New season, old approach: NFL fans will buy anything

Media Watch

September 10, 1999|By Milton Kent

How easy it must be to be a television executive whose network has a piece of the NFL. Before the game, all you have to do is gather a few talking heads together, let them toss around insults and strategy and watch the viewers tune in. It doesn't matter what is said or by whom; it's football and people will watch.

And once the game starts, the routine is the same. Get a few more talking heads to talk more intricate strategy, roll out the cameras and point them at whatever moves in a uniform and watch the viewers tune in.

Again, it doesn't matter what is said, or even who is playing; it's football and people will watch.

That's essentially the television formula that has served the NFL well for, lo, the last three decades or so, and as another season begins Sunday, the football version of higher physics returns, with a few changes here and there.

For instance, at CBS, which got back into the NFL business last season for the first time in five years, the network has scrapped what seemed to be a reasonably intelligent pre-game show and gone for the yuks, keeping only host Jim Nantz.

Former San Francisco 49ers coach George Seifert has headed back to the sidelines to take over the Carolina Panthers. Brent Jones has been sent to the booth, where he'll work Sunday's Ravens-St. Louis Rams game with Gus Johnson, and Marcus Allen has lost his chair on the set and will become a "feature reporter."

In their places, Randy Cross, the former No. 2 booth analyst, comes into the studio, to be joined by Craig James, who shifts over from the college football studio. Fox castoff Jerry Glanville drops in right off the "Hee Haw" set, though it's unclear at this writing whether CBS rescued him from pickin' or grinnin.'

Their job is simple: sound reasonably intelligent while attempting to out-guy Fox.

"It's a pretty entertaining group of guys," said CBS Sports executive producer Terry Ewert. "It's a good combination of personalities and talent. I think it will work well."

Dan Dierdorf takes over as CBS' No. 2 analyst, and his departure from ABC's "Monday Night Football" leaves that booth with just two members, Al Michaels and former Maryland quarterback Boomer Esiason.

Dierdorf was cut loose after 12 seasons on Monday night, amid whispers that he and Esiason didn't get along, whispers that Esiason doesn't understand.

"I don't know where that came from, because I never felt that," said Esiason. "Dan gave me more room to operate than I could have expected. Now, I don't have to worry about the room. The room is there, and I can fill it with logic and discussion."

Michaels, meanwhile, who has headed two- and three-man booths, says that less is more and that he is looking forward to this season as much as any in his 14 years with the series, ABC's highest-rated, which moves back to its traditional 9 p.m. kickoff, starting with Monday's Denver Broncos-Miami Dolphins game on Channel 2.

"In a two-man booth, we have the opportunity to begin a story and weave it throughout the telecast, without it being a distraction. We can allow the telecast to breathe. You don't have to keep up a constant patter," said Michaels.

Beyond adding reports from the Weather Channel to its broadcast pre-game show, Fox's biggest change for the coming season is the addition of yet another hour of pre-game chatter, but on the cable side.

Fox Sports Net will debut "The NFL This Morning" Sunday at 11 a.m., seen locally on Home Team Sports, with host Chris Myers and studio analysts Jackie Slater and former Bills coach Marv Levy.

Unlike the broadcast pre-game, which is often so heavy on jocularity that it needs a laugh track, the cable show will apparently be aimed at the fan who needs more chalkboard talk.

"This is all about information. If you're not a football fan, you should not watch this show," said executive producer Arthur Smith.

The 11 a.m. start time is clearly aimed to siphon some of ESPN's viewership, but Myers doesn't think his show is overkill.

"On the morning of a game, I don't know that there is a saturation point," said Myers, an ESPN refugee. "That's why there are football fans tailgating before a game, because they want to be around football."

Myers suggested there even may be interest in a 24-hour football channel. But for that concept to fly, the NFL would have to think progressively, a trait not often apparent in the league.

For instance, ESPN officials were hoping the league would push kickoff of the Sunday night game to 8: 30, so they could restore the one-hour format that "NFL Prime Time" enjoyed for many years.

Because kickoff of 4 p.m. games has been moved ahead 15 minutes, No Fun League officials won't let "Prime Time" start before 7: 30, to keep viewers from bailing out of a blowout game to watch exciting highlights from earlier games.

"The good thing is that almost all of the games are over before we go on the air," said Chris Berman, host of "Prime Time" and "Sunday NFL Countdown."

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