Monday Night Football is a long-running weekly broadcast of National Football League games. Debuting in 1970 on ABC, the program was conceived as both an answer to Major League Baseball's Game of the Week (and the NHL's Hockey Night in Canada) and a showcase for the best teams in the NFL, as the league traditionally uses the coveted Monday Night slot to spotlight matches between high caliber teams.
There were some Monday night games on CBS in the late 1960s as a sort of test run of the concept, but they were not played every week. Those games are not considered part of the series as such.
Monday Night Football was an instant hit in the ratings and quickly became a fixture in American pop culture. In particular, it made household names out of its announcing team: Play-by-play man Frank Gifford and color analysts Howard Cosell and "Dandy" Don Meredith. The series can also be credited with helping to make NFL football the most popular spectator sport in the U.S., as the broadcasts routinely highlighted the league's top players and rivalries. It even produced a spin-off of sorts, as ESPN (by then majority-owned by ABC) followed suit to launch Sunday Night Football in 1987.
Things changed when in 2005, when Disney (who by that time owned both ABC and ESPN) decided that declining ratingsnote and escalating TV contracts no longer made the series profitable enough for ABC to keep. A large part of the problem was that competitive balance had become a problem for the schedule makers, as the top teams from the previous season might no longer be so the next season. This resulted in late-season match-ups that were clunkers because one or the other of the teams were no longer a playoff contender, making the Monday night game less appealing to a mass audience. ABC also ended up with a death slot preceding the game once MacGyver was canceled (as no show could recapture the perfect chemistry of Richard Dean Anderson's iconic character leading into MNF), and — as many affiliate stations figured that out and pre-empted whatever was before the game with a local football show — was stuck airing 20/20 Downtown to complete viewer apathy.
ABC, among other entities, tried to get the NFL to agree to a concept that would eventually become known as "flex scheduling," which would be invoked when needed to replace a poor match-up with a better one. The idea was deemed impractical because of the logistics involved in moving a Sunday afternoon game to Monday night.
As part of that year's reshuffling of the NFL TV contracts, Disney decided to bid on the MNF contract but put the games on ESPN. With subscription fees in addition to regular advertising income, ESPN could bid more for the contract than ABC and still maintain profitability. The move of the top rated, icon show to cable angered many fans but NBC bid on the now-vacant Sunday night package. The Sunday night game was now considered the marquee game of the week and flex scheduling was put into place for this package as it's much easier to move a game 3 1/2 to 6 1/2 hours later in the day than a day-and-a-half later. Likewise, MNF ended up taking the games that were on the old Sunday night contract. Disney decided not to bid on the Sunday night package due to the then-dominance of Desperate Housewives on Sunday nights at the time; while NBC easily wins Sunday evenings, the ABC lineup of Once Upon a Time and Quantico has continued to do well as good counterprogramming (and now during the summer, Celebrity Family Feud, plus revivals of Pyramid and Match Game). ABC's Monday evening lineup of Dancing with the Stars and Castle has done better with a steady lineup through the year, even against MNF, while NBC is now stuck with a post-Super Bowl lineup on Sunday nights which generally trails the other networks.
Monday Night Football remains popular even with the jump to cable and routinely ends up in the Top Ten Nielsen ratings chart every Monday. (However, a side effect is that because local stations in the team markets syndicated the games from ESPN, ratings usually have to be adjusted to account for that; for instance, if the CW affiliate in a market carries the game, it's pretty obvious that men 25-54 haven't suddenly found an interest in Jane the Virgin for a night.) And with the games on cable, it's now possible to have a season-opening Monday night doubleheader with one game beginning at 7 p.m. Eastern time and the second at 10:15 Eastern. The later game usually involves two west-coast teams (usually the currently awful Oakland Raiders have been involved to much viewer and advertiser annoyance), though in 2010, it was played in Kansas City (a 9:15 p.m. kickoff locally). It also gives ESPN a prominent day to market everything about their network, and all programming is focused around both Monday morning quarterbacking and hyping that night's game.
Monday Night Football has been broadcast on:
- ABC (1970-2005)
- ESPN and ESPN2 (2006-present, as well as a couple of one-off '90s games)
Additional Monday night games that which were not officially part of the MNF package have been broadcast on:
- NBC (first game of Christmas 2006 doubleheader)
- Fox (postponed 2010 New York Giants-Minnesota Vikings game, moved to Detroit's Ford Field due to a roof collapse in Minneapolis's Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome; the game only aired in New York City, Albany, NY, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Rochester, MN, although it was broadcast nationally to NFL Sunday Ticket subscribers)
- CBS (postponed 2014 New York Jets-Buffalo Bills game, moved to Detroit's Ford Field due to a snowstorm in Buffalo; the game only aired in New York State and Erie, PA, although it was broadcast nationally to NFL Sunday Ticket subscribers)
Monday Night Football contains examples of the following tropes:
- Bearer of Bad News: During a broadcast Howard Cosell broke the news of John Lennon's death on Dec. 8, 1980. Apparently the booth had been given the bulletin and asked to keep it quiet until ABC News could get on the air. Cosell announced it anyway.
