A moment of reflection and a toast of the red as the final episode of ABC’s Monday Night Football plays its last regular season hurrah on December 26th with the New England Patriots vs. the New York Jets; ahead lies the network’s last Super Bowl telecast. ABC Sports’ coverage of the NFL has set a standard; for 36 years their coverage was entrepreneurial and helped define our industry.
ESPN will take up the torch next year and many will argue the self-proclaimed “Worldwide Leader in Sports” is a fine home for America’s Monday Night Empire. However, we all know an era of sports television and of pop culture to this generation of readers is ending, the likes of which I do not think we will see again.
DEFINING OUR TIMES
Monday Night Football, or MNF as we’ve come to know it, is more than merely a popular, network primetime sports television show. As the second longest running prime time show in television after 60 Minutes, its impact has helped define our industry’s production style and has been a cultural maypole around which we reference other shows.
If late night television has the likes of Paar, Carson and Letterman as legacy holders, sports television has ABC Sports’ Monday Night Football as one of ours. One could argue The NFL on Fox and the 1970s-80’s NFC games under the moniker The NFL on CBS also have a place at the table.
However, in the same way Letterman, Leno and Conan are good comedians who benefited from the groundwork laid by Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, today’s sports-as-entertainment style of television owes its due to ABC’s MNF. Moreover, it is under our watch in the industry that this era ends.
THE FINAL SCENE
So how do we mark the moment? I trust that great minds at ABC are hard at work on what they will do before fading to black inside their mobile unit in Detroit at the end of Super Bowl XL.
Such a farewell biography was attempted and fell flat in the early 90’s when CBS ended their long reign as the broadcast home of the NFC. Their self-reflective tribute at the end of their final playoff telecast felt thin, lacked a strong emotional connection and ended in an awkward manner leaving viewers to feel “that’s it?”
One could argue that the news of CBS losing their longstanding NFL deal to Fox came up too fast for the network to properly document their legacy. And while it’s true that ABC has had months, where CBS had only a matter of days or weeks to prepare for their curtain call, my expectation is that ABC will go out in a much more fitting style as they are the pioneers of sports-entertainment television.
As the leader of their era, ABC Sports’ MNF helped lead the world of sports television production ever more into the realm of entertainment. The result today is production teams everywhere carrying ABC’s style of sports entertainment on their sleeves—more than we even realize.
There are telecasts for sports purists. ESPN’s networks, Fox Sports Net and others are all more hardcore sports presenters and niche broadcasters.
However, for campfire storytelling and mass appeal beyond those who’d watch the game anyway, none has done it better, longer and influenced a generation of sports broadcasters more than ABC’s MNF.
DEFINING THE ERA
What is the hallmark of their reign? They first found entertainment in their announcer Howard Cosell. He was an original; part announcer and part carnival barker while yet remaining a sportscaster.
Yet, in the corporate world of sports television, I doubt Cosell would be allowed on-air today. Not only would networks reject him, but the NFL would likely insist he not be the presenter who helps manage their image to millions.
As businesses grow more popular and corporate, it’s usually deemed too risky to be as entrepreneurial as they were in their youth; Cosell along with his production team led by Roone Arledge were risk-taking pioneers.
One could argue some of Fox’s innovations like the clock/score box and sound effects continue to pioneer an era of entertainment. But the great innovations of today are more hardcore in nature, presenting sports information rather than fun and showmanship.
The era of sports television today has more Xs and Os production teams. That’s great for explaining the difference between a halfback and a fullback, but not as entertaining for the masses.
In addition to being a network that caters more to hardcore sports fans, ESPN can’t overcome that they are only in homes that subscribe; tens of millions of Americans do not. Next season NBC’s Sunday night game will be the over-the-air broadcast of record.
NBC take note, your challenge on television’s most popular night is to put together a national football broadcast that appeals to the masses—not just telecasts where local loyalists will follow or an Olympic-style competition where every story can be wrapped in red, white and blue. Yes, you can point to all kinds of experience in this area, but candidly, the risk taking that would produce a Cosell is something even you’re not used to doing.
PLAYING IT SAFE
How did we get to this point of playing it so safe? The industry has matured and a natural byproduct of how we run our business today is to protect our job by staying within certain boundaries. Company CFOs don’t reward risk taking, only profits.
Two years ago, CBS Sports’ coverage of Super Bowl XXXVIII was so conservative it brought more yawns than cheers. The production team proudly went into their game plan that “nothing will be different than normal.”
They remained true to keeping it simple and the game lacked in entertainment and entrepreneurship. Forgetting the Janet Jackson incident since it wasn’t part of the game nor a production done by CBS Sports, I’m sure at the corporate level no “heads rolled” for the game’s producer and director proudly thinking inside the box.
Given that Fox has done so much with technology on their NFL telecasts, it’s arguable that they have picked up the entertainment mantle and will carry us forward. On some levels that’s true.
However, most innovations of the past decade have been more technical and informational, not entertainment oriented. The clock/score box or the 1st and 10 line are examples of this. They are informational, educational and even expository—but they are not entertainment. Entertainment comes from people.
SPORTS AS ENTERMAINMENT
Starting with ABC Sports legends like Arledge and director Chet Forte through later production teams there was an effort to bring the people factor into play first. Most trucks today carry very long lenses because ABC lit a spark with director Craig Janoff’s style of “up close and personal.”
At one time, low end zone cameras were an unnecessary extra. ABC’s willingness to make them standard, as part of using more cameras on a game, meant field-level, “up-close” shots were possible despite two-thirds of a player’s head being covered with a helmet.
The risk of paying extra dollars for longer lenses and additional cameras was necessary for the viewer to see the face and the eyes of players. Lens makers Canon and Fujinon can thank ABC Sports’ MNF for the nationwide demand this created for longer lenses.
ABC also capitalized on cultural specials such as their Halloween telecasts by making pumpkin faces of their announce team. The network gave a special feel to each town, regularly showing city landmarks in and out of breaks, always using airships over the stadium to showcase the area as much as the game, and finding a way for each Monday night to be an American experience in a city that most Americans probably had never visited.
That’s not to say other networks don’t do that now or that others didn’t do it from time to time. However, ABC Sports put this in their MNF game book every week with liberal use.
ABC tried to create a national entertainment experience; their tone and style set an expectation that if you were missing their telecast you were missing the national experience of the week.
MAKING THE TRANSITION
And so the national campfire torch passes to the Peacock. To NBC Sports is an exhortation to go beyond the Xs and Os, to give us entertaining personalities and coverage. Make sure those who take risks outside of a corporate mindset find a place and a voice at the table.
To ABC Sports’ coverage of Monday Night Football we bid adieu. There’s a curtain call in order and we don’t want to be let down.
Cover Super Bowl XL so well the NFL commissioner’s office will wonder if they’ve made the right decision; run your farewell feature at the end that brings the nation a tear of thanks.
Like fine wine that has aged well, it’s now time to open the cork and pour out the flavor we’ve grown to love. Yours is a legacy that has defined how we in sports television do our jobs.
Our industry and our country have you to thank for moments of entertainment and shared experiences that have transcended the gridiron. And heck, given the amount of demand you drummed up for Canon and Fujinon over the years, I for one hope they’ll spring for the limo ride home!
To ABC Sports: A Toast!
Lee Henry is a veteran network sports producer/director. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Future US's leading brands bring the most important, up-to-date information right to your inbox
Thank you for signing up to TV Tech. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.