Looking back, marching forward, CBS shows it hasn't lost NFL touch

Media Watch

September 07, 1998|By Milton Kent

It's difficult, if not impossible, to run away from your past, and CBS didn't even try yesterday as it returned to the NFL after a four-year absence.

At the top of the new "NFL Today" pre-game show, the network aired a montage of its storied football history with footage of Pat Summerall, John Madden, Jack Buck, Vin Scully, Brent Musburger, Phyllis George and Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, all parts -- good or bad -- of CBS' four decades of NFL telecasts.

The network reveled in its past, going so far as to bring back the theme music left over from four years ago. Pre-game host Jim Nantz ticked off the number of days since CBS had last telecast a game, and pre-game analyst Brent Jones quipped that his presence served to "uphold the tradition of having a Brent on the 'NFL Today' show," a reference to former host Musburger.

Even with a stroll through the past, CBS moved forward with a mostly impressive performance.

When CBS lost football to Fox four years ago, its "NFL Today" pre-game show was the industry's standard, with a straightforward, mostly hard-nosed approach to the league. In its absence, Fox became the fan favorite with a more entertainment-based show.

The new "NFL Today," or at least the one viewers saw yesterday with Nantz, Jones, Marcus Allen and George Seifert, is very much like its predecessor, with an emphasis on the game, as opposed to a focus on the personalities of the on-camera personnel.

In fact, the star of the "NFL Today" was its glitzy set, with monitors on top of monitors and video walls aplenty, most of which never got used, but made for a nice picture.

Nantz, despite some early nervousness, warmed up to the task, moving the telecast along nicely with his typically earnest, low-key delivery, though he looks out of place flush-left at the desk.

Seifert, the former San Francisco coach, by contrast, remained stiff throughout the hour. His diagram of a play was filled with hard-to-decipher jargon, with precious little explanation of the language he was using. What exactly are hook, flat and curl zones? We're still waiting for the distinction.

It appears that Allen, the former Oakland and Kansas City running back, and Jones, who played tight end for Seifert with the 49ers, will provide the energy for the new "NFL Today." Neither has vast television experience, but they both have a presence that should add life to the program.

Allen, in particular, is smooth and efficient, and looks as if he was born to the role. Jones appears to be the designated wild man on the set, but he wisely stayed away from going over the top. Pre-game producer Eric Mann, one of the best in the business, would be wise to keep Allen and Jones from the contrived sparring match that weighs down the Fox show. Reporter Bonnie Bernstein's piece on Pittsburgh's Kordell Stewart was a good one, even if she mispronounced his first name.

Once Nantz threw it to the stadiums, the CBS technical effort was excellent. Not surprisingly, the best of the early telecasts was the Pittsburgh-Baltimore game, where the network's No. 2 team of announcers Verne Lundquist and Randy Cross, producer Lance Barrow and director Mike Arnold was superb.

Lundquist, who, from this perspective, is the most underrated play-by-play man working -- regardless of sport, was in command as always, setting the scene nicely, with trademark flashes of humor.

Cross, who was under-utilized at NBC, was on the mark yesterday, hitting his stride in the second half. In the third quarter, Cross noted that the game had become a battle of field position and that things could turn on who made the first mistake, "allowing the floodgates to open." Seconds later, a fourth-down snap was two-hopped to Ravens punter Kyle Richardson, who downed the ball at the Baltimore 5-yard line.

On the next play, Barrow and Arnold -- in their first NFL action in four years -- went to work to uncover definitive replays to show that Pittsburgh receiver Courtney Johnson did not get both his feet down on a pass play to the left side of the end zone.

One thing that unfortunately hasn't changed with CBS' reappearance, and apparently won't, is the over-commercialization of telecasts.

Yes, the networks have an incredible debt to recoup, but there has to be some other way to get it done. CBS, for instance, not only has sold sponsorship of its pre-game show, but has sold elements within the show.

The worst moment of the day came during a third-quarter sequence when the Steelers took the lead on a Norm Johnson field goal. The viewer was subjected to a commercial break, the field goal, another commercial, the kickoff, and then another commercial.

Oy!

Pub Date: 9/07/98

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