In prime-time television, eight years might as well be a millennium. Only five nighttime programs currently on the air have lasted that long, Wonderful World of Disney, Hawaii Five-O, All in the Family, The Carol Burnett Show—and Monday Night Football. But even more remarkable than pro football's longevity is the lack of fanfare with which this usually brassy show began its eighth season on ABC two weeks ago.
Despite the absence of pre-kickoff hype, however, MNF started with a bang, pulling a 35% share of the audience for what turned out to be a very dull game in which the Steelers routed the 49ers 27-0. One reason for the high rating undoubtedly was the return to the MNF broadcasting booth of Don Meredith, one of the men most responsible for making the show a television staple.
The Monday night games may well have their highest ratings this year, with the schedule including two appearances apiece by the Steelers, Raiders, Cowboys, Rams, Colts, Cardinals and Redskins, as well as games involving the Patriots, Bears and O.J. Simpson. Says Director Chet Forte, "Our schedule looks much better than last year, when we had a lot of clinkers. But the first game this season was probably the worst one we've ever had. I guess one of the reasons the people stayed tuned in was that Meredith had come back."
Forte's assumption about Meredith could be right. The announcers' role has always been more prominent on MNF than on other football telecasts. The revolutionary three-man team gave the Monday night game a distinctive tone from the very beginning, and even when Meredith left Frank Gifford and Howard Cosell for NBC after four seasons, ABC continued to emphasize hype and hijinks in the booth. This has tended to obscure another reason for MNF's popularity: the technical excellence that the network brings to its coverage. The best way to spot this quality is to turn off the TV sound and listen to Lindsey Nelson's radio broadcasts of the game while watching ABC's pictures.
Because NBC and CBS have to produce 185 NFL games a season—compared to the 14 that ABC carries—Monday Night Football's camera work should be better. "Naturally that's a big advantage," says Don Ohlmeyer, who produced the Monday evening games for four seasons before moving to NBC. "You need only one crew. It's handpicked, and the announcers know the people they are working with. On the other two networks, broadcasters often work with different technical people every week. But the important thing about MNF is that it expanded the audience for professional football tremendously, and women who wouldn't watch on Sunday afternoons got caught up in the Monday night games."
"During the first few years of Monday Night Football," says Meredith, "we really had to go into the woods and shake the trees. We appeared everywhere." Some of the people who worked for MNF in its early days think that Meredith grew tired of all the hyping, that after four seasons he had had more than enough. "Don is his own man," says Ohlmeyer. "At any time he might just up and decide to write or act or go sit under a tree. That's the great part about him."
When Meredith, who at the time had almost no TV experience, joined MNF he worked closely with Forte. "We did a couple of exhibition games, and Don was really having problems," says Forte. "I kept telling him to try to do what came naturally. By the third game his talent emerged."
In 1974 Meredith went to NBC because, he says, he wanted to try acting. He was replaced by Fred Williamson, who failed miserably, and then by Alex Karras, who did the games for three years with modest success. Meredith rejoined ABC with a five-year contract that delineates his roles more precisely than did his deal with NBC. "My contract with NBC didn't define things too clearly," Don says. "I did some acting on Police Story and Police Woman, plus an episode of McCloud. With ABC I'll do some movies and other things. Actually, I don't have to do all the Monday night games."
Meredith worked the last three football seasons at NBC with Curt Gowdy, who says, "Don has a sense of humor that makes everyone feel comfortable. And his wit is apt to come out at any time. The oddest thing I remember him doing happened before the opening game last year. Don showed up with a briefcase."
Before the first Monday night broadcast this season, Meredith walked into a production meeting, again carrying a briefcase. "That shook me up a little bit," says Forte. "He had all the names and numbers in there and the three-deep charts. Obviously we are dealing with a different Dandy Don. Because the first game was so dull, I can't tell yet which way Don is going to go this season. He didn't sing, that I know. Usually at the end of a Monday night game there are a thousand beefs about people talking too much. But our opener this year had none of that. Even Howard was very subdued."
Perhaps in its eighth season Monday Night Football may be mature enough not to sound like Hee-Haw. Maybe the halftimes will not find the broadcast booth filled with dancing bears and rock singers and everyone who has shaken hands more than twice with Roone Arledge. But one should not hope for too much in one year. Somehow, if Meredith doesn't render at least one chorus of "Turn out the lights, the party's over," the season will not seem like the season at all.
MEREDITH, COSELL AND GIFFORD HELD A SUBDUED REUNION