Blowing the Whistle on Monday Night Football: Illegal Formation

Monday Night Football is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month. On September 21, 1970, the ABC broadcasting team took the booth at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. A crowd of 85,703 attended the game in person, but millions watched on television. The Cleveland Browns beat the Jets 31-21. ABC doubled the number of cameras per game. Close-ups were used often. The broadcast booth was not like any other that had been on television. The weekly sports show pioneered a variety of technological innovations including slow-motion replays and computerized graphics.

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In addition to the play-by-play announcer Keith Jackson and color analyst Don Meredith, a third chair was added to the booth. Howard Cosell was added to give a bit of controversy to the broadcast. A TV Guide viewer poll in 1978 named Cosell the most loved — and hated — analyst at the same time. With no sports network on 24 hours a day, Cosell provided recaps of the weekly games during half time.

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The first sponsors were Marlboro Cigarettes, Ford Motor Company, and Goodyear Tires. The show would make history as one of the longest-running prime time television series and one of the highest-rated shows among male viewers.

In season two, Frank Gifford took over for Jackson and that trio would continue broadcasting till 1983. In 1975 and 1976, Alex Karras took over for Meredith. From 1979-1983, Fran Tarkenton joined the other three in the booth. Al Michaels and Frank Gifford manned the spot from 1987-1997. A variety of sportscasters joined them in the booth or took over for them until 2005 including O.J. Simpson, Dan Dierdorf, Lynn Swan, Leslie Visser, Boomer Esiason, Dan Fouts, Dennis Miller, Melissa Stark, Eric Dickerson, John Madden, Lisa Guerrero, and Michelle Tafoya.

DENVERus – NOVEMBER 11: (NO ARCHIVING, NO RESALE) In this handout photo provided by ABC, John Madden (R) broadcasts with Al Michaels during the 500th telecast of Monday Night Football in a game between the Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders November 11, 2002 at Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium in Denver, Colorado. Madden announced his retirement from broadcasting on April 16. (Photo by Craig Sjodin/ABC via Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 85970668 GTY ID: 20D_0206

Hank Williams Jr. redid his song, “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” for the theme. When the last show aired on ABC, the song was switched to “Turn Out the Lights, the Party’s Over.”

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In addition to the sportscasters who man the booth, many special guests have appeared on the show. Vice President Spiro Agnew, President Bill Clinton, California governor Ronald Reagan, Placido Domingo, John Lennon, and Kermit the Frog are a few of them.

When ABC first acquired the rights to air MNF in 1970, it did not include any playoff games. The network was eventually allowed into the rotation of channels airing the Super Bowl, starting with Super Bowl XIX in January 1985. When the league expanded the playoffs from a 10-team to a 12-team tournament in 1990, ABC was then given the rights to air the first two Wild Card Playoff games. Originally, ABC’s college football crews would call the first Wild Card Game.

The show would air on Monday nights on ABC until 2005. In 2006, the series moved to ESPN. The show has not been as successful as its earlier days.

In the past fourteen years, there has been a bit of a revolving door to the booth. Showing up on Monday nights we saw Mike Tirico, Tony Kornheiser, Joe Theismann, Suzy Kolber, Michele Tafoya, Ron Jaworski, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters, Sean McDonough, Joe Tessitore, Jason Witten, and Booger McFarland come and go.

In an article titled “Monday Night Football’s Mid-Life Crisis: From Monopoly to Monotony” by Michael McCarthy in December of 2018, he laid out the current problems.  “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 bad. Too often, the game match-ups 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.”

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I could not find any announcement of who will be in the booth when football returns. (Note: This came out right before I published my blog this week: A three-man booth of play-by-play man Steve Levy and color commentators Brian Griese and Louis Riddick — who all called the back half of the 2019 Week 1 MNF doubleheader — have been upgraded to the top team for 2020. They replace Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland. Lisa Salters remains the sideline reporter, a role she has had since joining Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden in 2012. Retired official John Parry returns for a second season as the rules analyst.)

Now ESPN has the added pressure of the Covid-19 virus.  No one knows if there will be a football season or what it will look like if there is. You would think if a show like Monday Night Football lasts for fifty years, they would have it made.  Never take anything for granted. At least ESPN has some extra time to try to figure out a better crew for the next season.

On a lighter note, here are some fun facts about the series. The most Monday night appearances belong to the Miami Dolphins with more than 80. The San Francisco 49ers are the most winning team with 49 wins. The Broncos have played the Raiders 19 times as of 2019 and The Cowboys have faced off against the Redskins 17 times. Candlestick Park in San Francisco, no longer used for the team, hosted the most wins, coming in at 36 including its final Monday night game in December of 2013. The highest-rated Monday Night Football telecast on ABC was the Miami Dolphins’ victory over the previously undefeated Chicago Bears on December 2, 1985, which drew a national Nielsen rating of 29.6 and a share of 46. ABC’s lowest-rated MNF game was the St. Louis Rams’ defeat of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on October 18, 2004, which drew a 7.7 rating. Regardless of the technical difficulties, watching Monday Night Football is always a win if you’re a fan of the sport.

