Something strange has been going on this football season, and even if you are not a football watcher there is reason to know about it. The venerable NFL showcase Monday Night Football is airing on free television for the third time in this year that is, as they say, “like no other.” (What a meaningless phrase — have we ever had a year that was exactly like some earlier year?) Monday’s matchup between the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots will simulcast on both ABC and its usual home on cable’s ESPN. Earlier this season, Monday night games on Sept. 21 and Dec. 7 were also broadcast on ABC.
Executives at Disney — which owns both ABC and ESPN — are doing this for purely practical reasons. ABC, like every broadcast network, is scrambling to plug scheduling holes created by the impact of COVID on TV show production. Primetime football makes for good filler. But like so many other things happening in “these unprecedented times” (another nonsense phrase), COVID is merely accelerating a trend that was underway before the pandemic. Namely, the death of cable, or at least the death of ESPN as a premium cable brand.
I remember what a sad moment it was in 2005 when the NFL announced that Monday Night Football, one of the greatest TV shows of my childhood, would be leaving ABC for the confines of ESPN. Back then, the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” was in the midst of its campaign for total domination of the sports audience so that Disney could charge top dollar to cable operators. ESPN acquired Major League Baseball games and NBA games and college bowl games. The NFL created a new showcase for ESPN called Sunday Night Football.
But the Worldwide Leader wanted to lead, so it forked over hundreds of millions of dollars more for the rights to the most storied franchise in sports — Monday Night Football. If you grew up in the Seventies or even the Eighties, those three words meant something special. Monday Night Football signed on in September 1970 and featured colorful loudmouth Howard Cosell and lovable drunk Don Meredith in the booth alongside Frank Gifford, making for a trio that was alternately entertaining and infuriating. Howard Cosell’s halftime highlights were so iconic that ESPN’s Chris Berman built a following for his halftime highlights just by imitating Cosell.
“Monday Night Football delivered a weekly burst of spontaneous, unpredictable entertainment that stood out amid the droning blandness of prime time,” wrote Marc Gunther and Bill Carter in their great book Monday Night Mayhem. “In its glory days, the show made television come alive.” Even as the glory was slipping away, the show was still must-see TV. Cosell left and Al Michaels came in; the loudest announcer in sports was replaced by the best.
But the NFL was never one to turn down a lunatic network waving a blank checkbook, so it agreed to let ESPN take Monday Night Football over to cable. Like a billionaire who locks his trophy wife up in their Hamptons home, ESPN immediately moved to minimize its prize. It started referring to the game as just “MNF,” three letters, kind of like WTF. It pulled in announcers who would work for ESPN’s modest salary.
Meanwhile, NBC, which successfully bid for Sunday Night Football, acquired Monday Night announcers Al Michaels and John Madden, who did not want to be on cable. (Michaels, whose contract still had time on it, was actually traded to NBC for a very old Walt Disney cartoon character.) The NFL agreed to let NBC have one of the week’s best matchups as the playoffs approached, a ratings-boosting tweak known as flexing. NBC, in effect, leaned into the idea that a prime-time football game could still be a weekly spectacular. It brought over key producers from Monday Night Football, including Fred Gaudelli and Drew Esocoff. Madden retired and Cris Collinsworth was paired with Michaels, a dynamic high-low combo that for years was the NFL’s premier announcing team (eclipsed now only by CBS’s Jim Nantz and Tony Romo).
The results, over 15 years, are plain to see. Now it is Monday Night Football, with its second-rate football matchups and endless turnover in the booth, that embodies the “droning blandness of prime time,” while Sunday Night Football is the biggest show on turf, and most weeks is the top-rated show on television. And NBC is not alone. CBS and Fox have outbid ESPN in recent years for game and league rights, since nothing like live events can bring a crowd to broadcast TV. Meanwhile, cable customers fed up with high monthly bills have been cord-cutting at record pace.
All of this has upended Disney’s apple cart. ESPN was able to justify paying sports leagues billions in contract deals because it made tens of billions in revenue on those games. ESPN has always been the priciest channel in your cable bundle, $9 per month per customer in 2017. If you wanted cable, you paid for ESPN whether anyone in your household watched it or not. Faced with this choice, millions have opted out, leading to waves of layoffs at the Disney properties that depended on ESPN’s absurd profitability. (Even Clare Malone at FiveThirtyEight had to go.)
One of the dumbest aspects of Monday Night Football on cable was that if you lived in a market with an NFL team, and your team had a game on Monday night, it aired on your local ABC affiliate instead of ESPN because the league didn’t want any viewer left out. There was an inherent stupidity in restricting access to the sport aptly called “America’s Game,” and it seems finally everyone is admitting to that.
Now that the demand is rapidly moving to streaming, we see the end game, as it were. Last February news leaked that Disney’s management were already looking to move Monday Night Football back to ABC for good. The pandemic, and the demand for fresh content, is bringing about the inevitable faster than anyone thought. ESPN, once a much-desired cable property, is now the caboose in the wildly successful Disney+ streaming bundle. Thus packaged it is, at best, a $3 monthly proposition rather than a $9 one. The gravy train is slowing down. Cable TV, and ESPN on cable, will live on, but it will mostly be supported by older viewers with bad wi-fi. It won’t be sudden death, more like a slow fade into irrelevance. The best word for it is one that’s used in the sport of football that the rest of the world follows — relegation.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.