Can O.J. Simpson salvage Monday Night Football's season? Beset with several yawner games, television's longest-running prime-time program is hurting in the ratings, suffering a 15% decline and all but setting off fire bells at ABC. The show that altered a nation's Monday night habits, forcing bowling leagues to shift to Tuesday and even spawning the California-based Church of Monday Night Football (First Commandment: "Thou shalt keep Monday night holy—and tune in early"), suddenly needs some life. Enter the Juice, a little burst of sunshine amid the clouds. He may be the most oomph-inspiring thing to happen to the program since Dandy Don Meredith first sang Turn Out the Lights.
Monday Night Football has been so popular for 14 years that one network wag once cracked, "You want to solve the population problem in India? Play Monday night football in Calcutta and put it on television over there." Now the show is merely trying to hang on to American viewers, often losing in the ratings to made-for-TV movies featuring hunks and centerfold girls. Its rating through seven weeks this season had fallen to 17.8, from 21.0 in its record year of 1981. (Last year's strike precludes meaningful comparisons with '82.) Even when ABC puts the best face on things, comparing this season's rating with the composite average between 78 and '81, the numbers are still down 12%. "We are concerned, yes, but not overly so," says Jim Spence, senior vice-president of ABC Sports. "We continue to feel very strongly about the long-term viability of Monday Night Football."
That such assurances are necessary is newsworthy. A loss of 3.2 rating points means that some three million fewer viewers are watching ABC's commercials each Monday night. The sponsors who paid for this season's ads off last year's ratings soon may ask for "make goods"—more spots on other programs—as compensation. Says Steve Leff, who handles Miller Beer for Backer & Spielvogel, "They [ABC] will have a hell of a lot more trouble selling a new [rate] increase next year. But that does not mean they won't try."
Why the slide? Even the creator of Monday Night Football, Pete Rozelle, doesn't know for sure. After a slow start, CBS's NFL ratings have climbed to 15.1, just 2% behind the record level of '81. Saddled with the AFC, which has smaller markets and drearier teams than the NFC, NBC muddles through at 11.2, down 9% from '81. The USFL, cocaine-snorting players and disaffection caused by the strike all may have contributed to the Monday night problem, but ABC's zzzzzz-inducing schedule, compliments of Rozelle & Co., is probably the prime factor. Further, network ratings for most sports—notably college football—have tumbled since '81, perhaps because of the multiplicity of sports on cable.
The one cheerful note for Monday Night Football is Simpson, who has replaced the irksome Fran Tarkenton on games that Howard Cosell or Meredith doesn't work. The Juice grows on you. He suffers from Bill Russell Disease—i.e., his diction is deplorable, he chops the ly off adverbs and he sometimes talks into the: next play—a malady that may have cost Russell his NBA job at CBS last week. (Tom Heinsohn will replace him on this season's NBA telecasts.) But unlike Russell, Simpson comes across as warm, sincere and enthusiastic. He has an intensity and a radiance about him that help compensate for his lack of language skill.
Whenever O.J. appears with Frank Gifford and the Danderoo—whenever Cosell disappears, that is—the crew's mood seems to improve. For a rookie in the booth, the Juice is also unusually perceptive. For example, during the Jets-Bills game early this month, Buffalo's Joe Cribbs lined up deep in the I and tried unsuccessfully to vault into the end zone from the one-yard line. Bad formation in a short-yardage situation, Simpson pointed out. Better not allow the defensive kamikazes so much time to fly toward the point of attack.
Unlike Earl Weaver, who served as Cosell's yes-man on the World Series, O.J. also merits a star for not being afraid to get it on with Cosell. Late in the second quarter of that New York-Buffalo game, with the Jets ahead 7-0, Cosell allowed that "if the Bills can get anything going, they'll be right back in this thing!" To which O.J. teasingly responded, "Howard, you've proved once again you've got a tremendous grasp of the obvious—to use one of your lines."
"Fine! O.K.," Cosell retorted.
Says Simpson, "Howard and I have been friends for a lot of years now. To be honest, I've found I can tease him a little more off-camera than I can on-camera."
Stay tuned for additional encounters. O.J.'s a new kid on the block who can tell it like it is, and that's a good R[X] for Monday Night Football's doldrums.
Simpson is the rare sidekick who'll disagree with Cosell.