New York (FORTUNE) -
When the New York Jets and New England Patriots end their football game next Monday, the lights will go out on one of the great shows in the history of television.
Monday Night Football--the prime-time extravaganza that in its heyday had much of America talking about Howard Cosell, Dandy Don Meredith and Frank Gifford--will end its 36-year run on ABC.
Only CBS's 60 Minutes—on-air for 38 years--has lasted longer in prime time.
A cable win
It's another blow to free over-the-air television which, season after season, keeps on losing viewers, advertisers, profits and buzz to cable.
Indeed, that's the fate of Monday Night Football. Next fall, it moves to ESPN which, like ABC, is a unit of The Walt Disney Co. (Research)
The program will have less impact as a cablecast. The 17 million homes (of 110 million homes in the U.S.) that are without cable or satellite will be unable to watch. And cable audiences, even for popular networks like ESPN, are usually much smaller than the audiences that watch broadcast TV.
Cosell, who died in 1995, would have hated this move—and he would have told us so, in no uncertain terms.
Priced out of the market
Why shift Monday Night Football to ESPN? Simple economics. The cable channel has two streams of revenue.
It makes money by selling ads and by collecting monthly subscriber fees, about $2.50 per household, from the cable and satellite operators that then pass the charge onto their subscribers. (In a way, ESPN's role is as a middleman, helping move money from the wallets of sports fans into the pockets of pro athletes and team owners).
By contrast, ABC only gets ad revenues, and it lost as much as $150 million a year broadcasting NFL. So when the NFL said it needed $8.8 billion (!!) over the next eight years for the rights to air the Monday night games, ESPN and not ABC was able to pay.
As Disney CEO Bob Iger explained recently, broadcast television "is a relatively challenged business because it relies on a single revenue stream."
The men who made Monday nights
When Monday Night Football premiered on September 21, 1970, there was no competition from cable. Three television geniuses, if that's not an oxymoron, created the show. All are now dead.
Roone Arledge was the brilliant and innovative showman who brought his gift for storytelling to sports television as the longtime president of ABC Sports.
Cosell was the brainy, bombastic Brooklyn-born lawyer with the grating voice, a face made for radio and the fearlessness that enabled him to take on the sports establishment.
Chet Forte, the director, gave the program its up-close-and-personal look and feel–defined at the end of the very first game with a tight shot of a dejected Joe Namath, head bowed, shoulders hunched, hands on his hips, looking frail and beaten after his Jets lost to the Cleveland Browns.
Sports in prime time was all but unheard of then. Professional and college games were shown on weekends, watched by men and presented in safe, boring, reverent ways. No one thought punts, passes and kicks could compete with The Lucy Show on CBS or NBC's Monday night movies.
Stealing the spotlight
Cosell & Co. proved up to the task. They were so entertaining that purists complained that they overshadowed the game.
Cosell pled guilty to that charge. "What do people talk about on Tuesday morning?" he once asked, before answering his own question. "They talk about me and Dandy and even Keith (Jackson, who did play-by-play the opening season). We have become, if I may continue to tell it like it is–which is my nature–bigger than the game."
Besides the celebrated trio of Cosell, Gifford and Meredith, the announcers who paraded through the booth included Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, Alex Karras, Fran Tarkenton, O.J. Simpson, Namath, Dan Dierdorf, Boomer Esiason, Dan Fouts, and the comedian Dennis Miller. More recently the estimable play-by-play man Al Michaels and best-of-class color commentator John Madden have been at the helm.
Monday night telecasts have produced countless memories, both on and off the field. Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Clinton all visited the broadcast booth.
On December 8, 1980, Cosell delivered the news that Beatle John Lennon had been murdered—and then quoted a few lines of Keats.
It was on a Monday night game in 1985 that Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor ended the career of Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann with a bone-crushing sack that fans, in an ESPN poll, called the most shocking moment in NFL history.
And in the most anticipated, and still the most watched Monday night game of all time, Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins ended the unbeaten streak of the 12-0 Chicago bears with a 38-24 victory on December 2, 1985.
Players say they bring a special intensity to Monday night games because they know everyone else in the league is watching.
The thrill is gone
Truth be told, much of the excitement left Monday Night Football when Cosell, the true star of the show, exited the booth in 1984. But the ABC production was still special, especially when two playoff-bound teams collided under lights late in the season.
With the move to cable, they can call the program anything they want, but it won't be Monday Night Football anymore. It will just be football on Monday nights.
Read more about ESPN's playbook here.
See Disney's plans for NASACAR here.
Find out if baseball will survive here.
Marc Gunther is co-author, with Bill Carter, of Monday Night Mayhem: The Inside Story of ABC's Monday Night Football (William Morrow, 1988).