Al Michaels does play by play on NBC Sunday Night Football, prime-time… (Photo courtesy of NBC Sports )
If there is one television sportscaster to whom the adjective “legendary” can honestly be applied, it is Al Michaels, play-by-play announcer of NBC's “Sunday Night Football.” From almost two decades in the booth at ABC's “Monday night Football,” to his “Do you believe in miracles?” call of the U.S. victory over the Russian hockey team at 1980 Olympics, Michaels' resume and the history of the biggest moments of TV sports are practically one and the same.
Michaels and his colleagues on NBC Sunday Night Football will be in Baltimore when the Ravens meet the New England Patriots. In an interview last week, the play-by-play announcer on the highest-rated show on American television talked football as a prime-time ratings winner, what he sees for the Ravens in Sunday's matchup and even a little Orioles, including his days doing baseball on ABC with Jim Palmer and Earl Weaver as his broadcast partners — together in the same booth, really.
Given your history as part of ABC's Monday Night Football, I wonder if you could compare that with the phenomenal success of NBC Sunday Night Football today. It's been a couple of years since I first reported that SNF had become the highest-rated show in prime time, but it still seems huge that a football broadcast is bigger than any comedy, drama or reality TV show. But I know MNF was a huge pop-culture phenomenon, too, and it was a big deal when Monday Night Football came to town.
I'll try to condense this, because it's a complicated answer. You almost have to go through eras, here. Monday Night Football started in 1970, and when it started, it was something extremely special because sports had not been aired in prime time. So, it was a novelty, and a lot of people thought it wouldn't work, and, of course, it worked spectacularly well.
But everything has to be looked at in relative terms. … For a number of years in the ‘70s and maybe through the early ‘80s — before the advent of cable television, before Fox became a network — so you only had the three major networks, NBC, CBS and ABC. Monday Night Football would finish somewhere between like 21st and 28th out of about 54 shows. And it was then considered an enormous success.
And I remember when I came to Monday Night Football in '86 and we danced that dance all the way through 2005, we would occasionally read something like, “Well, it's not what it once was,” or “The bloom is off the rose,” you know, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And in the meantime, we would look at the ratings, and now you have like 120 shows being rated, and we are sixth.
And I would go, “Let me get this math straight. I didn't take calculus, but I did take algebra. And somebody needs to explain to me how sixth out of 120 is dying on the vine, but 25 out of 54 is iconic and tremendous.”
… So, believe me, all of us were very proud of Monday Night Football all the way through the end of the era when I was there. But the one major, major difference between where we are right now with NBC and how we finished at ABC is that in the latter years of the ABC Monday night package, the feeling at the network basically was, “You guys are a loss leader. We really don't want to do this and overspend, but we're doing it because we get tremendous promotional value out of it, and we can promote all our other shows.”
So, in a way, you had a little bit of this bastard-child feeling and we would go, “Wait a minute, we're here to do the show. Don't tell me you made a bad deal. That's not our fault. You make the deal, we do the show.” But when I go to NBC in '06 and, in effect, Dick Ebersol took everybody [from MNF]. He got Freddie Gaudelli [producer], Drew Esocoff [director]. We had to pull some teeth at the end to get me and a few production people over there, which is a whole other deal…
But the bottom line was that Dick's feeling and theory was, “Let's make Sunday Night Football so special that the rest of the network can benefit from Sunday night,” instead of using it as some promotional tool and not really nurturing it and loving it. Dick's feeling was the opposite of ABC's, and we still feel it to this day. We feel not only proud of being No. 1. I mean, look, if we're No. 5, we're still going to be pretty proud. That would still be a great number.
But No. 1 makes everybody happy, and a lot of it goes back to wanting to make this show very, very special and appreciating it and not saying it's just another vehicle to promote the rest of the network. … Look, any time you're the No. 1 show on television, that's very, very special.
Are there other factors involved in football becoming the most popular show on TV?