ABC first used slow-motion instant replay on Thanksgiving Day of 1961. The most scintillating play in the game between Texas and Texas A&M was...a field goal. The network replayed the chip shot as if it were historic, just as they would replay the scene two Novembers later when Ruby shot Oswald. But on this November day, as Arledge recalls, "the earth did not shake."
The temblor came one weekend later. Syracuse was at Boston College, whose quarterback, Jack Concannon, scampered 70 yards for a first-half touchdown, a black-and-white streak across the television set. But when ABC replayed it, defenders could be seen clearly missing tackles, key blocks were suddenly thrown into sharp relief, and announcer Paul Christman was able to narrate every nuance of the run. The screen flickered like hell, but Con-cannon was balletic at half speed, and any Ban-Lon-wearing, Ballantine-swigging, Barcalounging viewer at home could see the whole field opening up before him. Look closely, and you could see much, much more. "You could see," says Arledge, "a whole new era opening up."
The National Football League was not always a vaguely sinister and monolithic American institution, something like General Motors, the single biggest advertiser on the league's Sunday-afternoon telecasts. But then came Dec. 28, 1958, when CBS broadcast the enervating NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, starring friend-to-Nixon Frank Gifford. From that day on NFL games would be presented as if they were somber pursuits of grave national importance.
"CBS was the paragon of professional football broadcasting," notes Arledge. "Ray Scott was its voice, and it treated every game as if it were played in a cathedral. The CBS style was very sedate, always has been: Pat Summer-all followed in that tradition. But Ray Scott—Ray Scott was a voice from behind the altar."
ABC, meanwhile, began televising something called the American football League. What was it about using the word American in its name that always seemed to render a corporation second-rate? The American Football League and the American Broadcasting Company were to the early 1960s what the American Basketball Association and the American Motors Corporation were to the 1970s, the latter two producing some ugly Pacers and seemingly little more.
Eventually, however, the underdog ABC and AFL would elevate each other. Because AFL players were largely unknown, Arledge ordered up omnipresent graphics: When Don Maynard of the New York Jets caught a pass, his name would immediately materialize on the screen. Three plays later, when he caught another pass, his name would appear again, with an interesting factoid to let you know that this was the same guy who caught the last one and perhaps you should keep an eye on him.
"Before ESPN and CNN and talk radio, we only had the time of the game to tell all of these stories," explains Arledge as if talking about the Bronze Age. (In fact, at a production meeting on the day of Nixon's funeral in April, Arledge demanded that his staff acquire a list of everyone who would be in attendance at the ceremony in Yorba Linda. "If Alexander Haig shows up," he said, "I want to put on the screen ALFXANDFR HAIG, NIXON'S CHIEF OF STAFF.") The technique of on-screen graphics began in earnest with those first ABC broadcasts of the AFL. Alas for Arledge and ABC, after four years the league sold its broadcast rights to richer NBC and then, four years later, merged with the NFL.
By 1969 the NFL had played five games on Monday nights, the first of them in 1966. All five were carried by CBS, to mediocre ratings. But with ABC the odd web out on pro football games, Arledge of necessity approached NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle about playing a game every Monday night beginning with the 1970 season. The idea had always appealed to Rozelle, who had loved the night exhibition games the Los Angeles Rams played when he was their publicist in the early '50s. "There was something special about the spotlight hitting the players when the starting lineups were announced," Rozelle has said. "It created a different aura than day football. It was decidedly more dramatic."
Once persuaded of the idea, though, Rozelle maddeningly offered the Monday-night games to his loyal networks, CBS and NBC. But CBS took, a pass: They had a hit in May berry RFD on Monday nights, and besides, God intended for you to go to church on Sundays, not on Monday evenings. (And make no mistake, the NFL was church: To his lasting regret Rozelle ordered the league to play on the Sunday after the Kennedy assassination, in part because a landmark television contract was in the works and in part because the league was feeling a thou-shalt-keep-holy-the-Sab-bath inviolability.)
In any event NBC, which had its popular Movie of the Week on Monday nights, also spurned the offer. So ABC had football for the fall of 1970 with one condition: Arledge insisted that he be able to choose his own announcers without interference from the NFL. Television contracts in that day called for approval of network announcers by the leagues; indeed, it was only four years earlier that CBS broadcaster Jack Whitaker was thrown off the Masters' telecast by tournament officials for impudently calling the Augusta National gallery a "mob." But Rozelle agreed to give a free hand to Arledge, and the first person Arledge hired for his new Monday Night Football was Howard Cosell.