History of ABC's Monday Night Football
ABC Sports Online

ABC's NFL Monday Night Football, which just completed its 33rd season, is not only the longest-running and most successful primetime sports series in television history, but it has also become a way of life. On any given Monday evening, more than 50 million Americans -- at home, in bars, in restaurants and dorms -- adjust their social and business schedules to view the telecast. Monday Night Football has been ranked in the top 10 among all primetime shows each of the last 13 years, and it remains the No. 1 show among men. Veteran ABC Sports announcer Al Michaels completed his 17th consecutive season as the play-by-play voice of Monday Night Football. He was joined this year by the legendary John Madden, who came to MNF after 21 seasons of calling games for CBS and Fox. This was Melissa Stark's third season as sideline reporter.

Monday Night Football first burst onto the airways on September 21, 1970 as the Cleveland Browns played host to the New York Jets, but that was not the beginning of the concept. The National Football League earlier had begun to explore the possibilities of primetime football, initially with CBS and NBC. However, not wishing to disrupt their primetime entertainment schedule of the "Doris Day Show" and "Laugh-In," respectively, they declined the NFL's offer.

When ABC finally received the proposal, the imaginative Roone Arledge, then president of ABC Sports for the network and currently chairman of ABC News, seized the opportunity and was able to win over his more skeptical colleagues. Thus Monday Night Football was born.

Once he finalized the contract, Arledge had to convince a primetime audience that Monday Night Football was more than a game. It had become a pulsating show, combining outspoken journalism with abundant dashes of entertainment. His first decision was to create a visual and technical tour de force. While most Sunday games at the time were using four or five cameras, ABC would employ nine, including one sideline and two hand-held cameras.

Arledge created the broadcast team of Howard Cosell, Keith Jackson and Don Meredith, Monday Night Football's first broadcast team. When play-by-play man Jackson became the voice of ABC's College Football after Monday Night Football's inaugural season, Frank Gifford assumed the role and was a mainstay on MNF telecasts for 28 years.

After four years, Meredith moved to NBC and was replaced during the 1974 pre-season by Fred "The Hammer" Williamson. Alex Karras replaced Williamson for the regular season and continued through 1976 when Meredith returned. Fran Tarkenton spent four years with the team (1979-1982) and O.J. Simpson came on board in 1983. In 1985, Joe Namath joined Gifford and Simpson in the booth for one year. In 1986, Al Michaels joined MNF and teamed with Frank Gifford to form a two-man team. Dan Dierdorf joined Michaels and Gifford in 1987 and that team stayed together until 1998, when Boomer Esiason replaced Frank Gifford. The 2000 and 2001 seasons saw comedien Dennis Miller and Hall-of-Fame quarterback Dan Fouts join Michaels in the booth while hall-of-fame running back Eric Dickerson and Melissa Stark manned the sidelines.

The idea of football in primetime certainly worked. Demographics show that nearly 40 percent of Monday Night Football viewers are women, breaking the long-held belief that sports could not compete successfully in primetime against entertainment.

The series' success was immediate. The schedule of 13 Monday night games shocked the critics, who predicted the series would achieve no better than a 24 percent share of the audience, by drawing 31 percent of America's viewers. The current schedule has grown to 20 Mondays (17 regular season, 3 preseason), all in primetime.

Innovations over the years have included the assignment of two complete units to telecast the game -- one for coverage and the other for isolated shots, stop-action and instant replay; elaborate computer-based machines which produce state-of-the-art graphics; a computerized information-retrieval system providing up-to-the-minute statistics as well as little-known facts from the past; reverse angle replays and the "super slo-mo" camera which provides a heretofore unattainable degree of clarity of slow motion replays, not to mention "1st &10" the electronic first down line.

Fred Gaudelli is the producer and Drew Esocoff is the director of ABC's Monday Night Football.

 
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