As it nears its 50th season, ESPN's venerable "Monday Night Football" is struggling with a mid-life crisis.
Yes, "Monday Night Football" changed the face of television. Yes, it can still dominate the sports conversation when it has great games like Rams vs. Chiefs. But "Monday Night Football" is far from what it used to be, and it's time to face some hard truths about the most iconic show in sports TV history.
To be blunt, "Monday Night Football" is bad. Too often, the game matchups are not marquee. The football is not as exciting. The new announce team — featuring three Monday night rookies in Jason Witten, Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland — is a work in progress at best, a train wreck at worst.
The most famous broadcast booth in sports no longer boasts legendary announcers like Howard Cosell, Dandy Don Meredith, Frank Gifford, John Madden or Al Michaels. Instead, this season's crew of Witten, Tessitore, McFarland and Lisa Salters has been roasted by fans and critics.
Witten doesn't have the quarterback charisma of CBS' Tony Romo, the fearlessness of NBC's Cris Collinsworth, the Super Bowl gravitas of Fox's Troy Aikman. He's improving as he learns on the job. Unfortunately, the former Cowboys tight end keeps fumbling on the air.
During the Saints' 12-9 win over the Panthers in Week 15, Witten noted one of the best things about QB Cam Newton is his ability to "run after catch" before he corrected himself later in the broadcast. The "Booger Mobile," a movable contraption carrying McFarland around stadiums, was supposed to reestablish the series' reputation for jazzy, technical innovation. Instead, it's been panned, with critics saying ESPN is trying to reinvent the wheel.
Let's be clear: "Monday Night Football" is one of the most successful and influential franchises in TV history. The show has even made somewhat of a comeback this season, with average viewership rising 10 percent season-to-date through Week 15.
But the world changes. The Oscars are no longer must-see TV. Famous brands like Sears, Blockbuster Video and Toys "R" Us are either going or gone. So is "Monday Night Football's" long run as the NFL's flagship telecast.
Like code blue in the emergency room, the warning signs have been flashing for years over the proud-but-aging Monday night franchise. Below are six symptoms of "Monday Night Football's" mid-life crisis as it wraps up its 49th season.
From monopoly to monotony
When ABC Sports producer Roone Arledge launched the original on Sept. 21, 1970, it stood alone as the NFL's only nationally televised prime-time game. Arledge and director Chet Forte created the original three-man booth of Cosell, Meredith and future "Mr. College Football" Keith Jackson (Gifford succeeded Jackson in 1971). They doubled the number of cameras, jacked up highlights, replays and graphics, and added memorable theme music.
Now, "Monday Night Football" is just one of three weekly prime-time NFL games, along with "Sunday Night Football" and "Thursday Night Football." (Not to mention the league's own NFL Network offering four exclusive Saturday night game telecasts this month).
All these games are produced like mini-Super Bowls. NFL game productions now feature anywhere from 12 to 20 cameras, including Skycams, pylon-cams and an "All-22" angle that captures every player on the field in a single shot.
"There are some weeks when all four of us, NBC, CBS, Fox and ABC, are doing prime-time college football games. And obviously Sunday night, Monday night and Thursday night in the NFL," said Mike Tirico, who served as ESPN's Monday night play-by-play announcer from 2006 to 2015 and now hosts the "Football Night in America" pregame show for NBC's Sunday night game. "So now we have five days a week of football on in primetime. And 'Monday Night Football' is the sole reason for that happening."
Though the modern NFL broadcast owes a lot to "Monday Night Football's" innovation, what was new and cutting edge in 1978 is workaday in 2018, making it much harder for "Monday Night Football" — or any broadcast — to truly stand apart.
"It never will get back to where it was. When 'Monday Night Football' started there weren't a thousand different options," said Joe Theisman, whose career was bookended by "MNF." His Super Bowl-winning career ended with a gruesome broken leg on a Monday night game against Lawrence Taylor's Giants in 1985, and he later served as ESPN's first lead analyst with Tirico in 2006, when the cable network took over from ABC.
"It used to be, as a player, that was the marquee night. Because everybody would be watching you," Theismann said. "As a broadcaster, Monday night was the job you wanted — because it was the only game in town. Today, there’s so much football, so many options available, that it will never be what it was."
