On Week 3 of Monday Night Football, the TV cameras scanned the crowd and picked up one of those WE LOVE YOU ABC signs that keep popping up in the stands. Loyal fans presumably spend hours designing and constructing these masterpieces on their kitchen tables the night before a game. This one said hello to A-DORABLE FRANK, B-EAUTIFUL DANDY, C-HARMING O.J., the network's new troika now that Howard Cosell is spending his Monday nights in the Hamptons. It was a nice welcome, but it wasn't entirely appropriate. Not much about the show is adorable, beautiful or charming anymore. The ratings are tumbling, and without Cosell the sense of wonder and drama is gone. Putting it bluntly, Monday Night Football is just another NFL game in search of an identity.
ABC has to be nervous about the Nielsens, particularly when interest in the sport itself seems to be on the wane. The latest available ratings average, covering the first three Monday nights, was 16.9—down 6%, or one million households, from the 18.1 average through Week 3 in '83. This season's two odd-night games (a Thursday and a Sunday) have averaged 11.6—a 16% dropoff from '83 (two Thursday nights). It's worth noting that '83 itself was something of a Waterloo for Monday Night Football. Its ratings fell more sharply (17% since 1981; because the season was interrupted by the players' strike, 1982 ratings aren't used for comparisons) than the industrywide decline for network sports (15% since 1980).
How much of the show's artistic decline can be attributed to the departure of Cosell? A lot. Howard wasn't on the program because he knew a hook pattern from a down-and-out or because he told it like it was. In recent years Cosell had exhibited more bark than bite—the ratio of his pontifications about the characters of certain players to his critiques of their performances was about 15:1. No, he was on the air precisely because he was full of himself, because he commanded attention and imparted a sense of moment to the proceedings. He's certainly replaceable, but only by one person now working in TV sports: the Common Man, John Madden.
The segment of the show where Cosell is missed the most is the halftime highlights. He's probably the only sportscaster around who can make them exciting. This year ABC has put the able Jim Lampley in a kind of Mission Control studio from which he narrates two or three highlights, runs through the baseball scores and questions sports newsmakers a la Ted Koppel. It looks like a gussied-up version of the sports wrap-up shows popular on local stations. Not only is ABC's version not all that special, but it's also not journalistically sound. During one Monday halftime, Lampley interviewed three U.S. Olympic boxing medalists in a thinly disguised promo for an upcoming ABC prime-time fight card. On the Sunday night halftime, he narrated highlights of three afternoon baseball games and three NFL games, but ignored the rest of the football scores.
As for the game commentary, the show consists of the adorable Gifford, the beautiful Meredith and the charming Simpson, or some combination thereof. In all candor, they probably should be rated M-N-U: Mistake-prone, Not So Funny Anymore, and Unclear.
Gifford is easily the best prepared and most insightful of the three. However, he has been suffering from the same syndrome—transposing names and teams and scores—that eventually hurt another excellent announcer, Curt Gowdy. As unlikely as it seems, Gifford may have concentrated better with Howard beside him. Certainly Meredith was more appealing playing off Howard the Heavy. The assumption here was that in Cosell's absence, the Danderoo would emerge as the show's dominant personality, but this hasn't happened. So far, his whimsical humor and wonderful timing just haven't clicked. On the other hand, it should be said that Gifford and Meredith have become more pointed in their appraisals, as in the recent Browns-Broncos game that turned into an overofficiated disaster.
O.J., who got off to such a promising start last year, can still provide cogent insights, but he seems to have taken a turn reminiscent of Wrong Way Corrigan. His comments have been repetitive ("As we said earlier" is fast becoming his verbal trademark), windy and obscure, in content if not locution. Worse than that, he contradicts himself. Two Mondays ago, when Miami was leading Buffalo 14-0 in the first half, Simpson praised the Bills by predicting they would yet make the game as exciting as last year's overtime thriller. But before Buffalo finally got on the board with a field goal near the end of the half, he excoriated the team for its disarray. Which was it, Juice?
Here's some advice, ABC. Madden's CBS contract ends after next year. Offer Madden, oh, about half your $30 million profit from the L.A. Olympics plus a lifetime supply of papier-m�ch� walls for him to tear through. Monday Night needs him.