Again this week, as they do each year on the eve of the NFL season, NBC and CBS promoted their constellation of wares, be they tangible or intangible.
Bottom line, the focus was on CBS’ Nickelodeon, the continued intersection of sports gambling and television, Al Michaels’ future and briefly the new 18 game schedule. Oh yes, there were the obligatory questions of, “What do you think of this team or that”?
These are the notes I kept from both the CBS and NBC pressers:
- From a fans perspective, the material change is that the season will be stretched to 18 weeks from 17. Material in this frame of reference is colored green, as in hard dollars.
- CBS’ lead broadcast team Zoomed over CBS, following brief opening remarks from boss Sean McManus. Like NBC, CBS talked up its schedule. Both networks do every year. And as usual, each predicts that its slate is unmatched. That is until it’s not great because of a key on-the-field injury or something else doesn’t follow the planned script. Then the complaints and excuses surface. As the lead AFC Network, CBS will transmit lots of Buffalo, Kansas City and a mix of New England, Pittsburgh and a couple other teams.
- Only a few active NFL network announcers are older than CBS’ relationship with the NFL, 62 years! Jimmy Johnson, 78, Al Michaels, 76, Greg Gumbel, 75, James Brown, 70, Phil Simms, 65, Bill Cowher, 64, Cris Collinsworth, Chris Myers and Jim Nantz, 62. If there are others, I’m just too old to remember other names if there are any. Oh yes, local voices age well. Brent Musburger of the Raiders is 82, the Steelers’ Bill Hillgrove is 80 and the Eagles’ Merrill Reese is 79.
- In addition to being covered on its local affiliates, CBS’ NFL games will also be available locally on Paramount+, the network’s streaming service. So if Denver plays at Kansas City, the stream version would be on Paramount+ in those two markets only, plus the on-air CBS affiliates assigned that game.
- McManus added some flesh to the barebones announcement that Nickelodeon would again do one side-by-side broadcast with a separate announce crew. When asked by a member of the media why only one game after last year’s debut was so successful, McManus explained that CBS affiliates pay to get network exclusivity. In other words, if on-air stations experience a reduction of audience because viewers migrate to Nickelodeon, it could break exclusivity covenants between the affiliates and CBS Sports. McManus added that the Nickelodeon experience was well received by the NFL and its future will be addressed by the parties after the season. For now, it’s just one game. Makes sense. But is it becoming a pattern? Side-by-side will be defined next season by Manning and Manning on ESPN. What will the brothers so Levy, Griese and Riddick.
- When asked, McManus said there will be fewer remotes broadcasts. Cross your fingers. All NFL games will feature announcers at the venues, same as last season. Sean sounded a little more sanguine than Fox exec Brad Zager who was last heard equivocating on whether the practice will continue and if yes, in what form. If I’m interpreting McManus correctly, I suspect that there might still be some stinky remotes for lower level college football or basketball games, particularly those on the CBS Network, (cable, not mainstream, over-the-air, CBS Sports). Look. I got it. High-level ViacomCBS execs need extra dough to buy their third yacht, by saving on travel. I guess that it doesn’t matter to the big stockholders that announcers are being turned into carpenters with no tools.
- Asked about gambling, McManus noted that CBS is staying away from gambling embedded pre and post game advertising, where one of the wagering platforms, e.g. DraftKings has its name tied to a show. CBS will walk a more delicate line, staying away from labeling anything official, yet selling isolated spots to wagering sites within the game broadcast.
- Interesting comment by McManus. He’s encouraging his announcers to go heavier on the narrative, less so on stats. Numbers, he says and correctly so, are available instantly on-line. So talent should share anecdotes or something fresh, otherwise not easily available.
Jim Nantz told media members that he’s looking forward to the relative easing of Covid restrictions because the crew hasn’t been able to socialize as a group since the end of the 2019-20 season.
- The face of CBS Sports was also asked to project the next big NFL name who would make a stellar analyst. His answer was Mike Tomlin. Someone else on the stage suggested the Ivy Leaguer and well-traveled QB, Ryan Fitzpatrick.
- As for NBC, Al Michaels was asked about his future. Will he or won’t he retire? His NBC contract ends after this season. One media member suggested that hanging it up in his hometown of Los Angeles, after doing the Super Bowl there, would make for a graceful finale. True. But Michaels made it quite clear that he believes his fastball is still in its prime. While he said he won’t contemplate any decision until the season is over, it was evident that he’s not ready to wind down his career. He’ll turn 77 in November.
- There’s talk that Amazon which owns the Thursday Night package exclusively beginning in 2022 will delegate NBC to produce its broadcasts. If so, lots will come under the supervision of Fred Gaudelli who’s worked with Al for decades as an executive producer. If so, Gaudelli would as such counsel Amazon to use Al on a weekly basis. Amazon would then have a big name to launch in Michaels, and to please Al, NBC would give him a few reps during the regular season and a playoff game, here or there.
- I always hoped that Al would leave brilliantly, right on top! Pat Summerall embarrassed himself on Fox in later years. Curt Gowdy turned mistake-laden on CBS after building his reputation for warmth and greatness at NBC. Dick Enberg who personified elegance at NBC was still wonderful but not flawless at CBS. Michaels has been the best, the very best, for a long time. Playing second fiddle to Tirico, why? If he wants to work, good for him. No one will be hurt by it. As for Mike Tirico who’ll succeed him, it means more pressure. Mike will have enough going in, following a giant in Michaels. From an optics standpoint, it doesn’t help either one of them and I say so as a compliment to Al who’s the number one all-time NFL play-by-player.
- Gambling is something that Michaels hasn’t ignored on-air through the years, albeit subtly so. It differentiates him from others. But now that legal wagering is sprouting across the country, he’s concerned about potential exotic bets, like who’ll win the coin toss or how the next play from scrimmage goes. With this in mind, Al expressed concern on the conference call that betting could become dangerously pervasive and diffuse to a point where it’s no longer contained. It’s one thing to bet a game against a spread and another to continue to roll out twenty dollar bills, tens of times from kickoff to the final gun.
- As the press conference continued, it struck me that this is Michaels’ 50th year as a big league voice. He was hired as the Cincinnati Reds radio announcer in 1971. His career rocketed from there. Differentiating TV from radio, he said, “TV has no verbs. Radio does. On television, less is more. TV is a visual spectacle.”
- As for his two role models, Vin Scully and Curt Gowdy, they approached their broadcasts differently. Scully liked working alone and mastered it. Gowdy introduced a conversational style on television when NBC brought in ex-players in the 1960s who were true analysts and engaging, like Al DeRogatis and Paul Christman. I asked Michaels about his style. He said it’s a blend of the two. You get the sense that he doesn’t like telecasts which turn into an, “incessant chatterbox.” I don’t blame him.