Still, don't write "Monday Night Football" off. Nobody is comparing Witten, Tessitore and McFarland to Cosell, Gifford and Meredith. Much less Madden and Michaels. But they're improving together as a team.
Unlike Romo, Collinsworth or Aikman, Witten doesn't have the luxury of calling one of the week's best matchups. He gets whatever game the NFL gives ESPN in the preseason, even if it turns out to be two losing teams.
Witten, the 2012 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year winner, has the blessing of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, the league's most powerful owner. Witten too has the backing of ESPN brass. Lee Fitting, ESPN's vice president of production, told Lindsay Jones of The Athletic that Witten, Tessitore and McFarland will all be back in 2019.
Again, the show is still a venerable Monday night brand. Even if it now draws the smallest average audience of the NFL's five main TV packages, it beat the Emmy Awards in September and will rank No. 1 on cable TV again this season. Along Madison Avenue, the show has powered ESPN to 15 straight Monday night ratings victories, across all networks.
"Monday Night Football's" season-to-date 10 percent viewership increase is better than the league-wide average of 6 percent. Before ESPN's contract expires in early 2022, look for multiple corporate suitors, including ESPN, to throw billions at the league for the right to show Monday night games.
When asked whether ESPN would negotiate a new rights agreement for "MNF" or another NFL package when the current deals expire, ESPN declined to comment.
First to worst
Remember how the classic "Monday Night Football" always seemed to get the best game matchups? Who can forget Mike Ditka's undefeated Bears taking on Don Shula's Dolphins on Dec. 2, 1985? That classic game at the Orange Bowl (called by Gifford, Joe Namath and none other than O.J. Simpson) is still the highest-rated in Monday night game history, with a 29.6 rating.
Or Phil Simms' Giants taking on Joe Montana's 49ers on Dec. 3, 1990? That clash of two 10-1 teams featured future Hall of Famers on and off the field, including LT, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott, Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick. It's the second highest-rated Monday night game ever, with a 26.9 rating.
Fast-forward nearly 30 years, and it's NBC's "Sunday Night Football" and Fox's and CBS' Sunday afternoon packages that land the best games. That's why "Sunday Night Football" has reigned as the No. 1 prime-time show a record seven straight years.
"The Sunday Night package is the best package because it has the best games. It’s plain and simple," Tirico said. "You see three appearances from the best teams in the league on 'Sunday Night Football.' Sometimes four. You’ll only see those teams once on the Monday night package. So there’s no doubt the best package is on the 'Sunday Night Football' NBC broadcast. That goes on with everything around it, from the production to the look and all that stuff."
To add insult to injury, ESPN pays nearly twice as much as other NFL TV partners for the rights to Monday night: $1.9 billion a year. For that, it gets one wild-card playoff telecast and the Pro Bowl. But zero Super Bowls.
Sure, ESPN gets tons of NFL highlights that drive studio programs such as "NFL Live," "Sunday NFL Countdown" and "Monday Night Countdown." Not to mention "SportsCenter," "Get Up!" and other weekday shows. But ESPN would love to land a Super Bowl in the next round of contract talks. Given what they pay, it's long overdue.
There have been whispers for years that the NFL stiff-armed ESPN as pay-back for the network's ferocious reporting on criminal players, concussions and CTE. Maybe. Maybe not. But there's little doubt that years of weak games have taken their toll on the "Monday Night Football" brand.
ESPN's Monday night broadcast sank to a record-low audience during the 2017 season, according to SportsBusiness Daily. The series drew the smallest average audience of the league's three prime-time series and ranked dead last among the NFL's five main TV packages, according to SBD (The league's NFL Network offers a smaller package of seven exclusive game telecasts this season).
The good news? Those numbers are relative compared to the rest of TV. In 2017, "MNF" still ranked as the No. 1 show on cable TV on Monday, beating scripted powerhouses such as AMC's "The Walking Dead" and HBO's "Game of Thrones."
ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro and executive vice president of programming Burke Magnus have made improving the network's NFL relationship their first priority. They're working closely with key NFL executives such as Brian Rolapp, the league's chief business and media officer. Their hard work is paying off.