MacMillan and Wife: The Show That Bridged the Generation Gap

Before launching into this week’s topic, I wanted to say thank you to everyone who has been following and reading my blog. This week begins my fourth year writing this blog. I was worried I would find enough topics to fill the first year but next year is already outlined, so another year of classic television is on the way. It has been a lot of fun, and I’ve learned a lot.

This month we are looking at crime-solving duos.  We start our series learning a bit more about McMillan and Wife. McMillan and Wife began as part of The Sunday NBC Mystery Movie which included Columbo and McCloud. The shows rotated each week, so fewer episodes were produced of each than a typical weekly show.

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McMillan and Wife debuted in 1971 and was on the air until 1977, yet only forty episodes were produced. Leonard Stern was the creator, writer, and executive producer of the show; he previously produced Get Smart.

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Stewart “Mac” McMillan (Rock Hudson) was an attorney and US Navy veteran who apparently had been involved in some CIA activities. He is now Commissioner of Police in San Francisco. He gets involved in high-profile cases. His wife is Sally (Susan St. James), and her father was a detective for the San Francisco Police Department; she learned a lot from him and helps her husband solve crimes. Sargent Charlie Enright (John Schuck) helps Mac with his cases. Sally and Mac have no children (it’s confusing because Sally was pregnant twice on the show, but the children are never mentioned in the show later). Their housekeeper Mildred (Nancy Walker) also lives with the couple. Mildred’s character resembles the role Thelma Ritter played in Pillow Talk, where Hudson starred with Doris Day. She is a sarcastic, hard-drinking woman and is always ready to offer her opinion, but she is devoted to Mac and Sally.

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Once Hudson was cast as Mac, the show got priority in development. Several actresses were considered for the role of Sally, including Diane Keaton and Jill Clayburgh, but Hudson was most comfortable with St. James.

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Hudson was 21 years older than St. James, but their relationship worked. Mac is supposed to be in his 40s and Sally in her 20s (he was 46 at the time and she was 25). Sally is self-confident and is not afraid to speak her mind. However, she is also a wife who loves her husband, and one of the running gags on the show is that Mac had dated a lot of women in his past, and when Mac and Sally are out and about, they typically run into some gorgeous woman who says, “Hi Mac.” Sally usually responds with a jealous comment or a withering look. The difference in their ages actually worked well for demographics. Hudson appealed to older viewers while St. James attracted younger viewers.

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Often the cases Mac solves happen during events the couple attends. One episode featured a burglary at a charity event they were attending; once they found a skeleton in their house after an earthquake. Another show had Mac abducted by mobsters and replaced with a surgically-made twin replacing him.

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An interesting fact is that the interior of their house in the pilot episode was in fact Hudson’s home. In the first regular episode, the MacMillans bought a new house. In the final season, the setting changed to an apartment.

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Sally and Mac led a glamorous life. The scripts were well written, and the dialogue was witty and clever. The couple was often compared to Nick and Nora Charles in the Thin Man movies. Mac and Sally have a lot of their best conversations after they go to bed at night.

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Sally was known for wearing a football jersey for her nightgown. The jersey was an authentic 49ers Jersey, number 18, George Washington, a wide receiver. Washington was a four-time Pro Bowler. He made a guest appearance on the show in season four, “Guilt by Association.”

Considering that there were only forty episodes produced, this show had an incredible number of guest stars. I apologize for the long list, but it’s the only way to capture how impressive it is. The stars included sport celebrities Dick Butkus, Rosie Grier, Alex Karras, and Bobbie Riggs.

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It also featured a Who’s Who of television sitcom royalty: John Astin, Meredith Baxter, Tom Bosley, Michael Constantine, Bert Convy, Wally Cox, Richard Deacon, William Demarest, Donna Douglas, Barbara Feldon, Norman Fell, Buddy Hackett, Larry Hagman, Alan Hale, Shirley Jones, Stacy Keach, Bernie Kopell, Julie Newmar, Charlotte Rae, Charles Nelson Reilly, Dick Sargent, Natalie Schafer, Susan Sullivan, Karen Valentine, and Dick Van Patten.

The show, like McCloud and Columbo, was quite popular with viewers. The ratings were impressive until the sixth season.

Unfortunately, the last season had too many changes to overcome. St. James decided to leave to concentrate on her movie career. Schuck left to star in the sitcom, Holmes and Yo-Yo, and Walker left for her own sitcom, The Nancy Walker Show. Sadly, Walker and Schuck would have been better off staying because both their shows lasted only 13 episodes. St. James starred in a couple of movies, but they weren’t anything memorable. She would go on to star in Kate and Allie in 1984.

