From its inception, ABC's "Monday Night Football" was a risky experiment that defied American sports tradition. From Howard Cosell's pontification...

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From its inception, ABC’s “Monday Night Football” was a risky experiment that defied American sports tradition. From Howard Cosell’s pontification to Don Meredith’s down-home songs to Dennis Miller’s arcane analogies, it dominated TV viewing in homes and bars across the nation.


The broadcast was a hodgepodge of personalities and indelible images, defining moments and follies, eye-popping on-the-field performances and the kind of impromptu silliness that only sheer boredom can create.


In short, it was exactly what ABC Sports boss Roone Arledge hoped it would be.


It was theater.


Television sports reaches the end of one era and the beginning of another tonight when ABC signs off on its prime-time weeknight coverage of the NFL for the final time and hands off to sister network ESPN.


The 555th Monday night game on the network is itself of little consequence: The dismal New York Jets play the New England Patriots, who already are playoff bound but can’t improve their position.


The series switches networks next season, when ESPN begins paying $1.1 billion per year for Monday night rights in an eight-year deal.


There was no ESPN when ABC began its MNF run on Sept. 21, 1970, with the Jets playing at Cleveland. It was the beginning of 36 seasons of one of television’s most valuable franchises, a compelling three hours that became the longest running prime-time sports series in TV history.


Municipal Stadium was jammed with 85,703 fans that first night as ABC began a broadcasting odyssey with Keith Jackson doing play-by-play and ex-quarterback Meredith sharing analysis and wisecracks with Cosell. The three-man booth was new territory for sports television. But then, so was this whole MNF adventure, the invention of NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and Arledge.


It was a bold step because, for the longest time, football in America fit neatly into a three-day weekend. Friday night was reserved for high-school games. Saturday belonged to college football. The NFL played on Sunday.


Rozelle wasn’t about to lock the NFL into that pattern. The league had experimented with occasional weeknight games and the commissioner thought it was a perfect place to grow his product. Similarly, Arledge believed sports was the perfect product for television.


Arledge’s plan was to use the up-close and personal approach he had applied to ABC’s coverage of the Olympics. There would be nine cameras instead of the usual four or five. Producer Dennis Lewin was there at the start and later moved to the NFL as head of broadcasting.


“We approached every game as if it was the Super Bowl,” Lewin said.


The selection of the announcing team was vital. The plan was to have ex-NFL star Frank Gifford in the booth, but Gifford had a year remaining on a contract at CBS and he recommended his pal, Meredith. Arledge added the bombastic, often abrasive Cosell for analysis, with Jackson doing play-by-play.


The interplay between the urbane Cosell and Meredith the country boy made the broadcasts tingle with electricity. Cosell took to calling Meredith “Dandy Don,” and the quarterback would serenade blowout games by singing, “Turn out the lights, the party’s over.”


Once, when the cameras zeroed in on stony-faced Minnesota coach Bud Grant, Meredith changed his tune, singing, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine … “


It was must-see TV and the country responded. The first-year rating was 18.5 with a 31 percent share of the viewing audience. When Gifford replaced Jackson to do play-by-play the next year, the rating went up to 20.8.


Rozelle and Arledge had a hit on their hands. Much of the success had to do with Cosell. His nasal, New York tones delivered a know-it-all message that often infuriated fans.


“Howard made people listen,” Lewin said. “He made people think and he made people watch. You didn’t always agree with Howard, but he was never afraid to say what he thought.”


Then there was Arledge’s unique production.


“Roone felt it was important to personalize the athlete, to transport the viewer from the couch to every part of the stadium,” Gifford said. “Roone Arledge turned a football game into live theater.”


Gifford functioned as a traffic cop, an X’s and O’s football fundamentalist, while Cosell and Meredith provided comic relief. It worked famously.


Over the years, the package changed. Meredith fled Cosell’s overbearing presence, joining NBC in 1974 before returning three years later. Arledge moved to head ABC’s news division in 1977. Cosell departed in 1983.