There's no question that ESPN nabbed its strongest Monday night schedule in years this season. There have been thrillers such as the Rams' 54-51 win over the Chiefs and the Chiefs' 27-23 comeback win over the Broncos, plus games featuring national TV draws such as the Cowboys, Packers, Patriots and Steelers.
Despite speculation that ESPN would lose its NFL wild-card game to Fox this postseason, Pitaro and Burke hung on to it. The game will be simulcast on ABC, according to SBD.
The seeds for "Monday Night Football's" fall into second-string status were planted in 2006, said Wesley Hyatt, author of "Kicking off the Week: A History of Monday Night Football on ABC Television, 1970-2005."
That's when the show moved to ESPN after 35 years at ABC. During that round of negotiations, the NFL anointed NBC's new "Sunday Night Football" its No. 1 prime package. To make sure, the league gave NBC the added weapon of so-called "flexible scheduling."
During Weeks 5-17, the league can grab more promising games for the Sunday night broadcast. That means if NBC is stuck with a Sunday night matchup of two losing teams, the league has options.
Only Sunday afternoon games are eligible to be flexed into NBC's Sunday night window. If ESPN has a lousy matchup the next night, that's tough luck. Talk about bringing a knife to a gunfight. And a butter knife at that.
Two words ESPN needs to add to its vocabulary (and then to its NFL contract): flexible scheduling.— MarkMaske (@MarkMaske) November 9, 2015
Compare the networks' respective Week 16 matchups. While NBC's "Sunday Night Football" will showcase young superstar Patrick Mahomes of the Chiefs against Super Bowl winner Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, ESPN's "Monday Night Football" will be stuck with Jon Gruden's 3-11 Raiders hosting the 6-8 Broncos.
Yeah, it could be the Raiders' final game at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. So there's a bit of drama. But ESPN would rather have Mahomes' 45 touchdown passes than the Raiders and Broncos playing out the string.
As Tirico noted: "We will flex three or four better games this year — just because of flex scheduling — that Monday night can never do. If you're Monday night, and you have the Raiders at the end of the year, you can't do anything about it. If it was a Sunday night game, it would be gone. So right there, you know what the pre-eminent package is."
One could argue the biggest problems facing "Monday Night Football" are not ESPN's doing. Instead, they're structural and contractual, author Hyatt said.
Nostalgia only takes you so far.
"The show has problems defining what it is, and what it wants to be, right now," Hyatt said. "That's been shown over the years by the number of personnel they've had to add, and take away, while it's been on ESPN. They've also lacked any leverage with the NFL to get good quality contests. It seems like they're always the ones coming in last. There's just no excitement for it like the way it was when it was on ABC."
ESPN's subscriber losses have hurt, too. As recently as 2011, ESPN reached 100 million U.S. homes. Because of cord-cutting and other issues, ESPN's down to about 86 million homes. Meanwhile, broadcast competitors such as NBC still reach roughly 115 million homes.
"The 'Monday Night Football' that we enjoyed back in the 20th century is not going to make it in the 21st century," warned Hyatt.
Witten pulls a 'rabbit out of his head'
The illustrious history of "Monday Night Football's" broadcast booth may have hit rock bottom this season with Witten in the lead analyst chair.
Say what you will about the color commentators who came and went over the decades, but the show is almost as famous for its announcers as its games. Blame it on the legendary trio from the show's glory days. Their memory tortures every announcing team that's followed, like the Greek furies of myth.
Consider this: A "TV Guide" viewer poll in 1978 named Cosell the most loved — and hated — analyst at the same time. Try getting that kind of reaction these days to any announcer. Dandy Don could make a blowout fun by singing "Turn out the Lights, The Party is Over." Gifford, their straight man, served 27 straight years in the booth from 1971 to 1997.
In contrast, ESPN just shook up its cast for second time in four seasons, with Witten succeeding Gruden, Tessitore replacing Sean McDonough and McFarland coming aboard as "field analyst." Salters, the talented sideline reporter who's been part of the crew since 2012, is the only holdover.
