Debuting in 1970, the sports show revolutionized the way the game was played

Sunday football widows lost another day of the week when ABC’s Monday Night Football debuted on Sept. 21, 1970. The matchup that night featured Joe Namath’s upstart New York Jets against the traditional power Cleveland Browns — but the game was only half the show. The real event was the telecast itself, which forever changed the way America watched sports.

The brainchild of then NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, who found a ready partner in ABC Sports head honcho Roone Arledge, Monday Night Football was a ratings smash, proving that regular sports programming could compete in prime time. Within a few years, the World Series was scheduling night games, and the Super Bowl was kicking off under the lights.

But the revolution wasn’t just in programming; it was also in presentation. Covering only one NFL game a week, ABC could pour all its resources into making it an event. The production team used roughly twice the usual number of cameras (nine instead of four or five), deployed handheld cameras for sideline action, and made the Goodyear blimp’s overhead shots an integral part of its coverage. ”We approached every game as if it was the Super Bowl,” says NFL senior VP Dennis Lewin, who was Monday Night Football’s instant-replay producer in 1970.

Yet the most attention-getting innovation was in the broadcast booth, where ABC broke the two-man tradition with the threesome of Keith Jackson, Don Meredith, and Howard Cosell. A year later, Frank Gifford replaced Jackson between the folksily witty Dandy Don and the candidly pompous Cosell, whose iconoclastic comments won many fans — and infuriated others. ”People watched because of Howard,” Arledge later said. ”They might’ve hated him, but they watched.”

Both Meredith and Cosell were gone by ’84, replaced by a succession of not-quite-ready-for-prime-time ex-football heroes like Namath and O.J. Simpson. In ’87, Dan Dierdorf joined Gifford and Al Michaels to form the show’s longest-running team, eschewing showmanship and controversy for crack game calling. This season will see Boomer Esiason replace Gifford (who cohosts the new pregame show with Chris Berman), and the most radical change in years: a shift in starting time from 9 p.m. (ET) to 8 p.m., to keep East Coast audiences awake until the end. Says MNF producer Ken Wolfe, ”We’re hopeful that the ratings will show an increase.”

Time Capsule/Sept. 21, 1970

AT THE MOVIES, war is raging, from the Pearl Harbor epic Tora! Tora! Tora! to the anti-war black comedies Catch-22 and M*A*S*H. Twenty-eight years later, cinematic war would be more hellish than ever in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.

IN MUSIC, the Carpenters’ (left) ”Close to You” continues its summer-long stay on the singles chart. The duo will have 11 more Top 10 hits in the next five years.

IN BOOKSTORES, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex and The Sensuous Woman are best-sellers. In the ’90s, the sexes are still trying to fathom each other with Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.

AND IN THE NEWS, President Nixon tells U.S. colleges that they must bear responsibility for restoring ”order and discipline.” The previous semester ended with National Guardsmen killing four students at Kent State.

ABC's Monday Night Football
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