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It's in the books, except for one unimportant game and perhaps a few tears. When ABC's Monday Night Football fades to credits tonight, it will be game over. After 36 years.

What a run it has been for this great American franchise. Monday Night Football lasted longer on prime-time U.S. television than any show, except 60 Minutes on CBS, which is in its 38th year.

It was an institution, a must-watch in the early years. It was more than just another National Football League game telecast. It was under the lights -- in prime time.

Howard Cosell and Don Meredith were colourful, sometimes controversial and as popular as the celebrities who visited the broadcast booth each week to pay their respects and to be seen.

Monday Night Football isn't going away. It's moving next year to cable on ESPN (TSN in Canada). Still, for 17 million U.S. households without cable or satellite dishes, tonight will be the end game.

That's really the nub of the story -- the steady migration of sports programming away from free, over-the-air broadcast networks to cable, where viewers need to pay for the channels.

MNF's ratings had slipped, but it was still well watched, a top-10 prime-time show for the past 15 years.

What killed it was the rising cost of rights fees caused by competition from cable. ABC was paying the NFL $550-million (all figures U.S.) annually for the rights and losing as much as $150-million a year, it claimed.

When the NFL doubled its asking price to $1.1-billion a year, ABC said, "Are you kidding?" Instead, ESPN, which is owned by ABC's parent company, the Walt Disney Co., bought the rights. Why? ESPN, unlike the broadcast networks, receives a steady stream of revenue from cable and dish distributors.

That money, about $2.50 a month from each of its 90 million-plus subscribers, goes a long way toward bridging the gap between profit and loss.

Despite ABC's bowing out, another over-the-air broadcaster, NBC, rolled the dice and acquired the NFL's Sunday night game starting in 2006. It agreed to pay $600-million annually. NBC insists it will make money on the telecast, in part because it was able to persuade the NFL to give it a flexible schedule late in the season, allowing it to pick the best game and draw the largest possible audience. That must have galled ABC, which never had that advantage. Tonight's New England Patriots-New York Jets game, for example, is meaningless.

Don Chevrier, an NBC Olympic announcer, knew the MNF crew. He worked for Roone Arledge, the ABC Sports president who created show. Cosell gave Chevrier, who called football in Canada for years, his first break in U.S. television. Chevrier also knows Keith Jackson, MNF's first announcer, and Frank Gifford, who called the games during the glory years of Cosell and Meredith.

"The apex of the show was in the early days with Cosell, Dandy Don and Gifford," Chevrier said. "A network finally decided to make a sports telecast entertaining. And the chemistry was perfect."

It was Cosell, a former New York radio reporter, who gave the show its edge. Telling it "like it is" -- or as he thought it was -- served as his credo. Before the Pittsburgh Steelers started winning Super Bowls, he suggested to the national audience that Terry Bradshaw wasn't bright enough to be a successful quarterback.

One of his pet peeves was former athletes working as broadcasters. Meredith, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback, could hold his own against Cosell, but not Gifford, who had been a star running back for the New York Giants.

"Howard couldn't stand Gifford," Chevrier said. "He hated all ex-players who were on the air. He called it the jockocracy. He put poor Frank at the head of his list."

There were also controversies such as Cosell's reference to a black player as a "little monkey," which nobody who knew Cosell believed to be a racist remark. One night in the booth in Philadelphia, he vomited over Meredith's shoes. Cosell said he had a flu bug. If so, his medication was 100 proof, Chevrier says.

"Howard would drink before most shows," he said. "He was a big, big drinker. I did the Tex Cobb-Larry Holmes fight with Howard in early 1980s. The directive from him was, 'We will meet in the hotel bar.' He threw back several martinis. Then we went over to the Astrodome and did the fight."

Cosell was a bundle of contradictions: overbearing, a bully and a self-promoter. But he could be kind, even generous.

"Your best broadcasters are always your greatest characters," said Toronto Argonauts president Keith Pelley, a former TV producer for football and later the head of TSN. "Don Cherry [the Hockey Night in Canada commentator]is legendary because of what he says and how he says it. It all comes down to style, and Cosell had such a unique style. As kids, we all imitated him."

But MNF was famous for more than Cosell. Pelley says, for him, the most lasting legacy will be the score: the dramatic four-note opening to the show.

"In the business, the music was considered to be the most recognizable in sports," he said. "Everyone strived to create a memorable theme like the Monday Night Football theme. It was powerful and we always talked about it."

MNF was on the cutting edge in other areas.

"It was far more into storytelling than the traditional Sunday afternoon telecast, which talked more about strategies," Pelley said. "Monday Night Football discussed strategies, but it was much more about close-ups than it was doing about a wide shot of the field and explaining what a zone blitz was. It was prime time. It was geared toward entertainment."

Eventually, other football telecasts caught up. Today, MNF isn't much different from what you see on a Sunday afternoon. Tonight's telecast might invoke some of that old show biz. During the opening, Meredith and Gifford will appear in a taped segment with announcer Al Michaels. Meredith is expected to close the show with the song he sang when a game had become a rout. The song's title, of course, is The Party's Over.

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