Bowl teams—the San Francisco
49ers and Cincinnati Bengals—had played on Monday night that year, and
1999, when the St. Louis Rams won the Super Bowl after not having appeared
in a Monday night game during that regular season. Over the course of the
television program's history, the NFL's elite franchises have become the
staple of Monday Night Football. Franchises with the most appearances on
the television show include the Green Bay Packers, Dallas Cowboys,
Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders, Chicago Bears, and Miami Dolphins. Early in
the programs history the Oakland Raiders dominated in game appearances. In
recent history, (from 1996-2006) no team has played on Monday Night
Football more than the Green Bay Packers, an astonishing 27 times.
Often, the previous year's Super Bowl champion will be scheduled to
play in the first Monday night game of the season, usually at
home—although in 2003 the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had won the Super
Bowl the season before, were made to open their season on the road against
the Philadelphia Eagles, in what was the first regular-season game ever
played at Lincoln Financial Field. (The Buccaneers nevertheless won the
There have been occasions when two Monday night games were played
simultaneously; this scenario would most commonly arise in October where
an NFL team's home stadium is also used by the same city's baseball team,
and the latter had reached the playoffs or World Series, forcing what was
to have been a Sunday afternoon football game to be moved to Monday night;
in these cases, the game so moved would be televised only in the market of
the game's visiting team (and also in that of the home team provided the
game sold out), with the rest of the nation's viewers watching the
originally-scheduled Monday night game for that week.
In 1971, seeking even more star power than he already possessed, ABC
Sports president Roone Arledge dropped Keith Jackson, who returned to
broadcasting college football for ABC, in favor of the more physically
attractive ex-New York Giant star Frank Gifford. Gifford had been an NFL
announcer for CBS during the 1960s but never a play-by-play man prior to
joining Monday Night Football. Over the course of his 15+ year stint as
the play-by-play man for Monday Night Football, Gifford constantly bungled
names, got the score wrong, confused teams. On one occasion, Gifford
confused a player who had scored a touchdown with another former player
who had died a couple of years earlier. On another, he mistakenly
identified a player with another former player who was arrested on charges
of sexual misconduct (former Oakland Raiders receiver Warren Wells).
Regardless, Frank Gifford, who left the program in 1998, began the longest
tenure of any broadcaster on the show.
From 1974 through 1976, Don Meredith was absent from Monday Night
Football for a broadcasting career on rival NBC and to pursue an acting
career. In 1974, Fred Williamson was selected by ABC to replace Meredith.
Williamson was used on a few pre-season broadcasts, but proved so
inarticulate that he was relieved of his duties at the beginning of the
regular season, becoming the first MNF personality not to endure for the
entire season. Williamson was soon replaced by fellow Gary, Indiana native
One of the most memorable moments in Monday Night Football history
occurred on December 8, 1980. During a game between the Miami Dolphins and
New England Patriots, Howard Cosell broke the news of famed Beatle John
Howard Cosell also drew criticism during one Monday Night Football
telecast in September of 1983, for referring to Alvin Garrett, an African
American wide receiver for the Washington Redskins, as a "little
monkey." Cosell left Monday Night Football shortly before the
start of the 1984 NFL season, claiming that the NFL had "become a
stagnant bore." In Cosell's book, I Never Played the Game, he
devoted an entire chapter ("Monkey Business") to that particular
episode. Cosell claimed that it was an innocent ad-lib, and he stated that
he even called his grandchildren "little monkeys" when he played
In Monday Night Football's first year without Howard Cosell, Don
Meredith teamed with Frank Gifford and O. J. Simpson. Don Meredith's jokes
arguably seemed bland because there was no Cosell there to balance him
out. Meredith was subsequently exposed that season as a poor analyst
because there was no Cosell to set him up. So after the 1984 season, ABC
dumped Don Meredith. Joe Namath joined O.J. Simpson and Frank Gifford in
the booth for the 1985 season of Monday Night Football, but Namath in
particular, never seemed to be comfortable, or particularly talented, in
The most watched episode occurred on December 2, 1985, as the
previously unbeaten Chicago Bears were defeated at Miami by the Dolphins,
who had not lost to an NFC team at home since 1976. The show gained a
Nielsen rating of 29.6 with a 46 share. The highest scoring game in Monday
Night Football history was a Green Bay Packers/Washington Redskins game
from 1983. Green Bay won the game 48-47 with both teams combining for 95
points. The biggest blowout in Monday Night Football history was a 1986
Miami Dolphins/New York Jets game with Miami winning 45-3.
