Frank Gifford, an NFL legend on the field and in the broadcast booth, died this past weekend at 84. The passing of the former New York Giant and NFL hall of famer got me thinking a bit about the state of sports on TV and football broadcasting in general.
As a player, Gifford was well before my time. He retired in the mid 60s and was inducted into the pro football hall of fame in 1977. The image of him getting knocked out by Eagles legend Chuck Bednarik (who only recently passed away himself) is one of the most iconic in pro football history.
After Gifford's playing days were over, he embarked on a remarkably successful second career as a broadcaster. For 27 years, he was a mainstay in the Monday Night Football booth. This was when Monday Night Football became Monday Night Football and was the kind of appointment television that arguably doesn't even exist anymore.
While his time with fellow legends Howard Cosell & Don Meredith is really what became the stuff of legend, as a child of the 90s the Monday Night crew I grew up with was Al Michaels, Dan Dierdorf and Gifford.
When I heard Gifford had passed over the weekend, I thought a lot about watching Monday Night Football at the time and couldn't help but wonder whether things have gotten better or worse since those days? The NFL's brand is bigger than ever, but has the coverage of the league become too watered down?
There can be no question that the breadth of coverage has exploded and much of that is structural. The proliferation of the internet since Gifford's days in the booth has turned following the NFL into a 24/7 job. That's no different than anything really.... But the broadcast landscape has changed greatly as well.
In Gifford's day, watching Monday Night Football was an event. For the most part you had games on Sunday afternoon and you had Monday night. It was prime time TV on broadcast television (CBS, ABC, NBC), which back then was a big deal. In the last 10 years, viewership for broadcast TV is down as much as 50%. With the rise of cable and internet video, the entertainment audience is far less concentrated than it was.
The NFL remains a ratings juggernaut even for broadcast TV, but even it is more spread out (call it "watered down" if you like) than ever.
You can now catch prime time football 3 nights a week. Sunday nights, which used to be an afterthought on cable, have in a lot of ways replaced Monday night as the featured game of the week. Monday Nights are now on ESPN while Thursday night football has recently become a thing. Add this to the league's new experiment of showing London games (there's 3 now!) at 9:30am eastern time and there's a lot of football on TV.
Perhaps this is me being old man yells at cloud, but I wonder whether it's too much? There was something that felt special about Monday Night football back then. The three man booth, the Hank Williams theme song, the fact that it was in prime time. This was all very different than any other game you'd watch. It was a special event by virtue of it existing. I remember being allowed to stay up late just because Monday Night Football was on. It never mattered who was playing. My mom would get snacks specifically for that night of the week. I remember vividly sitting on the floor by the TV with my brothers just waiting for the first few notes of "All My Rowdy Friends..." to come on.
Of course, this was always going to be more exciting as a kid but I don't think it's just my loss of youth that's dampened my excitement for prime time football. With the glut of current NFL programming, it's as if the prime time broadcasts now are mostly trying to convince you that they're important. They know they've lost that excitement.
With three prime time games on per week, each with their own slickly produced and generic theme songs (the NBC SNF theme remains the single worst thing on TV)... they are just not event viewing. Whether they really matter in a given week is when the game itself is a big one. "Flex scheduling" is the ultimate proof of this. Since prime time TV broadcasts of football don't have the same "must see TV" juice as they once did, the NFL introduced flex scheduling to ensure that if the game wasn't compelling enough then they'd just swap it out with one that was.
I say this knowing while I may lament those days when Monday Night Football was special, there's pretty much no way back. With the collapse of the live prime time audience all across television, cable and broadcast networks are more desperate than ever for live programming that can draw an audience and be sell-able to advertisers and the NFL delivers on those fronts better than anyone. We are only likely to see more football on TV than we currently do and the game will only get more commoditized than it is.
Not that this is all bad. On your xbox this season you'll be able to watch replays as basically coach's diagrams. That's probably going to provoke more of a sense of childhood wonder than John Madden's Telestrator art ever did. There are some truly amazing things happening around coverage of the NFL now.
But as Giants fans pour one out for Frank Gifford today, those of us that had the chance to experience what it was like to follow the game back then should pour one out too.