Without Musburger, CBS makes Series into just another series

Television

October 17, 1990|By Michael Hill

LET THE HERESY be written here -- CBS misses Brent Musburger. Sure, he's the guy sports fans love to hate, but the World Series would be a better broadcast if he were involved.

The mistake that CBS is making as it broadcasts the World Series for the first time is the same one NBC made when it did the Seoul Olympics in 1988 -- it's producing a show for sports fans.

But what makes events like the World Series and the Olympics so special -- and makes them worth all the money the networks spend for their rights -- is that they attract more than sports fans, they attract fans of spectacle, of stories, of drama.

They attract fans of good television. And all CBS is delivering is decent sports coverage.

When Musburger and CBS parted ways earlier this year, he was slated to be the network's top baseball announcer in the first year of its four-year, $1 billion deal with the major leagues.

CBS immediately went to its back-up play-by-play announcer, Jack Buck. It was a safe move. The venerable Buck is a legend behind the mike, the type of guy sports fans -- and sports TV columnists -- would presumably love. No one would dare complain.

And make no mistake about it, Buck is fine at his job. He's just the type of guy you'd want to listen to for 162 games a year, an easygoing manner who would wear well as you followed the home team on radio throughout the season.

But the World Series isn't the regular season. Indeed, it should not be presented as merely a series of baseball games; it is a national yearly rite of passage, a seasonal ritual that puts its exclamation point on every month of October.

And, just as the Olympics needs a Jim McKay to tell its stories to those who don't know a triple axel from a long jump, so the World Series on CBS needs Musburger who, despite his excessive enthusiasm and superficial superlatives, can set the stage and declaim the drama.

Instead, CBS gives us a World Series from what another ready-for-prime-time announcer, Howard Cosell, once termed the "jockocracy." And while all the sports fans are patting the network on the back for how pure and clean and straightforward the telecasts are, the casual fans might be slipping away and the Series could be in danger of becoming just a few baseball games, not a shared national experience.

Buck's shortcomings are most evident in his relationship with his expert color commentator, the highly skilled Tim McCarver. What a play-by-play man should do during a broadcast like the World Series is constantly put himself in the shoes of the casual viewer and thus ask the questions -- some of which might sound stupid and naive -- that will draw insight out of the expert, explained so that all can understand it.

Instead, Buck just seems to let McCarver say whatever he wants while he calls the plays. Indeed, if anything it is McCarver who takes the lead in trying to make the game accessible and exciting. McCarver does baseball sort of like John Madden does football -- everything is said at an emphatic, almost feverish, pitch. The play-by-play announcer needs to separate the wheat from the chaff.

A case in point of Buck's failings came when Oakland's Jose Canseco made a bad throw home and McCarver started talking about the middle finger -- which has been injured -- getting involved. Buck should immediately have asked McCarver to explain, then stood in awe of his expert's knowledge. Instead, he let the comment pass without apparent notice. During the subsequent commercial break, clearly some producer realized that an explanation was in order and McCarver demonstrated what he meant when the game resumed.

Throughout last night's telecast, CBS gave us no story that would involve the uninitiated, developed no themes that linked the nine innings. You could have seen a McKay or a Musburger talking about the battle of the outcasts -- Oakland pitcher Dave Stewart traded by the Dodgers, given away by the Rangers, released by the Phillies; and Cincinnati manager Lou Piniella, one of many fired by George Steinbrenner.

Indeed, so conspicuous by its absence was any mention of the name forever associated with Cincinnati baseball -- Pete Rose. Now there is a story that anyone, from the hard-core fan to the supermarket tabloid reader, could have gotten into, how Rose could easily have been sitting in that Reds dugout instead of in the penitentiary, but the CBS crew must have thought it unseemly.

Otherwise, CBS was only fair. Its camerawork was decent, but not superb; too often you had to wait for the replay to get a good view of what happened. The graphics were cluttered and confusing, usually disappearing before you could decipher them. And wrap-around man Pat O'Brien's air of detached bemusement, which works so well with the NBA, seemed out of place at the fall classic.

Come back, Brent. All is forgiven.

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