Yes, America Is Still Ready For Monday Night Football

AT 6:30 p.m., Frank Gifford steps into the broadcast booth to have his face made up. First the eyes, then the cheeks and forehead. Little white highlights go onto each eyebrow. Mr. Gifford is unfazed by all this. He is talking football.

``It's always fascinated me a little bit that soccer hasn't done better,'' he says. Big-field, nonstop action is what Americans supposedly want. Yet viewers are not going there. They're coming here.

In 2-1/2 hours, Gifford will speak to some 40 million Americans -- roughly 1 out of 6 of the nation's inhabitants. He will welcome them to ``Monday Night Football,'' which, in its 25th season, is now a venerable institution. Almost no TV show has lasted as long or stayed on top so durably. Why this program is so popular says much about television, professional sports, and Americans themselves.

Football is perhaps the perfect TV sport. It pauses between each play long enough for broadcasters to stick in an analysis or a commercial. It is choreographed almost as a work of art. ``In hockey, soccer, basketball, you're looking at the improvisation: It's like jazz,'' says Douglas Holt, a marketing professor at Penn State University at University Park, Pa., who has studied sports consumerism. ``Football is more like a symphony. You have your marching orders: `These are the things that we're going to do.' ''

Then there's the pageantry. ``You have the bands, the cheerleaders, the green of the field, and the colors of the uniforms'' says John Bittner, professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Even the players, with shoulder pads and helmets, are larger than life - perfect for a 17-inch screen that cries out for the dramatic.

TV started broadcasting pro football games in the 1950s. So by 1970, when ABC began ``Monday Night Football,'' the concept was hardly new. What was new was ABC's concept for delivering the game.

To capture a prime-time audience, ABC's Roone Arledge turned football into TV drama. While CBS broadcast most of the game from the 50 yard line, ABC added cameras to each 25 yard line. Instead of two announcers, the network had three. The result was more color and entertainment that, to the surprise of many, attracted women, too.

Many analysts, inside and outside sports TV, have tried to explain the show's almost-immediate success. ``The program made its debut in an epoch marked by the gunning down of students by National Guardsmen on college campuses`` wrote Ron Powers in ``Supertube,'' a 1984 book on television, ``by the continuing slaughter and maiming and psychic wreckage of young American men in Southeast Asia, by a president who felt constrained to protest, perhaps in not strictest accuracy, that he was not a crook.'' In those troubled times, ``Monday Night Football'' offered a kind of ``war'' where the soldiers came back to life. ``On `Monday Night Football' the heroes arose again and again from the brilliant green field....''

Another big plus were the early announcers: Howard Cosell, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback ``Dandy'' Don Meredith, and, in the show's second season, Gifford. As Gifford provided the play-by-play analysis, the city-wise Cosell bantered with the country-bred Meredith. The combination clicked, even if the football analysis suffered.

`` `Monday Night Football' has always followed the sociological trends that have taken place in this country,'' Gifford says. ``If you go back to the early days, the irreverence that Howard brought to the game, the way Don would deflate Howard - it was a funny time in this country. It was a rebellious time.''

The current trio - Gifford, who is now a color man, play-by-play analyst Al Michaels, and former pro lineman Dan Dierdorf - has been together for nearly as long (eight years) and garnered even-better ratings for its seamless presentation than the 10 years of Gifford-Cosell-Meredith. Production is smooth: When he wants to mention something that's germane to the game, Michaels says director Craig Janoff has the shot up within three seconds.

``Monday Night Football'' has been in the top 10 for four years running. The tone is mellower: The most outrageous thing Dierdorf and Gifford did on last Monday's Pittsburgh-Buffalo game was to give Michaels a birthday cake.

The analysis, by most accounts, is also more precise than it was in the old days. ``I think we are probably more reflective of what's going on in a societal way now, in the sense that we are very information-oriented,'' Gifford says. ``Your own sports pages, if you look at them, have grown, with charts and graphs and numbers. People seem to have an unquenchable thirst for information and I think we reflect that.''

Adds Robert Thompson, professor of television at Syracuse University in New York: ``Football and sports in general are in fact teaching the American public an important skill: detailed, close analysis. Perhaps we should make watching a couple episodes of `Monday Night Football' a prerequisite for college-level students.''

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