By all accounts, the likable Witten is working hard to make the difficult transition to TV. Let's give credit where credit is due. Witten's widely mocked comment that his Cowboys "won" the Amari Cooper trade with the Raiders looks pretty prescient now.
But the TV novice keeps tripping over his own tongue. He's become infamous on social media for his Norm Crosby-like malapropisms — such as stating Aaron Rodgers of the Packers pulled another "rabbit out of his head."
Witten compared Giants star Saquon Barkley to ... O.J. Simpson? He thinks the NFL has become too "left wing" on safety rules, raising the suspicions of liberal viewers.
Early on, a nervous Witten swallowed the microphone, letting McFarland, Tessitore and Salters fill dead air. Now viewers such as ex-Redskins running back Clinton Portis complain that the ex-Cowboy talks way too much about his time with America's Team — to the exclusion of the game in front of him.
Viewer frustration boiled over during ESPN's telecast of the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles' 28-13 win over the Redskins on Dec. 3.
"Is this Monday Night Football or ... Jason Witten: A Football Life?" asked Philadelphia sports radio anchor Marc Farzetta.
Another viewer tweeted: "Things this commentary team talked about: - Domestic violence - Jason Witten - LA Chargers - The AFC - Saints - Cowboys - Mike McCarthy - The Packers - Redskins QBs. Things this commentary team didn’t talk about: - The Eagles - This game."
Even when Witten has a strong TV moment, it can backfire. As a childhood victim of domestic violence, Witten won praise by calling out the Redskins for signing Reuben Foster, despite a domestic violence arrest.
"I believe the Washington Redskins used horrendous judgment in claiming this guy. And I understand that it's an ongoing investigation. But my family's been affected by domestic violence," Witten said. "I understand the anguish that it causes. And you know, young players just have to understand that there is no tolerance for putting your hands on a woman. Period."
To his credit, Witten tweeted Littal a mea culpa, saying he may have gone overboard with his support of a new teammate.
Thanks for your opinion, Robert. Privately, I let my opinion be known and agreed to disagree. That day after practice I chose not to be divisive. Prob went too far. On Monday with platform and no longer member of a team,I spoke my mind. Would love your support w/
SCORE Foundation https://t.co/0ipiGwX1Hi— Jason Witten (@JasonWitten) December 5, 2018
Jason Whitlock, the ex-ESPN columnist turned co-host of FS1's "Speak for Yourself, sympathizes with Witten. He blames ESPN producers, not the TV rookie, for the Foster episode.
"ESPN has gotten a lot better, but the network still makes too many decisions based on Twitter," Whitlock wrote in an email. "Asking Jason Witten and Booger McFarland to discuss one of America's most complex problems (domestic violence) during the broadcast of a live NFL game is an example of serving Twitter noise rather than football fans and your partner (the NFL). ...
"The discussion put Witten in a bad spot and surely baffled fans trying to enjoy a football game."
Even before the Foster brouhaha, the knives were out for Witten among critics and viewers.
An "Awful Announcing" reader poll ranked ESPN's Monday night crew dead last among 15 NFL announce teams. "The new 'Monday Night Football' broadcast booth is a complete disaster, and this isn’t some kind of minority opinion," wrote AA. (CBS' lead duo of Romo and Jim Nantz were named No. 1 in the poll, which drew over 50,000 votes. NBC's Collinsworth and Michaels finished No. 2).
Tessitore, McFarland and Salters are experienced pros. But Witten's reviews have been brutal compared to those of his pal Romo, who became the toast of sports TV last season. If Witten doesn't make the cut, he'd be ESPN's biggest flop since another ex-Cowboys star: Emmitt Smith.
Without finding another one-of-a-kind talent like Cosell, ESPN needs to form a stable, appealing announce team that will engage viewers, Hyatt said. The author would start by benching Witten.
"They need to shake up what they've got right now. This booth is just nothing to write home about," he said. "I'm not sure when ABC will get coverage rights to the Super Bowl. But I can't imagine they'd be using the same crew they're using now on Monday nights on a Super Bowl."
With sharks circling his new TV crew, respected "Monday Night Football" producer Jay Rothman gave them a strong vote of confidence last month.
"I think it’s been really, really seamless and getting better," said Rothman on a media call.
