With its new Eye on the NFL, CBS shows well-focused plan

Media Watch

October 27, 1998|By Milton Kent

Through the first eight weeks of the NFL schedule, the most impressive comeback story of the half-season -- next to Doug Flutie's, of course -- is the return of CBS to the weekly grind of televising games.

The Eye network, which was out of the game for four years, has come back quite well with a pretty decent plan of attack for covering games that blends four decades of tradition with a newfangled conference, the AFC, and a '90s sensibility.

The formula is working. CBS' AFC ratings are up slightly from this time last year, when NBC was in the AFC mix. And the NFL success has had a positive effect on the network's prime-time ratings, which are also up.

All but one of CBS' six broadcast crews have been seen here to date, and all but one, the noxious pairing of Don Criqui and Beasley Reece, have been fairly entertaining. Indeed, one of the strengths CBS has over Fox's NFC coverage is that its announcing depth is superior, once you clear the top level.

And that's not a knock at CBS' top team of Greg Gumbel and Phil Simms, which is solid, but not necessarily spectacular. Gumbel does a decent job of setting the scene and calling the action, but Simms, a fine X's and O's man, just doesn't have John Madden's personality. But then, who does? Still, just as at NBC, Simms would be greatly aided by a third person with some flair and humor.

Behind the scenes, CBS' camera work and graphics have been exceptional, like, for instance, during Sunday's Jacksonville-Denver telecast, when lead producer Mark Wolff and director Larry Cavolina pulled up numerous angles and replays of kicker Jason Elam's record-tying, 63-yard field goal for the Broncos.

CBS's pre-game show, "The NFL Today," has evolved nicely into a straightforward hour of information, though it could still use a bit of personality.

Host Jim Nantz, who seemed a little unsure early on, has settled down and runs an efficient, if colorless, ship. Analysts Marcus Allen and Brent Jones have come along well, too, expressing opinions and imparting knowledge without adopting phony personas.

George Seifert, the third analyst, is still a work in progress, but has come a long way from his stiff first couple of weeks.

Bringing information guy Mike Lombardi, who broke details of a possible AFC realignment a couple of weeks ago, on camera was an excellent stroke, as was the addition of reporter Bonnie Bernstein. Sideline reporters Armen Keteyian and Michele Tafoya haven't had a lot to do, but they've handled their assignments as well as could be expected.

Some Series thoughts

For all the folks who are worried about the notion that the recent World Series' ratings were the lowest in history, here's a suggestion: Don't be.

Fox, where the World Series aired, has done a yeoman's job in establishing itself as a worthy challenger to the Big Three networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) in virtually all ways but one, distribution, and that's a killer.

The fact is, Fox appears on lower-powered UHF stations in many markets across the country, including Baltimore. Those stations are frequently harder to tune in than VHF outlets, and that has an effect on ratings.

But privately, even with some losses, the Fox people won't be complaining much, because the Series ratings were better than what the network usually gets for the prime-time programs the games replaced.

That larger audience gave Fox the chance to put its shows on display to a larger, male-dominated audience, hence the superfluous parade of stars who just happened to have tickets in places where real fans should have been.

As for the content of the broadcasts themselves, given Tim McCarver's penchant for overanalysis, it was frankly shocking how little attention he, Bob Brenly and Joe Buck paid to what turned out to be the single most important play of the Series, the 2-2 pitch to Tino Martinez in the seventh inning of Game 1.

In case you've forgotten it, San Diego's Mark Langston thought he had Martinez struck out on a pitch that nailed the heart of the plate, just above the knees. But plate umpire Rich Garcia called the pitch a ball. Martinez hit the next pitch out for a grand slam.

If Garcia, who has had trouble making the right call at Yankee BTC Stadium during the postseason, had called the strike, the game would have remained tied and the Padres might have stolen it and seized momentum in the Series. Instead, the Yankees snowball started to roll.

The Fox booth and production truck quite simply shrank from the moment, with only two replays of the pitch, just a glancing shot of Langston's angry, end-of-inning reaction, and a general, "How about that Yankee comeback?" tone, hardly what the situation called for.

Apart from that, it was good to see producer John Filipelli and director Bill Webb pull back from those annoying split-screens and intrusive close-ups that marred the broadcasts of the first couple of rounds. And Buck did nothing to change the perception that he's going to be the next great play-by-play announcer. It's frightening that someone could be that good before turning 30.

Pub Date: 10/27/98

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