Monday Night Football featuring NFL games is the longest running and most popular prime time sport programme in television history. The broadcast is also a fundamental part of popular culture in the US as tens of millions of Americans tune in religiously every week to view the latest developments in the world of Gridiron.
The reason why the NFL has achieved such a level of ubiquity in the North American sports landscape is a direct result of the brilliance of a certain Pete Rozelle, the one time NFL Commissioner. He understood the impact television would have on sports and latched the NFL onto its burgeoning success.
Monday Night Football first burst onto the American airwaves on September 21, 1970 as the Cleveland Browns played host to the New York Jets. The National Football League had begun to explore the possibilities of primetime football initially with CBS and NBC. Not wishing to disrupt their primetime entertainment schedules that included the “Doris Day Show” and “Laugh-In,” respectively however, both channels declined the NFL’s offer.
When ABC finally received a proposal, its imaginative President Roone Arledge seized the opportunity and was eventually able to win over his more sceptical colleagues who also failed to see the full potential of the idea – thus Monday Night Football was born.
Arledge’s first innovation at ABC was to go with double the number of cameras per game, thus providing better framing and angles. The early shows were also the first NFL broadcasts to extensively use instant replays. It was how Arledge put together the broadcast booth however that really raised the bar in terms of sports TV viewing. Arledge added a third chair in the booth to complement the existing play-by-play announcer and analyst to provide a controversial additional element.
In the era of television viewing before 24/7/365 sports networks, commentators would provide halftime recaps of other games around the league which would often be the only weekly views that games on Sunday ever received on TV.
The success of Monday Night Football was immediate. The initial schedule of 13 Monday night games shocked the critics who predicted the series would achieve no more than a 24 percent share of the audience.
Various innovations over the years have comprised the assignment of two complete units to broadcast the game – one for coverage and the other for isolated shots, stop-action and instant replay. Elaborate state-of-the-art graphics and computerized information retrieval also provided up-to-the-minute statistics as well as little-known facts from the past. Reverse angle replays and “super slo-mo” shots provided a hitherto unattainable degree of clarity for slow motion replays.
It’s really because of Monday Night Football that America changed how it viewed the game. ABC Sports changed football from being just another sport alongside the likes of baseball into a spectacle that attracted the fans in their droves.
CBC and NBC were the top rating channels at the time so their decision to pass on the opportunity to broadcast Monday Night Football probably has to be seen in that context. Baseball had previously been the nation’s favourite sport and ABC, a station with much lower ratings than the aforementioned pair, were also themselves less than enthused by the proposal. It was only when Rozelle and the NFL approached the independent Hughes Sports Network (owned by Billionaire Howard Hughes), that ABC decided that being upstaged by a smaller company was a worse scenario and so they signed the deal.
On that evening in Cleveland Ohio, nobody then knew for sure if prime-time football would work, let alone endure on a single network for over four decades. And no one of course, knew that what cost ABC $8.5 million that first season would soar to a price of $550 million annually for the network, or to the $1.1 billion ESPN paid since.