In its heyday, Monday Night Football was the sports broadcast of the week. With the lightning rod that was Howard Cosell in the booth and little else in its time slot, viewers tuned in by the millions to watch the Steel Curtain and other legendary teams of the ’70s and early ’80s. MNF gave us more than the Hank Williams Jr. anthem “Are You Ready for Some Football?” It helped define an era: colorful, entertaining, and occasionally unpredictable, it cemented a relationship between television and football.
Following Cosell’s departure in 1985, however, MNF not only attracted fewer viewers, but also lost its pop cultural cache. ABC tried multiple new configurations of commentators to recapture the magic, but none matched the original’s drawing power. Today, the Sunday night game — regional contests aired by Fox, CBS, and ESPN — garners higher ratings. Beginning this season, the NFL decided the Sunday night game would be the “showcase” game of the week. With the new flex schedule, this means that whichever game league officials deem the marquee match-up of the week will now be shown on Sundays.
This year also marks a major shuffle in the networks with broadcasting rights to the games. In its ongoing effort to compete with major network television, ESPN doled out $1.1 billion, or around $20 million an hour, to broadcast MNF. ESPN (along with ABC, owned by Disney) appears determined to resurrect MNF from the dead, to bring a 21st-century appeal to the once beloved, now antiquated broadcast.
Leading the way in this re-imagining is color commentator Tony Kornheiser, a Washington Post columnist and co-host of ESPN’s always excellent Pardon the Interruption. He’s teamed with play-by-play announcer Mike Tirico and former quarterback/current purveyor of inane commentary Joe Theismann. Although the K-man looks like the elder statesman he is, his work on PTI has demonstrated that he can also be “cutting edge,” combining blistering sarcasm and astute observation in a way that viewers young and old can all enjoy. He is, so we’ve been told, Cosell 2.0.
Or so the ESPN execs hoped. In reality, he’s far from it. His preseason work on MNF was skewered by television critics and football fans alike, and the first regular season broadcast on 11 September wasn’t any better. The regular team announced the first game of Monday night’s unusual doubleheader, with the Washington Redskins hosting the Minnesota Vikings (a second game, the Oakland Raiders at the Chargers, announced by Brad Nessler, Dick Vermeil, and Ron Jaworski in San Diego, didn’t end until after 1am on the east coast). For most of the ‘Skins-Vikings game, Kornheiser and Theismann bickered like small children. During one unmemorable exchange, Kornheiser explained that Redskins coach Joe Gibbs’ job was to “wander the sidelines.” A horrified Theismann — who was quarterback for Gibbs’ Super Bowl-winning Redskins back in 1982 — responded tersely, “No, he doesn’t. He does some stuff.” This is hardly the color commentating of dreams. Even the much-maligned Dennis Miller never almost came to fisticuffs with his fellow broadcasters.
While it appears the Kornheiser Experiment is set on a course toward abysmal failure, MNF‘s underlying philosophy is also shifted. Rather than reassert the old-school parameters of football for football fans, it is opened up to a broader audience, embracing sports’ participation in a massive entertainment industry. At one point, Jamie Foxx appeared in the broadcast booth, declaring, “I’m huge fans of all you guys.” He also plugged his good friend and Collateral co-star Tom Cruise — whom the ESPN cameras showed frequently sitting in the booth of ‘Skins owner Daniel Snyder — as “the most genuine person you’ll ever meet.”
The fact that Snyder and Cruise have signed a much-publicized deal following the movie star’s even more publicized split with Paramount only highlights the multifaceted intertwinings of media and sports. For football fans, the image of Tom Cruise holding Katie Holmes’ hand while chatting with his new boss is considerably less compelling than, say, the evening’s performance by oldest quarterback in the league Brad Johnson. But the cameras repeatedly showcased Snyder’s new business partner, an emblem of the multimedia “synergy” that appears to be driving MNF.
In stark contrast, the real coup d’état for NBC’s Sunday night venture wasn’t, as many commentators believed, the return of football to the network, but rather, the convincing of John Madden and Al Michaels to jump ship and join the team. This automatically brought a level of credibility to the broadcast that ESPN only wishes MNF still commanded. With the increasing visibility of his franchise video games, Madden is the ultimate broadcaster, in spite of his occasionally nonsensical commentary. He and play-by-play announcer Michaels — originally rumored to be staying at MNF before he decided to stick with his longtime booth partner — mesh better than anyone else in the game. And they don’t need pop star references to make their show entertaining or smart.
And still, NBC’s Thursday night (7 September) broadcast of the Dolphins-Steelers game also included a few too many famous hangers-on, with a pregame show featuring celebs ranging from Diddy to Pink. And really, Madden and Michaels tried a little too hard to seem hip. On Sunday night (10 September), the “Manning Bowl 2006” pitted the Giants’ Eli Manning against Peyton and the Colts for the first time in the brothers’ NFL careers. The media buildup to this match was deafening, and NBC followed through on Sunday with repeated shots of the Manning parents and silly puff pieces about the boys’ prodigious childhoods. At some point, it’s all the same drivel. Fortunately for the Peacock, M and M tend to keep a focus on football.
Football, after all, is what these primetime broadcasts should be about. And that can be football in a larger context: during the halftime show of the ‘Skins-Vikings game, ESPN featured a thoughtful piece about 9/11. John Gruden, Tiki Barber, Joe Andruzzi, and a host of others weighed in with their thoughts about the day, the cancellation of football that week and what it meant personally, professionally, and even nationally when the league returned on 23 September. The lesson offered by the surprisingly reverential and moving documentary was that football is bigger than SNF or MNF can ever be. It’s also more meaningful to its fans than all the non-sports stars and references the networks have been including. To borrow from Williams Jr., whose anthem was yet again revived this past Monday, we are ready for some football. But that’s all we want.