For as long as Howard Cosell was a commentator on ABC’s Monday Night Football, there were fans who said they didn’t want to listen to him. In 1978, those fans were offered a hack. What if they could watch the game but listen to a different announcer?
That year, CBS bought the radio rights to Monday Night Football. The network told fans to mute their TVs and let CBS Radio’s team of Jack Buck and Hank Stram fill in the call. “The Great American Switch-Off,” as The Chicago Tribune called the campaign, was a primitive form of alternate audio stream. “Television,” a CBS affiliate crowed, “should be seen and not heard.”
Cosell thought the idea he could be muted on his own broadcast was “lunacy.” But beyond the shots Cosell took for melding sports and social issues, CBS was exploiting a weakness of TV sports. Calling Monday Night for 45 million viewers meant Cosell, Frank Gifford, and Don Meredith had to be entertainers first. On CBS Radio’s football-centric call, Stram, a former coach, predicted plays like Tony Romo does now. “There’s no comparison between the broadcast teams for the real fan,” one radio advertiser said.
It was never clear how many viewers opted to silence Cosell. A muted TV counts the same in the ratings, though nearly 10 million radio listeners tuned in to Buck. “He got comment after comment when we were going around the country,” said his son, Joe, who calls NFL games for Fox. “People said, ‘Oh, Jack, I love you and Hank. I turn down the sound on TV …’ If I heard that once, I heard that 50 times as a kid.”
In the age of streaming, the Great American Switch-Off sounds pretty archaic. But until recently, it was one of the only ways for viewers to tune out a game announcer. That’s what makes ESPN’s decision to put Peyton and Eli Manning’s alternate Monday Night Football broadcast opposite Cosell’s old show so interesting.
On ESPN, Steve Levy, Louis Riddick, and Brian Griese will deliver a standard call of the game. For 10 weeks a season, the Mannings will talk ball and interview celebrities on ESPN2. There will be more alternate broadcasts as TV networks transform into streaming services, and games migrate to streamers like Amazon. Announcers who’ve had a near monopoly on the public’s attention will begin to understand Cosell’s anxiety. Except now, their own networks will be offering the hack.
First, it’s worth understanding the unique perch that game announcers occupy in modern media. Announcers are the offensive coordinators of television. Everybody thinks they should be replaced midway through the first quarter. This carping, if often correct, ignores just how many small bits of information we ingest from announcers every second. “We wait for the announcer to anoint what we see,” the writer Charles Siebert once noted, “chronicling the unimpressive and confirming the improbable.”
Nearly every other TV star is judged by their ability to get ratings. Announcers are paid to call games that would draw the same number of viewers whether they call them or not. Neal Pilson, the former president of CBS Sports, once told me he employed two announcers who moved the ratings needle: John Madden and boxing analyst Gil Clancy.
That replaceability would seem to sap announcers of their power. But over the past two decades, a funny thing happened to TV. Network dramas and sitcoms collapsed. Live sports—which often placed third in the old network hierarchy, behind entertainment and news—became one of the last places to find a mass audience. As Axios’s Kendall Baker wrote recently, “Twenty-two of the 25 most-watched TV broadcasts this year have been sporting events—and 18 were football games.”
Viewers still don’t watch sports to hear the announcers. But as guardians of some of the last valuable tracts of TV real estate, announcers have maintained their old stature or even improved it. Romo’s $17.5 million annual salary is the highest ever paid to a sports announcer, even adjusting for inflation.
Moreover, game announcers have the same monopoly on our attention they had during the three-network era. If you want the latest news from Afghanistan, you don’t need to watch Jake Tapper. Twitter will feed you sports highlights before Scott Van Pelt. But Joe Buck and Troy Aikman are virtually your only portal to the NFC game of the week, short of turning up the sound on the radio.
When the NFL playoffs start, Buck’s Fox crew shares the rights to some games with ESPN Radio. Fox and ESPN announcers attend the same pregame interviews with the players. “You become territorial,” said Buck. He doesn’t want to throw out a question only to have a player’s answer inform a competitor.
The announcer monopoly affects the way we feel about them. In 1977, the Miami Herald conducted a reader poll. To nobody’s surprise, Cosell was voted least-favorite game analyst. But readers also voted him no. 3 on their list of favorite analysts.
Cosell wasn’t unique. Game announcers like Meredith, Gifford, and Curt Gowdy placed in the top five on both Herald lists. It’s the same cognitive dissonance you see in a trending Twitter topic that tells you “people are commenting” on whoever’s calling a game.
Announcers may be liked or disliked. But the tax for having a monopoly on our attention is that we regard announcers as inevitable. “Cosell is like the weather,” a critic wrote in 1978. “Everybody talks about him but nobody does anything.”
