Are you ready for some more of the same?
EmptyMuch like the great Sam Spence's majestic compositions over the decades for NFL Films, John Williams' thunderous orchestral theme music for NBC's new Sunday night NFL package conjures up a true air of warriors preparing for 60 hard-fought minutes of gridiron battle. It is, after all, "Football Night in America." Or is it?
With so much televised football now available in primetime in the course of a week, NBC's effort to designate Sunday evenings as must-see TV for fanatics of the game is more style than substance. And with the league's own NFL Network about to launch its own packages on Thursday and Saturday nights beginning on Thanksgiving, there will be even more of a TV football hangover.
Long gone are the days when "Monday Night Football" was really event television. When charged with creating pro football's first primetime TV package for ABC, the late Roone Arledge knew his network's broadcasts had to be different. After all, ABC reluctantly took on "Monday Night Football" in 1970 when confronted by the NFL's dalliance with Howard Hughes' well-heeled independent Hughes Sports Network. With ABC a distant third on Mondays in the ratings war with CBS and NBC, ABC feared there would be mass affiliate defections to the syndicated Hughes package if it did not carry the games itself.
Arledge created the three-man booth, consisting of the play-by-play guy (Keith Jackson and later Frank Gifford), the ex-jock analyst (Don Meredith) and the opinionated commentator (Howard Cosell). The mix was like nothing before it and spawned a spontaneity that was lacking from the traditional meat-and-potatoes broadcasts on Sunday afternoons. And it was the only game in town in primetime.
Today, there's college football on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 as many as four nights a week. Add "Monday Night Football" on ESPN and the coming NFL Network games and there will be nationally televised football in primetime virtually every night of the week. So as much as NBC would want us to believe that Sunday is "Football Night in America," it is for now just another game on the tube.
All of the networks that broadcast NFL games put their best feet forward on their telecasts. Production values are state-of-the-art and the quality of the announcing teams are better than ever. CBS and Fox have the advantage of pretty much owning Sunday afternoons during football season, putting the onus on NBC and ESPN to make their broadcasts stand out from the more rigid primetime competition.
ESPN took a page out of the Arledge playbook and returned to the three-man booth with the play-by-play guy (Mike Tirico), the ex-jock analyst (Joe Theismann) and the opinionated commentator (Tony Kornheiser). While still a work in progress, this team has yet to develop the chemistry needed to resurrect the halcyon days of "MNF." Each is solid individually -- it's when they interact that the telecast breaks down.
Watching "MNF" on ESPN, you sometimes get the feeling that Kornheiser was put in the booth to be Theismann's foil, much like the interaction between Cosell and Meredith back in the day. Kornheiser often takes issue with Theismann's observations, and it can come off as forced. When Kornheiser's debating the day's sports stories with Michael Wilbon on ESPN's always entertaining "Pardon the Interruption," the fireworks can be magical. Thus far, it appears Kornheiser is probably better suited to being in the studio alongside Chris Berman & Co. than in the booth. It also begs the question of why ESPN felt the need to break up the combination of Theismann and Paul Maguire, partners for many years on "Sunday Night Football." Theirs was a simpatico that's going to be awfully hard to replicate.
To NBC's credit, it chose continuity over a whole new set of bells and whistles for its version of "Sunday Night Football." Much like when Fox acquired the Sunday NFC package and lured CBS' No. 1 announce team of Pat Summerall and John Madden to be its top tandem, NBC set its sights on ABC's Monday-night duo of Madden and Al Michaels, arguably the best pairing in the game. For good measure, the network deployed its signature face, the unflappable Bob Costas, to anchor its studio show. Nothing fancy, just tried and true.
What may elevate "Sunday Night Football" to event status will be starting in Week 10 of the season when its games will be chosen based on importance rather than a schedule that was made months in advance. If the league can do this right without alienating its other broadcast partners, NBC may be able to recapture some of the sizzle that's been missing from primetime football for some time.
Howard Burns' new "In the Nosebleeds" column appears exclusively on hollywoodreporter.com. It offers analytical view of sports media, with emphasis and commentary on the latest trends in broadcasting and a look at the personalities making news.