Prime-time entertainment: sportspackaging Monday night football


New York: Beech Tree Books, William Morrow, 384 pp. $18.95

WITH both the Olympics and the World Series this fall, it was hard to get excited about Monday night football - or even to notice that it was still around. But then it really hasn't been the same since Howard Cosell left, has it?

No. Now it is, as Marc Gunther and Bill Carter point out, ``no longer `Monday Night Football'''; it is merely ``football on Monday nights.''

In the halcyon days of the 1970s it was different. For the first time in television sports history, ABC provided a telecast that transcended the game. Week in and week out, whether the football game was good, bad, or indifferent, the show sustained its vitality.

ABC sports swami Roone Arledge realized from the beginning that his show had to be different. His competition was not the other networks' football games, it was the other networks' prime-time movies and long-entrenched hit series like ``Here's Lucy'' or ``All in the Family.''

Cosell was the key to prime-time success. He was brassy, abrasive, cocksure, and controversial, and Arledge recognized in him the qualities of a star - the villain whom the fans loved to hate, the man they would all watch to root against. Through serendipity, and a longtime friendship with Frank Gifford, Arledge found the perfect foil for Cosell in Don Meredith, the aw-shucks cowboy whose down-home humor and folksy common sense provided the ideal counterpoint to Cosell's pompous intellectualism.

Arledge complemented this electricity in the broadcast booth with imagination and innovation in the production truck, and the success of ``Monday Night Football'' exceeded anyone's wildest dreams. ``There was a swagger to the show,'' according to Gunther and Carter - television columnists for the Detroit News and the Baltimore Sun, respectively; it was ``an arrogance built on the conviction that the `Monday Night' men could do anything, say anything, and the nation would laugh, applaud, or recoil in horror.''

``Monday Night Football'' was never just sports television, it was prime-time television, and the trappings of the success and stardom, the economics, and the internecine politics and backstabbing make for a fascinating tale. Gunther and Carter have reported the story very thoroughly, and they tell it extremely well.

When Meredith left ``Monday Night Football'' for the first time in 1974, Cosell suggested Bill Cosby or Burt Reynolds as a replacement. ``Let's not forget that, first and foremost, `Monday Night Football' is prime-time entertainment,'' he said much later. ``Hiring another ex-jock just isn't going to hack it.'' Arledge didn't accept Cosell's counsel then, and in the ensuing 15 years there's been no real threat to the sportscasting hegemony shared by ex-jocks and by glib, pretty, up-through-the-ranks announcers.

Within this narrow universe, however, ``Monday Night Football'' has demonstrated that competence and credentials can carry someone only so far. To earn time on the most important telecasts - and the important events today, such as the World Series, the Super Bowl, and the Olympic Games, are too expensive to rate anything except the glitzy packaging of a prime-time telecast - an announcer must also possess the star quality, a je ne sais quoi that will command an audience otherwise indifferent to the happenings on the field.

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