In hindsight, ESPN wishes it had put Witten on-air sooner.
"In retrospect, and this is a great lesson to learn when we hire the next new person in any sport, is just put him on TV," ESPN executive vice president of production Lee Fitting told The Athletic. "Let him get comfortable talking to America. Let him get comfortable talking to the camera, and talking to others.
"That’s something that I personally whiffed on and hold myself accountable for and wish we did more of that."
'Monday Night Football' can't hang
Even when it boasts the game of the year, "Monday Night Football" can't beat "Sunday Night Football," or even "Thursday Night Football."
Consider ESPN's telecast of the Rams' thrilling win over the Chiefs last month. The 54-51 shootout set multiple league records; the teams combined for the third most points in a game (105) in NFL history and a ridiculous 14 touchdowns. It was the first time both teams scored 50-plus points — and the first time the losing team dropped 50 on its opponent.
The matchup drew the largest viewership for the program in nearly two years. Witten and his new team rose to the occasion. It was great TV. But it still wasn't enough for "Monday Night Football" to beat its two prime-time NFL competitors.
The previous evening, NBC's Sunday night telecast of Bears-Vikings drew 19.1 million viewers to Monday night's 16.7 million. Fox's Thursday night telecast of Packers-Seahawks also outdrew Monday night, according to Nielsen, averaging 16.9 million viewers.
Gerry Matalon, the respected former ESPN executive turned founder of Matalon Media, said it's unfair to compare today's Monday night on ESPN to the original on ABC.
"Success should absolutely not be judged by the past," Matalon said. "'Monday Night Football' used to be the only prime time game in the 70's and most of the 80's, so it should not be compared to today's NFL broadcast landscape. With the space now having two more high-quality prime-time productions, ESPN just needs to continue its focus on producing the best broadcast possible and decide what external feedback is valuable and what is simply noise."
'Booger Mobile' trying too hard?
Then there's the "Booger Mobile," the movable crane that puts McFarland closer to the field where the former Super Bowl-winning defensive tackle can better analyze line play in the trenches.
That's ESPN's goal, anyway. But the jury's out on whether this vantage point has produced scintillating insights that McFarland couldn't spot from the TV booth.
McFarland is smart and quick. Separating him from Witten and Tessitore might not have been the best idea. McFarland could help Witten adjust to TV. Instead, they're separated. At times, it seems like they're rushing to beat each other to the talk button, a la "Jeopardy." And when Witten starts talking before he's completed his thoughts, look out.
Meanwhile, ESPN has ticked off stadium spectators whose expensive lower-bowl views are blocked by the contraption. "Booger! Get out of the freakin' way," screamed one ticked off Giants fan on Twitter.
"Quit trying too hard," Whitlock said. "The Booger Mobile is just trying too hard."
😡😡😡😡😡😡😡 pic.twitter.com/9yFUYmhwYG— LPG - NYG (@LicensePlateGuy) October 23, 2018
So what can ESPN do?
The easy answer is dump Witten, its new $4 million-per-year man, and hire a new lead analyst. The list of possible replacements is long, starting with McFarland and Louis Riddick inside ESPN, and Peyton Manning, Kurt Warner, Joe Thomas and others outside the network.
One could argue "MNF" hasn't had a top-flight TV booth comparable to NBC, Fox and CBS since Tirico jumped to NBC before the 2016 season.
The combination of Gruden and Sean McDonough never meshed. They didn't seem to like each other, much less the violence on the field, the officiating, or the lousy, late-season games they were forced to call. No wonder Gruden left for his $100 million coaching deal with the Raiders while McDonough returned to the familiar confines of college football.
"As much as Witten has struggled, I still think it’s better than last year," Whitlock said. "I was so done with Jon Gruden and Sean McDonough and their negativity toward the NFL. ... At least this crew likes football."
Rather than giving up on Witten, ESPN should move McFarland to the booth and see what develops.
"They just have to have the courage to stay the course and ride it out," Whitlock said. "They've made some positive moves. The NFL is still TV gold."
Matalon agrees. Despite the Twitter noise, he thinks ESPN should give the group three seasons to develop chemistry.
