By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
3:12 PM EDT, September 21, 2012
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?
… The NFL is now the unquestioned king of sports. And the gap between the NFL and whatever would be second has never been wider. And through advanced technology, TV has made this look so rich and so attractive that when you sit at home and watch, it's a visual feast. HD television has been tremendous, the lenses on the cameras unbelievable. The audio has been enhanced so that you can hear things you couldn't hear years ago.
So, one of the keys to this business is this: With technology, we have all of these toys, but you have to know how to play with the toys. And Fred Gaudelli and Drew Esocoff and our gang, we know how to play with the toys. Look, you can overdo it, and I've seen that happen. Some new piece of equipment comes in and people go, ‘Oh my God, we have to use this.'
I did the Kentucky Derby for 15 consecutive years, and one year there was a new piece of technology that enabled a jockey to wear a very light, couple of ounces in weight, little lipstick camera on his helmet. And you could see the race from the jockey's perspective.
Well, this was a great little toy except how this little toy should have been used was in a replay where you only used it for a couple of seconds, because all you really got was the bouncing up and down — I mean, his head's moving.
And the guy who was directing the race actually went to that shot live three times, and I was ready to throw up, because this was all about, “I'm going to be an artiste, and do this race as an artiste, and forget about the journalism.” And we would never go in that direction, and that's what makes our guys at NBC Sunday Night so good.
How about Sunday's game? What are you looking for?
The story line going in is pretty simple: You've got two teams that played in AFC championship game last year who are legitimate Super Bowl contenders, and who, according to their fan base, should be 2-0, but they're 1-1. And now all of a sudden on Monday morning, you're going to have a fan base for one of them that's going to be on the edge of panic, because they'll be 1-2. And even though you're not really out of it, 1-2 doesn't sound very good when you think your team should be 3-0.
So, in that regard, it has a little bit more importance than it would as another early-season game. But I look at it as an attractive matchup between two teams that last January were an inch apart at the end of the day. I don't have to tell any Ravens fan the story: A catch is made in the end zone, a kick is made to send it into overtime, blah, blah, blah, everybody knows the story.
And the other thing is that any time you have Tom Brady and Ray Lewis in the same game, that's great. I mean, that's what your marquee says. If this were a movie theater, outside it would say, “Patriots versus Ravens, starring Tom Brady and Ray Lewis, and also starring Ed Reed and Rob Gronkowski and Joe Flacco and all of the rest.” But they would be the subheadliners at this point, and rightfully so, because Brady and Lewis are two of the greatest that have ever played.” …
But the great thing is you think about a lot of stuff going into the game and you prepare diligently, but then, as my good buddy, John Madden, used to say, “You prepare, you prepare, you prepare. You spend hours and hours and hours — and then, a game breaks out.”
As the man who will always be linked to the line, “Do you believe in miracles?” I know you saw a little bit of a miracle with your beloved Los Angeles Kings winning the Stanley Cup. But we are feeling it here with the Orioles baseball team this fall? Any thought on the improbable Orioles season?
I haven't followed baseball that closely this year, but I've followed it enough to know the expectations for the Orioles were so low, especially in that division … where they were picked fourth or fifth after the Yankees, Red Sox, Tampa Bay. Clearly, I always thought [Buck] Showalter was a pretty good manager, so he must he doing some really good stuff.
And on balance, this is why we love sports. We love sports because you don't know what's going to happen. And I think what is happening now it's great for Baltimore.
I did a ton of Orioles games at the old stadium when I was doing Monday Night Baseball. In fact, I've done the Orioles in two World Series, in '79 and '83. And Jim Palmer's a great pal of mine and a longtime colleague. Jim and I and Tim McCarver did a ton of baseball together.
And don't forget, we had Earl Weaver. I had Earl for two years. Earl was some beauty, oh my God. I've got to tell you one story about Earl Weaver. So, we're doing Monday Night Baseball, it's probably '83, Earl had retired. He would come back again, of course. But he had retired, Joe Altobelli takes over, and Earl is doing Monday nights. And Earl is the kind of guy who was obsessed with making sure he had enough money for the rest of his life.
So, he retired probably a little early, but he figured, “OK, my health is maybe an issue here, I'll go do some broadcasting.” And we would drive out to the airport on a Tuesday morning, and Earl would have a piece of paper and pen, and Earl would be figuring out his net worth, which would then include his fee from the game the night before. And he was like doing an actuarial table to see if he could go through the rest of life and how much he would have to work.
Jim Palmer's going to love this.
Oh, he knows all about this. He knows all about this. I mean [Howard] Cosell was in the mix in those years, but I did three or four games where I had Palmer and Weaver together -- together.
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