By 1968, the NFL was becoming very popular in the United States as a broadcast television sport. Games were and still are mainly played on Sunday afternoons. Then-Commissioner of the NFL, Pete Rozelle, began to envision the possibility of playing at least one game during prime time for a greater TV audience, and approached both the CBS and NBC TV networks with the idea. Both networks rejected it, as they already had successful prime time programming in place. (Reportedly, NBC turned down the idea when comedian and talk-show host Johnny Carson became incensed that a football game, if it went into overtime, would pre-empt a portion of his popular show, The Tonight Show.)
As there were three major networks at the time, this left only ABC, where producer Roone Arledge immediately saw possibilities for the new show. Arledge set out to create an entertainment "spectacle" as much as a simple sports broadcast, ordering twice the usual number of cameras to cover the game and assigning controversial and idiosyncratic sports broadcaster Howard Cosell to comment on the action, along with veteran football commentator Keith Jackson and former player Don Meredith. Monday Night Football first aired on ABC on September 21, 1970, with a match between the New York Jets and the Cleveland Browns, in Cleveland, Ohio. The show has run ever since, and the NFL has obliged by scheduling its best teams and biggest stars for that night, so as to gain maximum exposure.
The Show as Entertainment
Monday Night Football has continued to provide as much entertainment as sports throughout its run. In addition to the extra cameras, the show has also pioneered technological broadcast innovations, such as the use of enhanced slow motion replays and computerized graphics, such as a first down marker superimposed onto the field during play.
Celebrity guests, such as Placido Domingo, John Lennon, President Bill Clinton, and even Kermit the Frog were often featured during the game to "liven up" the broadcast. However, the late 1990's and early 2000's saw an even more increased reliance on the entertainment factor. Some halftime shows, featuring popular music stars, were broadcast in full rather than being ignored in favor of analysis of the game by the commentators, as in previous seasons. Country music star Hank Williams, Jr composed a music video-style opening theme for the show (a later theme was provided by Kid Rock). In 1998, Lesley Visser replaced ex-player Lynn Swann as a sideline reporter, in an apparent attempt to have a young, attractive female on camera for better popularity among men. And in 2000, after ABC briefly considered adding popular political commentator Rush Limbaugh, comedian Dennis Miller was added to the broadcast team, despite having no prior sports broadcast experience.
Keith Jackson served on the broadcast team for only a year before returning to broadcasting college football for ABC. He was replaced by ex-player Frank Gifford in 1971, who began the longest tenure of any broadcaster on the show. Gifford left the program in 1998.
The current commentators are Al Michaels, a veteran commentator who has "anchored" the broadcast since 1986, and John Madden, a former coach and successful broadcaster with the CBS and Fox networks for 21 years before joining Monday Night Football.
A complete list of broadcasters (many of whom are ex-NFL players), with their period of tenure on the show (beginning years of each season shown, as the NFL season ends in the calendar year after it begins):