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PRO FOOTBALL ’86 : The Decline and Fall of Monday Night Football

Times Staff Writer

“Monday Night Football,” beginning its 17th season Monday, is television’s second-longest-running prime-time show. Only “60 Minutes” has been around longer.

But “Monday Night Football” might not make it to season No. 18.

What became an American institution in the 1970s and peaked in popularity in 1981, may be canceled after this season, if you are to believe what many television executives are saying.

ABC has been singing the Monday night blues for the past several years. The network reportedly lost $16 million on its prime-time NFL football telecasts in 1985, even though ratings were up 17% over ’84, when they hit an all-time low.

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The 1984 average Nielsen rating was 16.9. The ’85 average was 19.7, boosted by a record 29.1 for a game in which the Miami Dolphins handed the Chicago Bears their only loss. Otherwise, it was another bleak season.

Said Dennis Swanson, the president of ABC sports: “Dropping ‘Monday Night Football’ is an extreme position, but we can’t continue to lose money.”

Executives at both NBC and CBS have said their networks are not interested in a prime-time NFL package.

The fate of “Monday Night Football” will not be determined until early next year when NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle sits down with the heads of the network sports divisions to negotiate a new contract. The current five-year, $2.1-billion contract runs out this season.

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The three networks will pay $495 million to the NFL this season, up from last season’s $450 million. According to Broadcasting magazine, ABC pays the most, $175 million this season, followed by CBS at $165 million and NBC at $155 million.

The networks say that at those prices, they can’t make a profit in the current economic climate.

“It’s not an impossible scenario that ABC will no longer be in the ‘Monday Night Football’ business after this season,” said Peter Lund, president of CBS sports. “I’m no authority on how much ABC will lose on the NFL this season, but together the three networks could lose as much as $120 million.”

The main problem, the television people say, is a soft advertising market, which has affected all televised sports. This has prompted the networks to consider making cutbacks.

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Dropping a dog-sled race is one thing, though, and dropping “Monday Night Football” is quite another.

Cynics say that ABC will never drop “Monday Night Football,” that ABC, as well as NBC and CBS, are only poor-mouthing to position themselves better for next year’s negotiations.

Still, Chevrolet, a major sponsor of “Monday Night Football” the last five seasons, announced in June that it will no longer be a sponsor. The automobile company believes that there are better ways to spend its money, and lesser sponsors are saying the same thing.

A 30-second commercial will cost $192,500 this season, based on a 19 rating.

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Another problem with “Monday Night Football” developed in June at the ABC affiliates’ meeting in Los Angeles.

Affiliates have always been compensated monetarily when their local programming--mainly newscasts--are preempted by a sporting event. But the network, now owned by cost-conscious Capital Cities Communications, said it was discontinuing the compensation.

Many affiliates in turn threatened to drop “Monday Night Football.”

The network came back and offered the affiliates a five-minute slot at halftime for local news and commercials. The network itself took another five minutes for national news and commercials, which doesn’t leave much time, if any, for highlights from Sunday NFL games.

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It’s a format that surely won’t go over with hard-line sports fans, who would prefer seeing football highlights to news.

Also different this year are the announcers. Al Michaels will do the play-by-play, Frank Gifford the analysis.

Michaels is one of the best all-around play-by-play men in the business, but early indications after a couple of exhibition telecasts are that he and Gifford are not a good match. Both play it fairly straight, probably too straight.

Essentially, “Monday Night Football,” with Michaels and Gifford, has become just another football telecast. It used to be different in the days of Howard Cosell and Don Meredith.

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For one thing, there were three announcers, a format that at times produced a cluttered telecast but set “Monday Night Football” apart. So did Cosell, with his bombastic style, and the off-beat Meredith, singing and bantering with Cosell.

The series started in 1970, with Keith Jackson, Cosell and Meredith in the booth. The next season, Gifford, hired away from CBS, replaced Jackson. The Gifford-Cosell-Meredith team, for better or worse, was unique. If nothing else, it drew attention.

“Monday Night Football” became so popular, it changed Americans’ social habits. Suddenly, Monday nights were party nights. Business at sports bars flourished on Monday nights.

Generally, that is no longer the case. “We used to do great business on Monday nights during the football season,” said Ray Ortiz, longtime owner of the Stardust in Downey. “We still give away hot dogs and salads on Monday nights, but we don’t even do half the business we once did. We used to go through about 160 hots dogs on a Monday night. Now we’re lucky if we give away 60.”

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John Morris, co-owner along with the Rams’ Dennis Harrah of Legends in Long Beach, said: “We still have packed houses on Monday nights, but we’re a little different. We give away Raider and Ram tickets and souvenirs, and Dennis gets players and cheerleaders to come in. I know my competitors have been hurting on Monday nights in recent years.”

