It's only November, of course, but our clubhouse favorite for the "Profile in Courage" award for NFL television is Chris Spielman, who earns the prize not for some grand gesture or statement, but for simply walking away.
Spielman, a former star linebacker for Detroit and Buffalo, left Fox Sports Net's "NFL This Morning" pre-game show this week, telling the New York Times he was leaving because the program had taken on more of an entertainment feel than he was comfortable with.
"I didn't conform to the format they wanted," Spielman told the Times. "I talk serious football, and they're going for a different target. They wanted me to do things they knew I wouldn't be comfortable with. And I wasn't."
Indeed, "NFL This Morning," which debuted last season on Fox's regional cable outlets and is seen locally on Home Team Sports each Sunday at 11 a.m., was, at its launch, a pretty hard-core football show, with plenty of X's and O's and solid talk.
Increasingly, though, the program has added more entertainment elements, including a comedian, Jay Mohr, and the jokes fly fast and free. It's one thing that host Chris Myers and analyst Jackie Slater trade what they think are funny quips, but why is an erudite Marv Levy, a soon-to-be Hall of Fame coach, trying out lines like he's auditioning for open-mike night at the local Chuckle Hut?
In fairness to the "NFL This Morning," the infotainment of pre-game shows didn't start there, and it's hardly the only place where it happens each Sunday.
ESPN's "Sunday NFL Countdown" has frequently run musical acts through its Bristol, Conn., studios, and shows videos from time to time. And CBS' "The NFL Today," for years the industry standard, has added a studio audience, occasional walk-on celebrity guests and cheerleaders and the buffoonish Jerry Glanville in an attempt to jazz up its product.
But the champion of the form is Fox's broadcast show, "Fox NFL Sunday," where football, guy talk and jocularity come together in an often toxic stew.
Since its premiere six years ago, when co-host Terry Bradshaw rode into the Los Angeles studio on a horse, Fox's show - an Emmy Award winner as well as the ratings leader - has leaned more toward entertainment than the others. And because they're not analyzing election returns or new surgical procedures, a little occasional levity isn't necessarily a bad thing.
But the Foxies often don't know how to quit pushing the envelope or, worse yet, don't care. This year's experiment - bringing in female weathercaster Jillian Barberie, who speaks sassily to the male cast and often dresses in, shall we say, form-revealing outfits - sends a horribly sexist message to viewers.
Worse yet, because of Fox's ratings success, the message has gone out to the other networks that doing a show that seeks to inform its viewers, with a modicum of entertainment, isn't worth doing. Three cheers to Spielman for getting out with his dignity intact. Would that others felt similarly.
Huber's new address
One of sports television's most talented reporter/writers, CNN/SI's Jim Huber, is leaving the channel to join Turner Sports full time.
Huber, an Emmy Award winner, has anchored golf and other shows for CNN and CNN/SI since 1984, and has been active on a number of properties for Turner, which also owns CNN and CNN/SI. He will contribute to NBA, figure skating, NASCAR and Atlanta Braves telecasts.
Making the move
With the move of NASCAR races to Fox, NBC and TBS, a lot of television talent from other outlets was left wandering. NBC and TBS, which will team for 20 Winston Cup and 18 Busch Series races next year, has snatched some of it with analyst Benny Parsons, pit reporter Bill Weber and director Mike Wells coming over from ESPN.
"The most important thing that I want to do is to make sure that I don't change from showing the great racing the way ESPN has set the standard through the years," said NBC/TBS producer Sam Flood. "That is why we have the good fortune of having Mike Wells in the chair right next to me. I'm just hoping we can build from that base and continue to grow to attract more audience, but in no way ever alienating that core audience that is so loyal and so dedicated to NASCAR."
Viewers should start to notice the changes this weekend when NBC (Channel 11) carries the Busch and Winston Cup races from Homestead, Fla. The network is promising to employ a speed camera similar to the one it used last week during the Breeders' Cup, which debuted to varying degrees of critical success.
NBC's Busch coverage begins tomorrow at 1 p.m., with Sunday's Winston Cup race airing at 1, following a pre-race show at 12:30.
CBS will air the "NTRA Champions" series of horse races next June and July, the network announced yesterday.