- They also unknowingly broke Yoko Ono's requests to the hospital staff to not announce it on TV in case her son Sean was watching. As it transpired, a producer for ABC's NYC flagship station WABC-7, Alan J. Weiss, was also at the hospital after having crashed his motorcycle. When he heard what was going on (Lennon was wheeled in right next to him), he called the station, and word percolated to the president of ABC News at the time, Roone Arledge, who was also head of ABC Sports, so he passed it to the commentators, who promptly debated whether or not to read it on the air. As it happened, ABC was beaten to the punch by NBC, who interrupted The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson to air the announcement a few minutes before Cosell's breaking news bulletin.
- Bootstrapped Theme: Now universally recognized as the MNF theme music, Johnny Pearson's "Heavy Action" was originally used only as accompaniment for halftime highlights, and didn't become the opening theme until several years later. (The original opening theme was a funky organ-based piece called "Score".)
- What's more, "Heavy Action" wasn't actually composed for MNF at all, but for The BBC's production music library. They later used it as the theme for the sports-competition show Superstars. (It continues to herald BBC sports broadcasts in the UK.) It also introduced a series of films syndicated by SFM Entertainment under the "SFM Holiday Network" title in the 1970s and '80s.
- Brutal Honesty: Howard Cosell, noted for his "tell it like it is" sportscasting commentary.
- Couch Gag: Promos for games that used "Are You Ready for Some Football?" by Hank Williams Jr. would occasionally see Williams slightly edit the lyrics for whatever two teams were about to play that evening.
- Dodgy Toupee: Howard Cosell, who was frequently noted for wearing one while on the air.
- Flipping the Bird: Done by a disgruntled Houston Oilers fan to the camera during a 1972 game, prompting the classic Meredith quip, "He's saying the Oilers are number one in the nation!" (Amusingly, this would later be unintentionally referenced at WABC, when station reporter Mara Wolinsky was unintentionally caught giving the finger to a camera person, prompting anchorman Roger Grimsby to eventually quip "Well, as Mara Wolinsky would say, we're number one.)
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: A few early examples came mainly from Don Meredith:
Vermeil: "There's John Elway on the sidelines getting blown by a fan!" (cue shot of Elway with an electric fan pointed at him)
- During the first Monday Night game between the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns; the camera spotlighted a Cleveland receiver named Fair Hooker, prompting Meredith to joke that he "hadn't met one yet".
- During the opening comments from the 1973 game between the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos (the latter making their Monday Night debut), Meredith (who occasionally smoked marijuana then) quipped "We're in Mile High, and so am I".
- Then there's this beauty from Dick Vermeil:
- Although there was no network or regulatory prohibition against it, the NFL strongly discouraged any gambling references during their games, such as point spreads or over/under totals. While not making any explicit references to these, Al Michaels would mention that some viewers would be extremely interested in an otherwise inconsequential play in an already decided game, or mention that a kick sailed "over" a crossbar if the score was enough to affect a bet on the total. He still does it to this day for Sunday Night Football.
- Hypercompetent Sidekick: Hall of Fame QB (and college football commentator) Dan Fouts during Dennis Miller's tenure, who provided meaningful football commentary to back up Miller's non-sequitur quips.
- Insufferable Genius: Howard Cosell, whose intellectual commentary, blunt, long-winded monotonous voice, and arrogant personality was described in his own words as "arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a show-off".
- Long Runner: Over 40 seasons and counting.
- Ms. Fanservice: Some of their female sideline reporters have been seen as this, most notably Melissa Stark and Lisa Guerrero in the latter years of the ABC run.
- Mood Whiplash: The broadcast of Dec. 8, 1980, when Cosell broke the news of John Lennon's murder in the middle of the game, noting that in the grand scheme of things, the game wasn't that important."Yes, we have to say it. Remember this is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses. An unspeakable tragedy confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City: John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City, the most famous, perhaps, of all of The Beatles, shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital. Dead. On. Arrival. Hard to go back to the game after that news flash, which in duty bound, we have to take."
- Odd Couple: Cosell and Meredith openly disliked each other (though they both intentionally played this up), providing dramatic tension in the broadcast and pushing ratings through the roof. Joe Theismann and Tony Kornheiser were a lesser version.
- Self-Deprecation: In referring to himself Howard Cosell once remarked: "Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a showoff. There's no question that I'm all of those things."
- Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Cosell's stock in trade.
- Straight Man: Frank Gifford filled this role throughout his entire tenure, with occasional dips into Only Sane Man territory when he was teamed up with Howard Cosell and Don Meredith.
- Thematic Theme Tune: A reworked version of Hank Williams, Jr.'s "All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight" (known to most as "Are You Ready for Some Football?"), performed by the man himself, was used as the opening theme from 1989 to 2011. It returned for the 2017 season after several years of dull openings mainly populated by non-subtle placement of GMC vehicles.
- Viewers Are Geniuses: Dennis Miller's run on the show.
- Cosell occasionally ventured into this territory, but knew when to draw back as well. Miller turned it Up to Eleven.
- You Just Had to Say It: The moment when the camera was on Fair Hooker, and Don Meredith said: "Well, I haven't met one yet!"