The options were limited that night, of course.
If you lived in and around New York City, you were actually blessed with what felt like a buffet table of seven television choices. So as 9 o’clock rolled around that Monday night, Sept. 21, 1970, you could tune into “Boom!” a Liz Taylor-Richard Burton drama on Channel 4, the NBC affiliate, or “Mayberry RFD” on CBS Channel 2.
David Frost and Edgar Wallace had talk-shows on Channels 5 (WNEW) and 11 (WPIX), two local UHF channels, and there was a movie, “Killers of Kilamanjaro,” starring Anthony Newley, on Channel 9 (WOR). Channel 13, PBS affiliate WNET, had “NET Journal” and the story of a former concentration camp prisoner visiting Israel, searching for fellow survivors.
Or, at 9:01 p.m., you might’ve opted for this on Channel 7, WABC-TV: a dark screen, suddenly illuminated by two banks of stadium lights. An unknown voice barking: “Fifteen seconds to air … standing by all cameras! Standby video tape!”
Another voice: “Video tape is rolling in less than 5 … and 3, 2, 1 … taping!”
And then, a melody that would grind itself into ears for years to come, something along the lines of: “Bah. Ba-bah, bah! Bah! Bah!” Then some serious 1970s-circa pixilated football players dancing across the screen. And, at last, this from a relatively obscure sportscaster named Keith Jackson:
“From Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio … two powers in professional football meet for the very first time as members of the American Football Conference of the National Football League …”
Earlier in 1970, the poet Gil Scott-Heron had recorded a song containing the instantly iconic line: “The revolution will not be televised.”
This night, however, as the Jets and the Browns prepared to play a football game, there was an immediate, and profound, rebuttal. Something had just changed. And it sure felt like forever, even in the moment.
It isn’t just that it’s hard to conjure a similarly impactful moment 50 years later; it’s actually all but impossible to remember a time when the idea of a prime-time football game could cause such a stir. In 1970, ESPN was nine years from birth. Charles Dolan would not found the operation that would become HBO for four more months.
Pro football had dabbled in games outside its Sunday comfort zone a little; the AFL would play games on Fridays and Saturdays. Mostly, though, if you were an NFL fan before Sept. 21, 1970, you got two games on Sundays. In New York, that meant you got whichever local team was on the road that week (thanks to home-game blackout rules) on either Channel 2 (Giants) or 4 (Jets). And then a national game, usually involving the Packers, Browns, Chiefs or Cowboys on the other.
“It is a hot, sultry almost windless night here at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio …”
The words, frosted by Brooklyn, came from a former lawyer, standing on the sidelines in Cleveland that night, a voice already familiar to New Yorkers and, increasingly, the nation. Howard Cosell had made his local bones as a tireless radio reporter, and earned his national reputation as a conversational sparring partner with Muhammad Ali.
Quick question: Who is the most famous sportscaster in America right now, this moment? Tony Romo is certainly the highest paid. Joe Buck and Jim Nantz are household names, known to sports fans and non-fans alike. Scott Van Pelt is terrific every night on ESPN. Bob Costas probably still has a large “Q” rating, even if he’s not as everywhere as he once was.
Cosell was already famous as he stood on the field that night, as he turned to Joe Namath and asked if he agreed with Weeb Ewbank’s prediction that the 1970 Jets were better than the ’68 Super Bowl champs (“No I don’t,” Joe Willie replied candidly and sheepishly, “but I hope Weeb’s right.”) But he was about to reach a place no sports broadcaster had ever before reached, and would never reach again.
“The national omniscient,” is the way Miami sports columnist Edwin Pope would soon describe him, and that was perfect. In later years, Cosell’s weekly attempts to empty thesauruses while describing screen passes would earn him simultaneous victories in both “most beloved” and “most hated” polls.
For now, as Paul Zimmerman would write in The Post a few weeks after the debut, “Howard fights to get a word in edge-wise.” Jackson, classically trained as a play-by-play man, dominated most of the broadcast that first night (and was already viewed as merely a place-holder until Frank Gifford’s CBS contract ran out at year’s end).
But the other star born that night was Don Meredith, the ex-Cowboy introduced by Cosell as “our Monday-evening quarterback” who was so nervous the camera first caught him wiping his brow with a handkerchief as he began an awkward comparison of Namath and Browns’ quarterback Bill Nelson.
“Howard,” Dandy Don said at one point, “let’s just have some fun.”
And fun is what they would have. ABC had paid $8.5 million for the rights to televise those games in 1970 and it cost just $65,000 for a minute of advertising, which proved a bonanza when one out of three U.S. televisions wound up tuning into the game (despite the fact it was blacked out in football-mad Cleveland).
It didn’t take long for Dandy Don to calm his nerves. Not long into the game came this exchange, which would serve as something of a template for the Meredith-Cosell dynamic.
“Isn’t Fair Hooker a great name?” Meredith said wryly, referring to the Browns’ second-year receiver out of Arizona State. Cosell paused, expertly, for a beat.
“Howard, let’s just have some fun.”
“I pass,” he said.
The game was unremarkable, the Browns winning 31-21, although for fans of the Jets, it can be surmised that was the last-ever day the team spent in its prior incarnation as a legit football power, before entering the realm of “Same Old Jets.” Namath, who had never missed a game, would break his wrist less than a month later and his career was never the same. The game was picked because both teams were believed to be Super Bowl favorites.
They weren’t; the Jets finished 4-10, the Browns 7-7.
But the show on which they battled was an immediate hit, and an instant pop-culture sensation. It wouldn’t become a ratings sensation for a few years — both “Mayberry RFD” and the NBC Monday Night Movie beat it for the 1970-71 TV season — but it became an instant part of American lore.
The revolution, it turns out, wasn’t just televised. It was also sponsored by Marlboro (“Come to where the flavor is!”), Ford (“Test drive the 1971 Ford — the cars with the better ideas!”) and Goodyear (“The only makers of long-wearing polyglass tires!”). And narrated by a former lawyer named Cosell and his trusty sidekick, Dandy Don.
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