Since the record year of 1981, when “Monday Night Football” averaged a national Nielsen rating of 21.7, the average rating dropped to 20.5 in 1982, to 18.1 in ’83 and to the low of 16.9 in ’84.

Why the decline? There has been much speculation--bad schedules, the proliferation of cable and VCRs, and the saturation of sports, particularly football, on television.

The 1984 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that opened the college football market meant that viewers could watch games nonstop on Saturdays. After pro football on Sundays, maybe viewers had had enough by Monday night.

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Cosell, in his book, “I Never Played the Game,” offers another reason for the decline: his departure before the 1984 season:

“I am sure that my absence had a negative effect on the ratings. Without me, the nature of the telecasts was entirely altered. I had commanded attention. I had palpable impact on the show, giving it a sense of moment, and now it seemed no different from an ordinary Sunday afternoon telecast. If that sounds like ego, what can I say? I’m telling it like it is.”

For whatever reason, the decline in popularity of “Monday Night Football” plus the reluctance of sponsors to continue supporting the show has put it in jeopardy.

Val Pinchbeck, the NFL’s director of broadcasting, said: “Our first step is to try to work out a deal with ABC. It has first negotiating rights.

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“Next, we would look toward CBS or NBC. If an agreement can’t be reached, we would then look toward other alternatives.”

What that means is cable television or syndication on independent commercial stations.

Roger Werner, ESPN executive vice president, announced at a cable convention in Los Angeles in June that his network plans to make a serious bid to get NFL games.

ESPN? Can the network known for televising such things as Australian Rules Football, Canadian football, Cal State Fullerton football, hydroplane racing and fly fishing afford NFL football?

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Werner and other ESPN executives say yes, with help from cable operators. If cable operators can expand their business by offering live, prime-time NFL football, it might be worth their while to lay out some money. It might even justify small rate increases.

Say cable operators raised their monthly rate 40 cents a household for basic cable by offering NFL football on ESPN. Since there are nearly 40 million ESPN households, that’s about $16 million a month, or $192 million a year.

This money, plus what ESPN could make on commercials, makes ESPN a serious bidder.

Another possibility that has been talked about is HBO, a pay service, sharing prime-time football with ABC. HBO might take the five or so prime-time telecasts not on Monday nights and ABC would televise only Monday night games.

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One disadvantage of HBO is that it can’t generate money from commercials, since it has none, but NFL football would figure to bring in more subscribers at about $10 a month.

There has also been talk about Fox Television stations, which includes Channel 11 in Los Angeles, making a bid for the prime-time package. Word is that Fox went so far as to talk to Cosell about working on a possible package, but he said no.

THE PLAYOFFS

FIRST ROUND: Two wild card teams from each conference. Sunday, Dec. 28.

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DIVISIONAL GAMES: Division winners along with the two wild-card representatives. Saturday, Jan. 3 and Sunday, Jan. 4.

CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIPS: Survivors of the divisional games in each conference. Sunday, Jan. 11.

SUPER BOWL: Champion of the AFC vs. champion of the NFC. Sunday, Jan. 25, at the Rose Bowl.

PRO BOWL: AFC All-Stars vs. NFC All-Stars. Sunday, Feb. 1, at Houston. 1986 ABC SCHEDULE

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Date Game Time Mon., Sept. 8 NY Giants at Dallas 6 p.m. Thurs., Sept. 11 New England at NY Jets 5 p.m. Mon., Sept. 15 Denver at Pittsburgh 6 p.m. Thurs., Sept. 18 Cincinnati at Cleveland 5 p.m. Mon., Sept. 22 Chicago at Green Bay 6 p.m. Mon., Sept. 29 Dallas at St. Louis 6 p.m. Mon., Oct. 6 San Diego at Seattle 6 p.m. Mon., Oct. 13 Pittsburgh at Cincinnati 6 p.m. Mon., Oct. 20 Denver at New York Jets 6 p.m. Mon., Oct. 27 Washington at NY Giants 6 p.m. Mon., Nov. 3 LA Rams at Chicago 6 p.m. Mon., Nov. 10 Miami at Cleveland 6 p.m. Mon., Nov. 17 San Fran. at Washington 6 p.m. Thurs., Nov. 20 LA Raiders at San Diego 5 p.m. Mon., Nov. 24 New York Jets at Miami 6 p.m. Mon., Dec. 1 NY Giants at San Fran. 6 p.m. Sun., Dec. 7 Dallas at LA Rams 6 p.m. Mon., Dec. 8 LA Raiders at Seattle 6 p.m. Mon., Dec. 15 Chicago at Detroit 6 p.m. Fri., Dec. 19 LA Rams at San Fran. 5 p.m. Mon., Dec. 22 New England at Miami 6 p.m.


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