"Some of the criticism is fair, but most of it is subjective chatter," he said. "Basically, ESPN is making mechanical adjustments on a plane while it's in the air."
Witten could be self-pitying about his rough critical reviews. Instead, he's been funny and self-deprecating about his struggles. When Sporting News asked about his flubs during a media call, Witten didn't get defensive. Instead, he laughed at himself and vowed to improve. It's the kind of stand-up guy attitude he was famous for with the Cowboys. It should serve him well in his TV career, if it lasts.
"Yeah, there's been some flubs. I mean I made mistakes. You try to own it, you embrace it," Witten said. "Hell, I'm not perfect, I've certainly had my fair share of mistakes on live television and more than anything else you try to embrace it, you laugh at it, you smile at it, I had the remark on Twitter that you don't try to deny it. You know, I got a few texts from my wife and it's good to see her laughing at it when I get home the next day and talking about it. So it's a transition, I try not to take it too serious, I really try to embrace it, and focus on improving."
The Week 15 Saints-Panthers game averaged 13 million viewers, up 37 percent from last season's comparable telecast. ESPN's average viewership is up 10 percent to 11.8 million viewers this season. That means roughly 1 million more viewers are watching Monday night telecasts every week. That's sweet music for ESPN vs. 2017, when full season viewership sank 6 percent, according to SBD.
In a telling sign that ESPN is working its way back into the league's good graces, the NFL announced Disney's ABC/ESPN, along with NFL Network, will serve as the exclusive home for live coverage of the 2019 NFL Draft. That means Fox is out of the picture after only a single season of live draft coverage.
While ESPN will continue to offer its traditional draft coverage in Nashville, Tenn., from April 25-27, ABC will highlight the cast of "College GameDay" for three straight days.
Call it poetic justice. Remember, it was ESPN that discovered the NFL Draft as a TV property back in 1980, when even PR-savvy NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle didn't see the potential. Now, the draft is a movable feast, moving from city to city, and generating record TV audiences.
"There is no better way to celebrate 40 years of working with the NFL to grow the draft than to bring the considerable assets of The Walt Disney Co. to Nashville," Pitaro said in a statement.
As for those who don't like the "Booger Mobile," remember, experimentation has always been part of "Monday Night Football's" DNA, Tirico said. This is the same series that put standup comedian Dennis Miller on the air for two seasons, then cast Kornheiser, the snarky "Pardon the Interruption" co-host.
"You never know where too much is if you don’t try," Tirico said. "I always applaud people who innovate and try something different. It might not work. It might not be for everyone. Time will tell that. But try something in a different way that hasn't been done before. At some point, somebody said let’s put a yellow (first down) line down on the field. Guess what? If you saw a broadcast without it, you would go apoplectic now.
Few know the "Monday Night Football" brand better than Tirico. No matter the announcers, or game matchups, he believes the classic show has one main quality that will help retain its relevance and value in a crowded sports media market.
First, the nationally televised game airs on Monday, when the NFL fraternity has a rare night off. NFL players, coaches and front office personnel may or may not watch "Sunday Night Football," depending on their travel schedules. But everybody still watches on Monday night. To call "Monday Night Football" is to enter a "fishbowl" existence, Tirico said, where every comment is judged first and foremost by the NFL fraternity.
"I sat in the fishbowl for 10 years. Al Michaels was right: It’s just different," he said. "It's the last song on the stage for that week’s play. Everyone is watching it. So no matter the rating for the game, you know that that platform remains, and will will remain, important."
The game's secret weapon has always been its spot on the weekly calendar, Tirico said. Monday is the most depressing day of the week. But for a few hours, fans can enjoy a respite that makes the rest of their work week palatable.
"Mondays suck. Folks are going back to work. It’s a terrible day. What you have with 'Monday Night Football' is a little bit of an oasis," Tirico said. "You know that all the football that you enjoyed is gone, now, for three more days. So you just get to enjoy one more game.
"It's almost like that last bite of a good meal."
Source : https://www.sportingnews.com/us/nfl/news/monday-night-football-mid-life-crisis-from-monopoly-to-monotony/17p3guk2wv3wo17uljlbvmzf9t5311