Tuesday, July 10, 2007

ABC's Monday Night Faux Pas

[originally posted December 27, 2005]

With Monday Night Football ending its remarkable 35-year run on ABC last night with more of a whimper than a bang, I thought I might finally tell a story I've never shared with my talk radio audience. As it happens, this behind-the-scenes tale was my initial first-hand exposure to the staggering magnitude of the money at stake at the broadcast network level, even in this era of splintering audiences amid a multiplicity of cable and satellite competition.

As I explained over KIRO this morning, it is breathtaking how few people recognize what really was at root regarding ABC's loss of MNF, the most prestigious—and lucrative—of all NFL broadcast properties. Many explanations have been offered as to what brought on this sad end to a storied broadcast tradition, but it seems that everybody (save that Radioactive guy Bryan Styble, 'natch) has been missing the obvious.

Many observers argued incorrectly that MNF lost its luster due to the parity-obsessed NFL regime that succeeded Pete Rozelle, as ABC increasingly found itself airing games pitting .500 teams against one another. (And I often wonder whether the late Rozelle, the greatest commissioner in pro sports history, would have authorized his successor's long march of the league away from dynastic spectacle—the Patriots' recent success notwithstanding—toward competitive mediocrity.)

Nor does the blame for the decline of MNF reside with ABC brass, or at least not for their lacking to keep even with Fox as its NFC coverage consistently led the way with eye-candy graphics and other dazzling gridiron broadcast innovations.

No, ABC's critical mistake was when they decided that the oversized John Madden could cover for two people in the MNF booth. Sure, in Al Michaels they had someone who was reliably competent, even if too often cloyingly so. But the sad fact is that the overrated Michaels is still surfing the wave of fame generated by his inspired "Do you believe in miracles!?!" hockey call at the 1980 Winter Olympics. To his credit, Michaels seldom got in the way of Madden's always trenchant and good-humored analysis. Still, never did Michaels approach the graceful combination of insight, articulation and elegant vocal authority that Pat Summerall, easily the finest NFL play-by-play man ever, routinely provided Madden through all those seasons they were teamed, first by CBS and then at Fox.

It remained painfully obvious every Monday that no matter how larger-than-life Madden might be, he was still just one man playing off his play-by-play partner. And MNF became a cultural phenomenon because there had always been three characters standing on-camera in that booth.

And, not at all incidentally, for so many of those memorable seasons, one of that trio was Howard Cosell. Taller in stature and accomplishment than any of his various boothmates, Cosell made MNF the event that even non-football fans recognized it to be by the mid-70s, all the while being the first sports figure to expand the realm of professional athletics beyond that of mostly immature men playing overpriced games. Cosell brought intellectuality (and literate bombast) to sportscasting, and thusly appealed to an unprecedented portion of the American public by regaling and/or infuriating them.

When Cosell quit MNF in the late 80s, the same sports commentators who had once so savagely scorned and ridiculed him were soon pondering in their columns whether it could ever recover from his departure. It couldn't.

Actually, it might have, had the ABC suits realized that to replicate the Cosell-inspired magic they needed someone who could bring a similar combination of intellect, sports knowledge, showmanship and controversy to the team. There was and is only one other person on the American media landscape with that formidable package, and he not only was available, but actually was also highly covetous of the gig!

Not that talk radio icon Rush Limbaugh needed the income or the exposure. But for months starting in 1999, he took the truly startling step of lobbying for the job on his own nationally-syndicated show. He offered to take his daily Excellence in Broadcasting efforts on the road each Monday via remote from the cities to which ABC would dispatch him during the NFL season. But even the clout of his EIB omnipresence couldn't land him that prestigious weekly platform. ABC apparently believed that the conservative's (wholly unwarranted) reputation for being an extremist loose cannon would scare away more viewers than his invariably-entertaining act would draw. It was also said that ABC feared that he couldn't check his ideology at the skybox door, something he not only surely could and would have done, but publicly pledged to do.

When ABC punted and instead awarded the gig to erudite comic Dennis Miller for a much-lampooned run which would only last two seasons, the die was cast, although it still would be another half-decade before MNF would draw its last breath, last evening.

While sitting in today for Limbaugh himself, Mark Belling was arguing the same point I've long been hammering about Cosell's unquestionable and central value to MNF. (Belling is the estimable Milwaukee-based newstalker who has been getting frequent EIB fill-in duty ever since longtime Rush subs Sean Hannity and Tony Snow went into direct or indirect talk-radio competition with Limbaugh.)

Belling agrees that Cosell's presence made MNF the monster hit it became by its third season. And Belling didn't, but should have, noted that Cosell managed to achieve that while seldom receiving more than strained cooperation from the thin-voiced Frank Gifford, whose resentment of his intellectually-towering partner was never far beneath the surface. Compounding this chilliness was Gifford's favoring good ole boy Don Meredith's goofy comic-relief antics over Cosell's consistently cerebral contributions. All of which was even more inexcusable given that Gifford somehow neglected to bring to ABC many of the broadcast skills he had honed while doing The NFL Today. That was on CBS during the 60s, before he was named to replace the durable Keith Jackson in the triumvirate's play-by-play role after the initial MNF season.

But Limbaugh was spurned by ABC, Cosell is long deceased, and now the broadcast-network version of MNF finally is dead too, deservedly. But I never fully realized how valuable a property it was to ABC until I started working for the network again in 1998. (I had previously been heard on the ABC-owned WJR/Detroit during 1993-96.) I temporarily left radio for a television newswriting slot at the network-owned WLS/Chicago, and then soon learned of something that, unbeknownst to me and just about everyone else outside the cloistered world of ABC Television, had been going on since 1996.

ABC had known for a couple years that a walkout by its technicians union was imminent, mostly over benefits issues. And indeed, in the fall of 1998, management beat the union to the punch by locking them out. But by the time a settlement was reached in February 1999, a fascinating back-story had played itself out, one of which I've never seen any newspaper or broadcast coverage.

So I shall tell it here and now. As it happened, the biggest concern that ABC bosses were said to have was not merely that a strike would be called, but rather when it might come down. Timing is everything when you walk out on The Man, as the transit workers in New York City demonstrated last week with their Yuletide strike. ABC management in the mid-90s figured that their union might wait until, say, 8:57 pm Eastern Time some autumnal Monday to walk, leaving the network without any technical ability to air its signature MNF broadcast.

So for the next two years, the network funded a full contingent of several dozen technical and production personnel who would trundle each post-Labor Day Monday to that game's site in its own truck caravan, shadowing the ABC A-team and setting up camp on the opposite side of that week's stadium. There they were ever situated, always poised to electronically switch over and thus seamlessly pick up the coverage, should the prime crew find itself ordered by their union leadership to take picket signs in hand on only a few minutes' notice. One can only imagine the cost of such dual-deployment, but ABC willingly footed the bill week in, week out, for nearly two NFL seasons.

And mind you, all of this was for but one potential sportscast, since by game-time the following week, ABC would have scrambled to assemble a replacement-worker team to air the remainder of their MNF games without interruption for the duration of the strike. Which, as it happens, is precisely what the network did during its eventual 1998-1999 lockout. But in the meantime, it accrued a two-year running tab of surely astronomical proportions merely to avoid a single broadcasting embarrassment.

Think about that the next time you're wading through the commercials which punctuate
Desperate Housewives and According to Jim.

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