Gifford's Death Revives Memories Of TV In A Much Different Era

Sometimes, a TV network just gets lucky. 

It takes nothing away from the intelligence and intuition of the late Roone Arledge to attribute at least part of the phenomenal success of ABC’s “Monday Night Football” in its heyday to the kind of random good fortune that can sometimes turn a good idea into a great one that exceeds all expectations. 

Or to put it another way: You can apply all the know-how and common sense you can muster to mix and match personnel according to their similarities and differences in the hopes that the combination will somehow click. But once they’re up and running, the chemistry that results -- or in many cases, doesn’t result -- is largely a matter of factors beyond one’s control such as timing, fate and the aforementioned luck.



Such was the case in 1971 in the second season of “Monday Night Football” when Arledge added Frank Gifford to the announcing team in which Howard Cosell and Don Meredith were already established. Gifford was Arledge’s choice for the third slot from the beginning, but Gifford was contracted to CBS Sports in 1970 and unavailable. In 1971, Gifford came over from CBS to replace Keith Jackson on “Monday Night Football,” and the rest was history.

Gifford’s death over the weekend at age 84 is reviving memories of a period in TV history where everything seemed outsized -- the stars, the shows, the ratings. At the risk of sounding like Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard,” TV did seem bigger then (and, by contrast, smaller now -- despite the explosion in channels and content).

Many readers of this blog understand the reason why this is so: With the entire U.S. TV audience being divided principally between just three TV networks from the 1950s at least through the 1970s, virtually every show -- even the ones that were considered low-rated and were cancelled -- drew bigger audiences than many shows today that are critically acclaimed, widely talked about and considered to be hits.

It’s simple arithmetic, really -- a concept (think of a huge pie being divided in just three ways instead of hundreds) that is so elementary that some might question the need for bringing it up every once in a while.

But as the years go by, the history of TV in the three-network era becomes more and more remote -- similar to how many of us viewed the radio era when our parents or grandparents would tell us about it when we were children in the 1960s. We’d take it all in, but couldn’t really get our minds around a world without TV. Similarly, younger people today might have trouble conceiving of a world of just three TV networks. But please take my word for it -- such a world did exist. 

In this world, a colorful team of sports announcers became a phenomenon that turned a weekly football broadcast into one of the most talked-about TV shows of its era. You might say Cosell was the chief catalyst for the success of “Monday Night Football” in those heady days, but he was just one part of the peculiar alchemy that made this team of announcers click.

Maybe it came down to a kind of regionality. Cosell was the bombastic one with a streetwise, tell-it-like-it-is New York attitude. Meredith, a native Texan, perhaps represented the middle of the country. And Gifford was West Coast all the way -- the handsome matinee-idol football star from the University of Southern California who became a Hall of Famer on the then-legendary New York Giants of the 1950s.

As the play-by-play announcer, Gifford was the no-nonsense straight man in the booth, while Meredith and Cosell sparred. Who knew this combination would work? Maybe Arledge was pretty certain of it, but even he must have known that there is no such certainty in the business of putting a broadcast team together.

Ironically, the same could be said of Gifford’s wife, Kathie Lee Gifford, and her pairing with Regis Philbin in the 1980s that also became a phenomenon beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. I often said that Regis and Kathie Lee were a match made in TV heaven, and one that was not necessarily evident from the outset.

The heyday of Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell and Don Meredith lasted just three seasons really -- 1971-73, when Meredith left to take up acting (he would return to “Monday Night Football” a few years later). But in our collective memories, the “Monday Night Football” broadcasts from more than 40 years ago still loom large, even if we’re fuzzy on the details.

Many of us who are old enough to remember Frank Gifford from that bygone era were surprised to learn that he was 84 when he died on Sunday. Bewildered, we looked at each other and wondered: When did that happen?

3 comments about "Gifford's Death Revives Memories Of TV In A Much Different Era".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. ida tarbell from s-t broadcasting, August 10, 2015 at 3:12 p.m.

    You could see the edges fraying in the late sixties.  Sixties tv, though far better than it is now, were a distant relative of the golden fifties.  I though Laugh In was a serious come down from Gleason, Lucy and Milton.  But newspaper tv critics, whose bosses, wanted no discouraging words about some oif their biggest advertisers, treated this junk as manna.  Aaron Spelling was starting to become rich with his squalid productions.  When schlockmeisters like Spelling and Norman Lear started taking over in the early 70s, I stopped watching network TV and started watching strictly films.  Viewers were supposed to overlook the fact that Lear's characters rarely left their homes, mainly sat around Kvetching inside.  Lear saved money by recording on 3 camera videotape.  The race to do it cheaper took off.  Look how awful that 3 camera video looks today.  It looked terrible then too.  Entertainment ratings eventually fell so low, the big ratings became for football only.  Ratings fell so fast, the Seinfeld failure of 1988 had become a hit by 1993 with the SAME SIZED AUDIENCE.  Today, the Bigs don't even bother to program prime time.  They just extract alms from cable and satellite viewers  which are nearly $8 billion for the Big Four now.  There are no big sports announcers like Frank, Howard, Danderoo and Alex Karras any longer.  HD looks better and the morning shows ARE BETTER, but the rest of the day doesn't rise to the level of the improved medium.

  2. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, August 10, 2015 at 4:23 p.m.

    Ida, I tend to agree with you about much of Spelling's work, but the advent of "All In The Family" and some of the ensuing Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin sitcoms was quite a different matter. Sure, they used videotape, probably to save some money in editing, but videotape gave these "tell it like it is" shows a different look than the filmed sitcoms of the era, drawing audiences into them and greatly enhancing the immediacy of the viewing experience----until everybody started doing it and the novelty wore off. Also, Lear and Co. revolutionized sitcoms, creating a huge revival in the genre, which had fallen on bad times in the late 1960s. So what, if he and Yorkin borrowed their ideas from the Brits----for almost a decade, they were the kings of TV sitcoms. At the outset, and for a number of great seasons, their stuff could hardly be dubbed "junk".

    I also tend to agree with you about the TV networks outlook on primetime. They seem to think that they are catering to "mass" audiences while everyone else isn't, yet the majority of their viewers---per minute---are over 55 years old, so this obviously isn't the case. On the other hand, it's not fair to say that they are just going through the motions and relying 100% on retransmission fees. They need to start using new program suppliers and free themselves from their traditional studio "connections"----before it's too late.

  3. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, August 10, 2015 at 11:49 p.m.

    Adam, Adam, Adam,

    Good Luck as TV's Deus Ex Machina?

    Cry for the good days and good people passed.

    Now, tell your boss you need an August vacation before it's too late!

Next story loading loading..