From time to time, the people who run networks have wondered just how inevitable game announcers ought to be. In 1980, Don Ohlmeyer, the executive producer of NBC Sports, aired an NFL game without any announcers. The stadium PA and on-screen graphics took their place. “We all gathered together, hoping Ohlmeyer was dead wrong,” play-by-play man Dick Enberg said years later. With no announcers offering stage directions, columnist David Israel noted in a review, it was “a game with no context played by men with no pasts.”
Since then, networks have rarely muted their announcers. But they’ve chipped away at their monopoly by adding more of them. In 2006, ESPN conducted its first full-blown experiments with what it would later call a MegaCast. During a Florida State–Miami football game, viewers could choose from the standard game broadcast on one ESPN channel; a collection of eight camera angles on another; and Colin Cowherd and the SkyCam on a third.
“It was wonderful because of the opportunity to explore new possibilities in a safe playground, not worrying about if it’s not for everybody,” said Ed Placey, ESPN’s senior coordinating producer. “Everybody” is usually the mandate for live sports.
In recent years, networks and streaming platforms have offered up an army of substitute announcers. You could listen to games called by scouts, homers, gamblers, referees, soccer fans, Hannah Storm and Andrea Kremer, Bill Walton in an Uncle Sam costume, aspiring kid announcers, and, in a cosmic nod to Ohlmeyer, no announcers. Last season, a Nickelodeon NFL wild-card broadcast celebrated touchdowns with CGI slime cannons. The NFL loved it because it was pitched to kids who might not always watch four quarters of an NFL game.
MegaCast-type broadcasts allow networks to check several boxes at once. They generate publicity. They justify the thousands of dollars the networks spend on special cameras and then use for a handful of shots; during the 2019 college football national championship game, ESPN had a Goodyear BlimpCast. If a game gets lopsided, Placey said, sampling one of the alternate feeds might prevent a viewer from flipping away.
Alternate broadcasts also serve as a hedge against the sports divisions’ big nightmare: that the ratings for live sports will follow sitcoms and dramas into the abyss. “These alternate broadcasts actually allow people who have kind of come to fandom differently to come to us and interact with us in some different ways,” said Freddy Rolón, ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions.
In May, on ESPN2’s Marvel-themed telecast of a Warriors-Pelicans game, Steph Curry and Draymond Green collected “hero points” so that (I believe I have this right) Iron Man could draft them to fight aliens. ESPN said the Marvel-cast “lifted” the audience watching the main broadcast by 24 percent. That’s a high percentage for an alternate telecast—in fact, it was ESPN’s highest audience lift ever. With bigger games that have more built-in viewers, alternate telecasts tend to deliver a much lower percentage. For ESPN’s college football national championship game, which has an audience of nearly 26 million, the ESPN2 alternate lifts the audience by an average of 3 to 4 percent.
For years, ESPN executives treated the Mannings like sports-media Infinity Stones. Peyton Manning has waved off overtures from ESPN to join its regular Monday Night booth since 2018. Last season, Placey said, Peyton was won over after making a cameo on a Monday Night Football MegaCast with Charles Barkley. Manning agreed to come to ESPN not as a conventional announcer but as the star of a show his company, Omaha Productions, and ESPN will coproduce. “It’s kind of like you’re watching the game at a bar,” Peyton told Fox this month, “and me and Eli show up and watch the game with you.”
In my survey of other networks, I found confusion and mild skepticism at the idea of ESPN programming against itself. There are egos to massage and promos to divvy up. (ESPN’s Levy is a lifer and new to the Monday Night booth.) One executive told me: “Why are you having A-level producers and A-level announcers and then you’re telling people to watch something else?”
“At the end of the day, we’re not competing with ourselves,” said Rolón. “We win no matter which one they tune in to.” ESPN thinks of the Mannings less as a play for a specific demographic, like the Nickelodeon NFL broadcast, than a large net cast for casual fans.
“For sure, we’re doing it with the expectation that it’s going to bring a lift to the audience,” said Rolón.
Last season, Monday Night Football averaged more than 12 million viewers a week. ESPN expects the Mannings to increase the audience by something like 3 to 5 percent.
Placey noted that the MegaCasting era has introduced fans to a new style of announcing. Game calls often have the same grammar. When ESPN brought coaches into a film room for the college national championship, it insisted on going without a host so the broadcast would sound more like conversation.
Beyond ending the monopoly of game announcers, the MegaCasting may also change the language they speak. It would shock Howard Cosell to learn there’s more than one way to tell it like it is.