"I've done it my whole life," Miller says. "I sit with my friends and do Mystery Science Theater 3000 with the football. Don't you all? When you watch the game with your friends, it's not exactly like a Christian Science reading room. You call the announcer on his bulls—- and say, 'Christ! He's sucking up to the league. I can't believe he won't take a stand on that!' Well, I'm going to take a stand on that. If that gets me whacked, that gets me whacked."
Example? "I'm just amazed that they care about measuring sock height and stuff like that," Miller says. "You're talking about primal man-on-man combat. There's a danger involved, but most of the 80 men who participate any given week walk off the field at the end of the game; the guys at home get to have some testosterone-driven catharsis, and nobody really gets hurt. For the league to get into all this stuff about sock height and the little peep-show booth they go into for the replay...what's going on over there? The game is what it is. They have to cop to the fact that what they're selling is big collisions. Why can't the ground cause a fumble? I've been thumbing through my Plato to try to un-ravel that Rubik's Cube. Who sat down in a meeting about such a violent game and said, 'You know what my theory is? Terra firma cannot cause actual disengagement of the spheroid!' Let's go to Stephen Hawking about that one. What sort of empirical law are we quoting there?"
Whether so snarky a form of free association can mix comfortably in a booth with two other sensibilities is one question, and whether the viewer will want to sit through it for three hours each Monday for five months is another. But the real dilemma for Monday Night Football is much larger, and it has to do with the number of channels available to viewers today and the programming competition and the fact that executives at ABC did plenty over the last few years to damage one of their most prized possessions. Monday Night is a rock-solid vehicle, a venerable institution that guarantees big audiences for advertisers and a sense of continuity for viewers, yet last week it found itself naming its fourth combination of announcers in as many years—all in a quest to recapture a booth dynamic that may do little to boost the show's market share in television's fractured new world.
"I honestly believe that as long as the game is good, you could put three chimpanzees up there and people would watch," former Monday Night analyst Boomer Esiason says. "If the game is not as good? People will tell you that's where the announcers make a difference. But let me ask you something: If the game is 40-7, what are we going to say that's going to keep people watching?"
Howard's ghost still haunts Monday Night Football. Anyone discussing the show's recent flatness, or trying to describe its uniqueness as a prime-time vehicle, or debating the merits of a three-man booth versus a two-man inevitably brings up the unpredictable program that the arrogant, bombastic and unignorable Cosell helped to create when he became the first man named to the announcers' booth. With a voice and face perfect for radio and a preposterous toupee pasted in place, Cosell was an original, a broadcaster who cared not a whit whether people liked him so long as they paid attention.
When Roone Arledge pieced together Monday Night Football in 1970, he created the three-man booth solely to put Cosell on the show. During the very first broadcast, Henry Ford II called the president of ABC and demanded that Cosell be taken off the air. People lined up in bars for the honor of hurling a brick at the TV when Cosell appeared on-screen. He was, Ohlmeyer says admiringly, "dangerous." He was great television.
Teamed after the first season with former New York Giants star Frank Gifford and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith—a country boy who could puncture Cosell's pretensions with a verbal pitchfork and work in the most altered of states ("Welcome to the Mile High City," Meredith crowed while opening a broadcast from Denver, "and I really am")—Cosell was the volatile element in a chemical reaction that caused a ratings explosion and revolutionized television. Monday Night Football showed not only that a sporting event could dominate prime time but also that the quality of the game hardly mattered.
In a broadcast early in the first year, while Dallas was losing badly to the St. Louis Cardinals, "Howard started teasing Don, and Don started coming back, and you could see the whole thing come together," Arledge says. "We were opposite very tough competition that night—I think it was a Johnny Carson special on NBC and a strong lineup on CBS—and we beat them all. It proved you could get a great audience with a terrible game. In a way it was better than had it been a closer game, because the chemistry between Don and Howard might not have developed as quickly. The way the game was presented became what was appealing."
In the end, then, it was the memory of that kind of success, coupled with the unappealing way Monday Night had been presented the past few years, that led to last week's announcement. How else to explain it? By one measure, the show has never been more popular. From 1994 to '98, Monday Night ranked in the top five in prime time—during Cosell's tenure it never rose higher than 10th—and last season it finished third, the highest ranking in its 30-year history. The preponderance of meaningless games helps explain the program's perceived decline, but, as Michaels says, "It still winds up as the Number 3 show on television. What does this show have to do before people say, 'It's back to where it was'? In the so-called glory years the show was 20th out of 54, and everybody said, 'Fantastic! What a raging success!' Now we're third out of 150, and all of a sudden the picture being painted is that the ratings are the lowest ever. Yeah, in raw terms you can look at it that way, but look at the competition. In the old days the other networks didn't even program against Monday Night Football. Now they throw their big guns at us—topped off by, of all things, wrestling."
What Michaels is ignoring is that nobody did more to paint last season as a failure than executives at ABC, especially Katz. It was Katz who decided on March 8 to pull the plug on Esiason and, perhaps more remarkable, on Monday Night Football's widely respected producer-director team of Kenny Wolfe and Craig Janoff. "Kenny did nothing wrong," says Katz. "I just felt he had been doing the same show for too many years and there was a sameness to it, and it needed a fresh approach. Same with Craig."