One of the most infamous and horrific moments in Monday Night Football
history occurred on during a game between the Washington Redskins and New
York Giants on November 20, 1985, at RFK Stadium. Redskins quarterback Joe
Theismann's career would end when Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor
reached from behind to drag down Theismann and fell heavily on Theismann's
leg in the process. On the play, Theismann suffered a compound fracture of
the tibia and fibula in his lower right leg.
In 1986, Al Michaels, who had previously anchored ABC's pre-game
coverage of Super Bowl XIX, took over for Frank Gifford as the
play-by-play announcer. Gifford was bumped to the color commentator spot
for one season before him and Michaels were joined by Dan Dierdorf. The
trio of Al Michaels, Dan Dierdorf, and Frank Gifford lasted until the 1997
season, when Gifford was replaced amid an extra-marital affair.
In 1998, former CBS commentator Lesley Visser replaced Hall of Famer
Lynn Swann as the sideline reporter, in an apparent attempt to have a
young, attractive female on camera for better popularity among men. Visser
was the first of several women added as sideline reporters. Several were
perceived, fairly or unfairly, to have been added as "eye candy"
for the male audience.
For the 1998 season, ABC pushed Monday Night Football back an
hour (it has usually aired at 9:00 p.m. EST). A special pre-game show that
was hosted by Chris Berman from the ESPN Zone in Baltimore was created.
Despite leaving the booth, Frank Gifford stayed on one more year as a
special contributor to the pre-game show. Boomer Esiason replaced Gifford
in 1998, and Dierdorf left for a return to CBS in 1999. Esiason's
relationship with Michaels was questioned leading to his firing.
A mildly infamous moment occurred in on the final Monday night game of
the 1998 season (between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Pittsburgh Steelers
on December 28) when Al Michaels said, "No shit" in response to
a question posed by Dan Dierdorf about Buffalo Bills quarterback Doug
Flutie. Dierdorf said to Michaels about the halftime interview with Doug
Flutie, "Are you gonna tell 'em how you're sick of all this B.C.
stuff?" It turned out that Michaels thought that a commercial
break was going on and that his microphone was turned off.
numbers for the first 17 weeks of the 1998 TV season showed that Monday
Night Football averaged a 13.9 rating. That's down 8 percent from 1997's
15.0--the previous standard in ratings futility. In actuality, MNF ratings
had been hitting all-time record lows for the previous four years.
Beginning in 1999, Monday Night Football telecasts used a
computer-generated yellow line to mark where a team needs to get a first
Unexpectedly, comedian Dennis Miller joined the cast in 2000 along with
Dan Fouts. The move was a ultimately a bust. ABC briefly considered adding
conservative media member Rush Limbaugh before Miller was added to the
broadcast team, despite having no prior sports broadcast experience.
Miller demonstrated a knowledge of the game and its personalities,
although at times he tended to lapse into sometimes obscure
analogy-riddled streams of consciousness similar to his "rants".
ABC ultimately ended up setting up a Web page dedicated to explaining
Miller's many obscure (and not-so-obscure) pop culture references.
In 2002, both Dennis Miller and Dan Fouts were dropped and John Madden
joined Al Michaels in a two man booth, which is arguably one of the most
successful of all time. Madden was a former coach for the Oakland Raiders,
namesake of the seminal Madden NFL video game series, and successful
broadcaster with the CBS and Fox networks for 21 years before joining Monday
In 2003, Lisa Guerrero decided to leave Fox's The Best Damn Sports Show
Period to join the MNF television crew as a sideline reporter (replacing
the pregnant Melissa Stark). Guerrero's performance on the broadcast was
heavily criticized, and the following year (also in an apparent move to
away from the "eye candy" concept) ABC replaced her with
longtime TV sports journalist Michele Tafoya.
|The T.O. / Sheridan of Desperate Housewives fame skit
involved her flashing Owens which was designed to be talked about in
the media and which was.