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On the show, Sally was killed in an airplane crash. Mildred was said to leave to open a diner, so her sister Agatha (Martha Raye) took over her job. Schuck made a few appearances but was said to have been given a promotion to lieutenant which kept him too busy to assist Mac much. The show may have been able to overcome one of these changes but not all of them. Much of the strength of the show was the relationship between Mac and Sally. Walker’s funny bantering and actions provided a comedic relief for the show. When Raye took over, she was just scatterbrained and loud; the appeal of Walker was not part of her character.

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It’s wonderful the show lasted five good seasons, but it might have lasted many more if the original cast had been retained. At the other end of the spectrum, Columbo aired off and on until 2003 and is remembered by more viewers.

DVDs were released for all six seasons between 2005 and 2014. With only forty shows in the series, this would be a fun binge-watching week-end show to tackle.

Webster: A Forgotten Sitcom

During my research for one of my blogs, I encountered a reference about Webster. I was surprised to learn that Webster was on the air for six years. It was a show I had watched a bit in the 1980s but have rarely seen since then.

Webster chronicles how life changes for three people when a young boy is adopted by his godfather, a former NFL player, and his new wife. Webster has lost his parents, and George was his father’s best friend. The show ran for 6 seasons, resulting in 150 episodes.

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Set in Chicago, Webster’s (Emmanuel Lewis) parents are killed in a car accident. George Papadopolis (Alex Karras) is retired and recently married to Katherine (Susan Clark), who comes from a wealthy family and has few domestic skills. Katherine is a consumer advocate in the first season but later works as a family psychologist. George is now a sportscaster at a local television station. Karras and Clark were married in real life also. Both of them had acting roles in movie and television series before they starred in Webster. Karras was also a favorite Tonight Show guest. Everyone seemed to like him. Former teammate Greg Barton described his humor: “He is one of the funniest men I have ever been around.”

After living in a high-rise apartment that was burned down during one of Webster’s science experiments, the family moved to a large Victorian house which is on Chicago’s Gold Coast. In 2016 the Chicago home was for sale for 9.5 million dollars.

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Webster called his “dad” George and his “mom” Ma’am. When she asked Webster why he was so formal with her, he explained that the name was as close as he could get to Mom without replacing his birth mother.

In addition to these three characters, the show featured Katherine’s secretary and confidante Jerry (Henry Polic II) and Webster’s uncle Phillip (Ben Vereen), who doesn’t approve of Webster’s adoption by a white couple.

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We also got to know many of Webster’s classmates. During the second season, George’s father, George Sr. (Jack Kruschn) appears. He would make more regular appearances in 1985.

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After Karras and Clark married, they started a production company called Georgian Bay Ltd. ABC wanted to create a romantic comedy series for them. After signing the couple, ABC’s programming chief Lew Erlicht saw a Burger King commercial featuring Emmanuel Lewis and wanted to develop a show for him as well.

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With the fall schedule quickly filling up, it was decided to combine the two shows into a new one, Then Came You. In September 1983 when the show premiered, the title had become Webster. After much infighting among the creators, the show focused both on the romantic angle of George and Katherine as well as Webster’s plots.

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The show was often compared to Diff’rent Strokes, where a white family adopted two black brothers. Personally, I found Diff’rent Strokes grating and predictable. I did not enjoy many of the shows or the spinoffs developed during this time, including All in The Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, Good Times, and Facts of Life. I think Webster was well written and the dialogue was more sophisticated. Webster was a little boy, but he was very intelligent, and the writers gave him credit for that.

 

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Karras became a surrogate father to Lewis. The relationships between the major cast members were very close. When Karras passed away, Lewis said “He was a giant of a man with a big heart, a great sense of humor, and very grounded outlook on life. He might have towered over you . . . but he had a knack of being able to get down to your level without being small about it.”

 

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The show sustained high ratings the first three years, but in season four, they dropped significantly. After landing in the top 30, it plummeted to 46. ABC made the decision to drop the show. Webster would continue two more years in syndication but never achieved the ratings of those first three years. In 1989, Emmanuel was outgrowing the show and he was beginning to get bored playing a younger child while in real life he had already graduated from high school.

One fun fact about Webster is that Jerry Seinfeld was employed as a writer for exactly one week. None of his material made it to the air.

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Webster seems to be one of those forgotten shows from the 1980s. While it appeared in reruns for a short time, I don’t hear much about the show anymore. It was heart-warming and tackled both social issues occurring at the time and private family issues that adoptive parents would face. George and Katherine had a great relationship, but it was different from most parents on television. They were equals in every way. Webster assumed an equal footing with them, even though he was their child. George was a nurturing and caring father, while Katherine often provided the practicality that Webster needed to learn life lessons. You can currently watch Webster Sunday mornings on Antenna TV.