50 years ago to the day, Monday Night Football debuted on ABC, Sep. 21, 1970. The game featured the New York Jets – led by Joe Namath – against the Cleveland Browns. More than 85,000 fans jammed Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, watching the Browns dismantle the Jets, 31-21, thus completing the opening week of the NFL season.
As NFL football pivoted to primetime, what was the competition that night? CBS had Mayberry R.F.D. on at 9, the spin-off of the Andy Griffith Show with Ken Berry. That was followed by the Doris Day Show and the one-hour Carol Burnett variety show with guests Cass Elliott and Pat Paulsen. NBC ran a movie, “Boom!” It starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. There was no ESPN. There was no Fox News Channel. There was no CNN.
The competition didn’t have a prayer of succeeding. Viewing habits changed forever, when the NFL went primetime. Howard Cosell, Don Meredith and Keith Jackson, the first MNF broadcast crew, became household names. ABC, a distant third in the ratings among the three major networks, was third no longer.
Today, MNF is not the same attraction it once was. Our television viewing habits have changed dramatically, thanks to cable television and the internet. The games still garner solid ratings, but the package has been relegated to ABC’s sister network, ESPN, a cable-only channel. Tonight’s Saints at Raiders game – the debut of the Raiders in Las Vegas – will be televised across the entire ESPN platform, including the ABC network. One reason for that is Disney-owned ABC is reportedly making a pitch to land the Monday night games.
But 50 years ago today, television changed forever, and Doris Day, Carol Burnett, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Ken Berry didn’t stand a chance.