On November 15, 2004, controversy shrouded Philadelphia Eagles wide
receiver Terrell Owens when he appeared with popular TV actress Nicolette
Sheridan (of the new ABC series Desperate Housewives) in an introductory
skit which opened that evening's MNF telecast, in which Owens and the
Eagles played the Cowboys at Texas Stadium. The skit was widely condemned
as being sexually suggestive (see picture right) and ABC was forced to
apologize for airing it (the Eagles went on to win the game, 49-21, with
Owens catching three touchdown passes). Apparently some found the amusing
skit troubling, despite all the violence, Viagra ads and alcohol
commercials that accompanied it. However, on March 14, 2005, the Federal
Communications Commission ruled that the skit did not violate decency
standards, because it contained no outright nudity or foul language.
Despite high ratings, ABC lost millions of dollars on televising the
games during the late 1990s and 2000s. That is why, on April 18, 2005, it
was announced that ABC and the NFL had decided to end their 36-year
partnership, with Monday Night Football being aired on ESPN starting with
the 2006 season. Later in 2005, ESPN announced that its MNF team would
consist of Al Michaels and Joe Theismann in the booth with Michele Tafoya
and Suzy Kolber serving as sideline reporters.
ESPN and NBC Sports, which will begin airing Sunday night games at the
same time, have each staked a claim to their package being the rightful
descendant of the ABC version of MNF as the league's "showcase"
game, NBC's chief argument being that it is a broadcast network as is ABC,
whereas ESPN is a cable service not freely available to all Americans.
The show as entertainment
Monday Night Football has continued to provide as much
entertainment as sports throughout its run. In addition to the extra
cameras, the show has also pioneered technological broadcast innovations,
such as the use of enhanced slow motion replays and computerized graphics,
such as a first down marker superimposed onto the field during play.
Celebrity guests, such as Plácido Domingo, John Lennon, President Bill
Clinton, and even Kermit the Frog were often featured during the game to
"liven up" the broadcast. However, the late 1990s and early
2000s saw an even more increased reliance on the entertainment factor.
Some halftime shows, featuring popular music stars, were broadcast in full
rather than being ignored in favor of analysis of the game by the
commentators, as in previous seasons. Country music star Hank Williams,
Jr. (who sang the memorable catchprase "Are you ready for some
football?") composed a music video–style opening theme for the show
(a later theme was provided by Kid Rock).
The program's affiliation with ABC also resulted in numerous crossovers
between MNF and other ABC programs, which is why ABC put up with perceived
losses in carrying MNF and why NBC was happy to snap the franchise up.
Casts of various ABC series such as Alias often appeared in specially
produced skits made to introduce various broadcasts.
Yet at the heart of the program is the game itself, and the
"game" has produced dramatic moments that rival that of any
scripted television program. For example, Joe Montana tossing a game
winning touchdown to the right front corner of the end zone playing his
last years with the Kansas City Chiefs. Or even greater, Green Bay Packer
quarterback Brett Favre's heart felt performance on December 22, 2003, a
day after the untimely death of his father from a heart attack. Favre led
the Packers to a 41-7 victory over the Oakland Raiders passing for 399
yards and 4 touchdowns. Favre, already one of the games all-time greats,
that night became a legend in front of a national television audience on Monday
Night Football. These moments remain indicative of the essence of Monday
Night Football as a television product and further as a significant
piece of the national entertainment fabric and sports culture;
entertainment and cultural impact only Roone Arledge foresaw.
A complete list of broadcasters (many of whom are ex-NFL players), with
their period of tenure on the show (beginning years of each season shown,
as the NFL season ends in the calendar year after it begins):
- Chris Berman (halftime host, 1996–1997 and during wild card
playoffs and Super Bowls)
- Howard Cosell (1970–1983)
- Eric Dickerson (sideline reporter, 2000–2001)
- Dan Dierdorf (1987–1998)
- Boomer Esiason (1998–1999)
- Dan Fouts (2000–2001)
- Frank Gifford (1971–1997)
- Lisa Guerrero (sideline reporter, 2003)
- Keith Jackson (1970)
- Alex Karras (1974–1976)
- Suzy Kolber (sideline reporter, 2006- )
- John Madden (2002–2006)
- Don Meredith (1970–1973, 1977–1984)
- Al Michaels (1986–present)
- Dennis Miller (2000–2001)
- Joe Namath (1985)
- O.J. Simpson (1983–1985)
- Melissa Stark (sideline reporter, 2000–2002)
- Lynn Swann (sideline reporter, 1994–1997)
- Michele Tafoya (sideline reporter, 2004-present)
- Fran Tarkenton (1979–1982)
- Lesley Visser (sideline reporter, 1998–1999)
- Fred Williamson (1974)