'Sunday Night Football' Team Talks Redskins Controversy and New Thursday Competition

John Loomis
Michele Tafoya, Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels

Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth and the rest of the team also address NFL overexposure and why stars play through pain

This story first appeared in the Aug. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

CBS Sports is gearing up for Thursday Night Football, the NFL's first expansion into broadcast primetime since 2006, when Sunday night games moved from ESPN to NBC. But the crew at NBC Sports -- including chairman Mark Lazarus, 51; play-by-play team Al Michaels, 69, Cris Collinsworth, 55, and sideline reporter Michele Tafoya, 49; coordinating producer Fred Gaudelli, 54; and director Drew Esocoff, 56 -- says it is not concerned about the incursion.

"We're not playing against anybody," says Michaels.

And Lazarus notes that CBS' eight weeks of games represent a marginal addition -- about 3 percent -- to the NFL's ratings pool, which is staggering. NBC's Sunday Night Football, for which the network pays nearly $1 billion a year under a deal that runs through the 2022 season, has been TV's top-rated program four years running, averaging nearly 22 million viewers for regular-season games in 2013 and topping all competition in every key demographic, including women.

SNF long has been a top priority at NBCUniversal, but this year the games, which begin Sept. 4, will receive even more plugs. The SNF crew sat down with THR in mid-July to discuss everything from the CBS package to concussions to the Washington Redskins nickname controversy.

Any predictions for Thursday Night Football ratings on CBS?

Fred Gaudelli: Thursday Night Football has been on [NFL Network] since 2006. I don't know how appreciably larger or different that audience is going to be on CBS. If it is, I think it's basically going to float every boat.

Al Michaels: I don't see them as competition. Their competition is whatever's on the other networks on Thursday night. Our competition, if we have competition, is what the other networks are airing on Sunday night.

But with the CBS deal, the league is front-loading the schedule with desirable Thursday matchups.

Mark Lazarus: It's very similar to the schedule Thursday night has always had. I agree with you: There was some front-loading of the more marquee games by design. But our schedule is made up of multiple airings of teams that we know have national appeal.

Sports fans always have complained about broadcasters, but how has social media changed your approach to your job?

Cris Collinsworth, I started on Twitter about two years ago; my kids talked me into it. I had something like five followers the first day, so I'm answering them back. And my kids go: "What are you, stupid? You don't answer people back!" As it's grown into a couple hundred thousand followers, it's: "Why do you hate the Broncos so much?" "Why do you hate Seattle so much, you asshole, you blankety-blank?"

Michele Tafoya, Don't pull a Gwyneth Paltrow, though. Don't say it's tough being you. (Laughter.)

Collinsworth: It is not tough being me. People love reading my Twitter account.

Tafoya: I don't always enjoy it, but there's limited time, particularly for stuff that I'm doing. So we can tweet out stuff that isn't going to make it on the air.

Michaels One of our social media people was trying to convince me and [SNF studio host Bob] Costas [to use Twitter], and Bob and I are Siamese twins on this. It was, "You have got to do this." I said: "No, I don't have to do it, because you know what? I'm not even that interested in what I think. Why would anybody else be?" I just don't see a lot of upside. You see it in the comments: People just want to vent and carry on.

Lazarus: But in the case of a great game, if people start tweeting out, "Hey, this is going on," it has the ability to impact interest.

As the NFL expands its TV footprint, is it in danger of overexposure?

Tafoya: You can cover this sport like no other. One thing I noticed about watching the [FIFA] World Cup is, I could be in the kitchen and kind of hear it, and then when the din would go up, I'd say, "What's happening?" With football, you want to watch every down.

Drew Esocoff: I don't know that this league can be overexposed. The appetite for primetime football has been voracious.

Lazarus: In a 16-game season, every game matters, as opposed to the other sports with 160 games, 80 games.

Tafoya: And the fantasy football phenomenon is not to be underestimated.

Has fantasy brought more women to the game?

Collinsworth: That's the biggest change since I've started doing this. I have more women that come up to me -- and I'm pretty sure I haven't gotten better-looking over the years -- and they want to talk about football.

Michaels: What do you mean, "Pretty sure"? When Freddy and I started together in '01 on [ABC's] Monday Night Football, our philosophy was, everybody is invited into the tent. This is not to say that ESPN isn't this way, but ESPN, by the letters alone, indicates: "Sports fan, this is for you. Everybody else, whatever." And we've brought this to NBC. We'll do football fans right -- we're not going to insult their intelligence -- but everybody else, come on in, because we're going to make this more interesting for you. We see this big, diverse audience, which is why we have a lot of women.

How do you plan to handle the Washington Redskins nickname controversy on the air?

Gaudelli Just like we handled it last year. No one's tuning in to the game to hear our opinion on should the name be changed or should the name be left the way it is. We're doing the game; it's really not under our jurisdiction to be weighing in. If we were a studio show, it would be different.

Lazarus: [Costas] did that, so we don't need to address it again. It was only relevant for Bob to do it in that game [Oct. 13, 2013] because that was the first game after the controversy bubbled up again, and it was a Redskins game.

Michaels: You should have seen Twitter on Bob that night, but that's a whole other story. Our audience wants to watch a football game, and all you really do to fans when they're watching the game, if you go in that direction, is piss 'em off. They don't want to be lectured to -- period.

Are you surprised it has become such a big issue?

Michaels: You know how things go in this world right now: Something gets out there, and …

Gaudelli: When the pile is open, everybody jumps on.

Tafoya: There are a lot of issues out there to me that are nonissues. I'm not saying this is one or the other, but the whole world is ridiculous with issues.

Esocoff: And all of a sudden it's front-page material. Yes, it's politically incorrect, but why all of a sudden? These things are so tough. There's probably a reason to change it, but why didn't that reason exist 10 years ago?

Lazarus: I think the only people who should address it are Native Americans who have a personal point of view on it.

In a class-action lawsuit, several players including Marcellus Wiley and Keith Van Horne accuse league doctors of feeding them dangerous amounts of painkillers so they could play through injuries including, in Van Horne's case, a broken leg.

Collinsworth: He wouldn't be the first. We all played with stuff. Your mentality is to fight as a group, so you get out there and you fight. I had games where I couldn't run. I told my coach, "Listen, I'll play, but I can't run on this leg." He goes, "Doesn't matter," and he drew up a whole game plan where I only broke to the left. Every week there are guys that probably shouldn't be playing, but your mentality is, "I can play." Where that line gets drawn is with the concussion issue, and justifiably so. The game is much better served now because of some of the changes that have taken place.

Michaels: You should know that Cris did an entire game last year with strep throat, which was … not playing on a broken leg.

Tafoya I did a game with a broken toe, remember?

Will you step up promotion of SNF this season in light of competition from CBS?

Michaels: After 20 years of Monday Night Football on ABC, the general theory was that [football] is a loss leader. It didn't make any money, so we were the bastard child, and we were there to facilitate promotions for Desperate Housewives or whatever. It was a source of consternation over a lot of years.

Lazarus: The level of marketing and promotion we put against Sunday Night Football is unparalleled among our competitors. It's that important a show to us, and we intend to hold on to this No. 1 premium slot.

Do you think Disney regrets moving Monday Night Football from ABC to ESPN?

Gaudelli: In the history of television, there is a long list of people who wish they could have do-overs. My guess is that's one of them.

If NBC gets Thursday Night Football next season, will you guys do double duty?

Lazarus: If I get it, they get it too.

Gaudelli: Can't wait.

Michaels: (Singing) Thursday Night Football on NBC!