American football on TV and the music of the night
By Ron Rodman
Monday Night Football has been a staple of American television for over forty years. The first Monday night broadcast aired on the ABC network on 21 September 1970, with a game between the New York Jets and the Cleveland Browns. Ever since, Monday Night Football (MNF) broadcasts have rarely been topped in the Nielsen ratings. After a storied run on ABC, MNF moved to the popular sports cable network, ESPN, in 2006. That same year, NBC instituted Sunday Night Football, which became the marquis game of the week for the National Football League.
Nighttime TV broadcasts of professional football in the USA have been about much more than just the game. From its beginnings in 1970, ABC sports producer Roone Arledge hired controversial New York broadcaster Howard Cosell, former Dallas quarterback (“Dandy”) Don Meredith, and (a year later) ex-NY Giant player Frank Gifford as the broadcast team. Still later, ex-Detroit Lions player Alex Karras joined the crew. The team jelled behind Cosell’s bluster, Meredith’s southern “down home” style, Gifford’s boyish good looks, and Karras’ comedy. Besides the chemistry of the broadcast team, MNF also regularly featured celebrity guests such as Vice President Spiro Agnew, singers Plácido Domingo and John Lennon, President Bill Clinton, actor and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and even Muppet Kermit the Frog. The 9 December 1974 broadcast was especially notable as it featured interviews of both John Lennon and California Governor Ronald Reagan during the game. As the game progressed, the broadcast featured Reagan explaining the rules of American football to Lennon off-camera.
MNF Theme Music throughout its History
To reflect the carnivalesque nature of the show, MNF has been introduced by musical themes that have been light, bouncy, pop-oriented pieces. The first introduction to MNF in the 1970s featured images of broadcasters Cosell, Meredith, and Gifford getting ready to go on the air, giving way to animated scenes of football players in action. This opening was accompanied by Charles Fox’s tune called “Score,” recorded under the alias, ‘Bob’s Band.’ “Score” is a bit of light 1970s soul-jazz, with the quintessential Hammond electric organ playing lead, along with a Hollywood-style brass section layering the top.
By 1976, the theme to MNF was replaced by “ABC’s Monday Night Football Theme,” by composer Joe Sicurella.
The piece retains the light, swingy entertainment aspect of the show, reminiscent of 1970s Philly Soul in the style of The Temptations or MFSB. The theme underwent another transformation in 1982. Apparently, Sicurella’s theme was re-scored by Robert Israel of Score Productions for ABC, for which Sicurella unsuccessfully sued for copyright infringement.
In 1989, MNF switched to a new theme song, entitled “Heavy Action” by British composer and pianist, Johnny Pearson. ABC actually acquired the song in 1978, but did not use it for the show until the late 1980s.
The theme opens with a descending four-note motive, which some bloggers say is “the most recognizable four notes in all of television.” This motive is followed by a chromatically rising line in the strings, punctuated by brass “stabs,” reminiscent of 1970s disco or even “Blaxploitation” film music.
“Heavy Action” continues as the current theme for MNF, but has been remixed with a slightly harder “edge,” featuring a “heavy metal” guitar mixed in with the strings and brass:
Music, Football, and Ethnicity
All the musical themes used for MNF are upbeat, light pieces, signifying a fun, light entertainment for its audience. All the themes also tap into the pop idioms of the time, and thus represent a departure from the “college march” pieces of football broadcasts of earlier eras, like this 1957 footage:
In addition, each of the MNF themes carries with it a mixture of stylistic elements that seeks a wide, diverse audience. The themes all demonstrate a virtuosic blend of pop/rock, some Hollywood style “TV music” (usually expressed in the brass writing), along with aspects of funk, soul, and even disco; musical genres that are frequently historically associated with urban black artists and audiences. No one musical style dominates within any of the themes, but elements of several genres reach across lines of race and ethnicity and combine into the harmonious whole of each piece.
In short, the theme music played on MNF throughout the years does what TV theme music should do, that is, to reach out to as many audience demographics as it can and summon them to the small screen. But in doing so, the MNF themes have also reflected back the racial and sociographic diversity of the football players on the show, as well as its fan base.
The Shape of Things to Come: Sunday Night Football
NBC has taken a decidedly different tact with its Sunday Night Football theme. The theme is by the famous (and ubiquitous) film composer, John Williams (who also composed theme music for NBC’s broadcast of the Olympics), and departs from the light entertainment model of the ABC/ESPN theme.
As one blogger puts it, the theme is “Football’s Imperial March.” Williams’ theme implies a militant march rather than a light, harmonious entertainment piece of MNF. This is a new trend in the perception of football and its athletes, who were once considered entertainers, but are now perceived as gladiators.
In memoriam, Alex Karras, 1935-2012. Rest in Peace.
Next month: More NFL football music!
Ron Rodman is Dye Family Professor of Music at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. He is the author of Tuning In: American Television Music, published by Oxford University Press in 2010. Read his previous blog posts on music and television.