Thursday, November 2, 2023

How Monday Night Football Transformed Pop Culture

By Rev Protodeacon George A. Haloulakos

Baby Boomers have borne witness to the transformational impact of Monday Night Football (MNF) on Pop Culture.  Believe it or not, MNF was introduced more than 50 years ago (1970) while forever altering mass market TV viewing habits and transforming Pop Culture.  At a time when people spent their evenings watching variety shows, sitcoms, westerns and game shows on a small handful of network TV channels, MNF immediately altered viewer preferences with a then outsized entertainment model that not only crossed from the sports venue into Pop Culture, but created a significantly larger audience that went well beyond the traditional male sports fan who watched NFL football on Sundays.

Here is a sample list of the long lasting impact created by MNF:
> Monday Night Football was aired by ABC, a perennially 3rd ranked national network (behind CBS and NBC) at a time when there were just three national TV networks.  With the newly merged league (the NFL and AFL were now combined under an expanded "NFL" business model) this was a great platform to showcase the expanded offerings among a larger geographic region.  By the end of the 1970s, ABC became the top-rated network as its fortunes paralleled the NFL becoming the nation's number one spectator sport.

> MNF essentially created the voluble, celebrity broadcaster role that is now de rigueur in all sports broadcasting venues.  Howard Cosell was selected for this job.  As the third man in the broadcast booth, Cosell provided a complementary if not entertaining fit to the rather staid, traditional two-person announcing duo format.  Hall of Fame football star Frank Gifford provided the standard play-by-play narration with former NFL quarterback Don Meredith in the analyst role.  In short order, Cosell's bigger than life persona became equally important to the overall entertainment package.  While Gifford adhered to a restrained, serious broadcasting style his analyst partner Meredith provided humorous anecdotes and even sang "the party is over" when the outcome of the game was no longer in doubt.  On a more serious note, Cosell actually created a template that is followed to this day with his 3-minute summary of all the NFL highlights from the Sunday games.  These halftime highlights became a huge drawing card to both the serious and casual fans alike.  While MNF had various high-profile broadcast trios, the Cosell-Gifford-Meredith group is the one that is best remembered.

> With the passage of time, it became commonplace for the broadcast booth to have major TV & motion picture stars along with famous musicians visit and provide guest commentary.  MNF used twice the number of cameras usually employed for broadcasting an NFL game, and use of flashier graphics plus a widely recognizable musical theme to immediately signal the television viewing audience that they were being treated to a big-time special event.  Instant replay was more frequently used to diagram the action, which, in turn, created ongoing discussion and debate among the broadcast crew about what actually happened.  With more camera angles versus the Sunday games shown on CBS and NBC, the ABC viewing audience was able to experience gridiron action up close and personal, with a "you are there" feeling.

> MNF introduced the sideline interview.  Cosell interviewed quarterback Fran Tarkenton before the start of the game, and this was the first time an active player was interviewed live on the field before or during a game.  This has also become a standard practice.

> MNF became the weekly topic of conversation on Tuesday mornings in schoolyards and offices across the nation.  It became a must-view weekly event in which Monday nights were an occasion for working parents to try to arrive home earlier and prepare dinner beforehand while students would scramble to finish their homework ahead of kickoff.  When the MNF film crew would arrive in a new destination each week, it was the impetus to have special banners, billboards and posters all over the city thereby fueling even greater excitement and anticipation.

Are there any special memories that any of you in our GNN audience have regarding Monday Night Football?  I have two favorite MNF memories.  First, is when Howard Cosell interviewed Joy Piccolo (widow of Chicago Bear running back Brian Piccolo) at halftime in anticipation of ABC's Made For TV Film "Brian's Song" which paid tribute to Piccolo with emphasis on his groundbreaking friendship with teammate Gale Sayers as well as his heroic battle against cancer.  The second occurred at the end of a broadcast in which the hometown team was on the losing end of a one-sided contest.  While Gifford was seriously engaged with calling the on-field action, Cosell and Meredith were bantering back and forth as the camera crew zeroed in on a disgruntled fan who promptly saluted the nationwide TV audience by extending his middle finger.  Without missing a beat, Meredith humorously observed that the fan was telling the ABC broadcast trio they were number one!

In the intervening years, much of what has been described here may seem as commonplace BUT this affirms the transformational power of Monday Night Football.  It not only broadened the viewing audience while creating a more enjoyable viewing experience, but it helped make sporting events into the reason for hosting private parties at home or in restaurants bringing families, friends and work-related colleagues together.  This has created shared memories across various demographics and generations, something we can all appreciate. 

1 comment:

  1. MNF was a “big deal” back when there were only four available channels broadcasting in my area. Get home fast, eat fast and grab your favorite chair while holding some munchies and your favorite beverage. Even my wife, who generally didn’t watch football, liked the enjoyable presentation by the jovial pigskin trio. I was elated when Dandy Don would sing “turn out the light, the party’s over” for my team’s nemesis but quite annoyed when it was directed at my guys. Thanks for the memories.