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Monday night free-for-all

| Sunday, Nov. 4, 2007

Three decades ago, "Monday Night Football" showcased a trio of announcers in the booth presiding over the game of the week before a vast and rapt ABC network audience with limited television options.

When the Steelers face the Baltimore Ravens tomorrow night at Heinz Field in their 56th all-time appearance on "Monday Night Football," three broadcasters in the booth will describe the action for a smaller ESPN cable audience with limitless television options and an itchy trigger finger on the remote control.

The evolution of "Monday Night Football" can't be measured solely in years. It is part of a timeline that has seen sports grow to monstrous proportions to whet the appetites of demanding consumers clamoring for more and better television diversions to occupy their free time.

The transition from network to cable signals a change in TV sports broadcasting and shapes how NFL games are televised as the league seeks to maintain its core audience while wooing a new generation of fans.

"People who try to make comparisons to what 'Monday Night Football' was 25 to 30 years ago and now -- I think it's the stupidest thing I've ever heard," 'Monday Night Football' play-by-play announcer Mike Tirico told the Tribune-Review.

"I see really respected writers talk about: 'Well, "Monday Night Football" used to be like this.' Well, you know what• The writing has changed at Time magazine in 30 years. The network news had changed. Everything's changed.

"What 'Monday Night Football' is now is a show where we have to consider there are a lot of options. What we try to do is keep as much of the audience as we can while giving the core audience everything they need and giving the casual viewer something to stay around for. It's a huge challenge.''

"Monday Night Football" ratings aren't exactly what they used to be.

A recent "Monday Night Football" game between the New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons produced a 5.7 Nielsen rating, meaning just 5.7 percent of U.S. households tuned in. It was the lowest-rated "Monday Night Football" game of all-time.

By comparison, the average audience for "Monday Night Football" on ABC in 2003 was 16.8 million.

The disparity in ratings between the two networks is somewhat deceiving, officials say.

ESPN is available in roughly 85 percent of all households, which, theoretically, accounts for a drop of 15 percentage points from ABC's audience.

"ESPN fights not only against five broadcast networks, but however many channels are on the dial and the Internet. We're in a 500-channel universe,'' said Jay Rothman, ESPN's producer for "Monday Night Football."

"Monday Night Football" debuted on Sept., 21, 1970, with the Cleveland Browns defeating the New York Jets, 31-21, before 33 percent of the viewing audience.

Mixing football and entertainment, the longtime announcing crew featuring Howard Cosell, Don Meredith and Frank Gifford presented NFL games in a bold, new way.

Cosell was opinionated and became famous for "telling it like it is." His voice-overs of halftime highlights became a viewer staple.

Meredith, a former NFL quarterback, provided comic relief. He even had his own signature line: "Turn out the lights, the party's over."

Gifford was the straight man who never uttered a negative word.

Only seven percent of American homes received basic cable in 1970. With more television options increasingly available, "Monday Night Football" stopped being must-see TV.

By the time Al Michaels and John Madden left the booth following the 555th "Monday Night Football" at the end of the 2006 season, ABC had agreed to pass the torch to ESPN.

ESPN signed an eight-year contract worth $1.1 billion a year -- double the price of ABC's final contract -- to televise "Monday Night Football."

"The innovation of a 'Monday Night Football' game still carries a lot of weight, just not as much as it once did," said Robert Bellamy, associate professor of journalism and multimedia at Duquesne University. "'Monday Night Football' does extremely well on ESPN. There's just so many ways we make use of our television that it's completely unfair to compare ratings now with the ratings of even a decade ago.''

ESPN's first season of "Monday Night Football" produced a 9.9 rating, appearing in 9.1 million households and featuring 12.3 million viewers per game.

"Monday Night Football" games this season featuring the new announcing team of Tirico, funny man Tony Kornheiser of the Washington Post and former NFL quarterback (and straight man) Ron Jaworski have produced an 8.8 rating, appearing in 9.8 million households with 11.3 million viewers.

So, what does this all mean• One way of looking at it is that despite a decline in ratings, "Monday Night Football" has been a hit on ESPN.

"Monday Night Football" was the most-watched series in cable TV history and recorded the 17 largest cable audiences in 2006 (nine of the top 10 all-time). It has ranked No. 1 every week among the key male demographics on network and cable.

"What it means to me is that to players and coaches, 'Monday Night Football' is still the thing,'' Rothman said.

"I see it every week when we sit down to visit with the players. You can sense it. These players grew up on ESPN. These coaches grew up on ESPN. Players and coaches don't differentiate between broadcast and cable. ESPN was the thing to them growing up. We don't solicit that. They look at the combination of 'Monday Night Football' and ESPN as bigger than big."

The Steelers, among the NFL's most popular teams, are no exception. Last year's Steelers-Jaguars "Monday Night Football" game produced a 10.6 rating -- the fifth-highest rated "Monday Night Football" game in 2006.

"It's another game. At the same time, it's a highlight game," safety Tyrone Carter said. "You grew up watching 'Monday Night Football.' The highlights, people singing, 'Are you ready for some football?' That brings a lot of memories back to the game itself. It brings a lot of excitement, a lot of energy, and you've just got to match that."

Second-year receiver Santonio Holmes knows that his peers will be watching him tomorrow night.

"Any prime-time game, everybody wants to see how well this guy plays," Holmes said. "What type of player is he really• Now they get to sit down in front of the TV with no distractions and watch this guy in action."

Like it or not, Tirico says, "Monday Night Football" is here to stay.

"Monday Night Football's on cable," he said. "It isn't the Cosell era 30 years ago. But here's the reality: In the 8,000-more-opportunities-to-do-something-else world, we're very lucky to say we work on a show that's still cuts through and gets to America.''

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