NBC's NFL coverage always seems to be in a state of flux, with adjustments and fine tunings all over the place. In just the past five years, the network has had three different pre-game show hosts, broken in three new studio analysts and switched its No. 1 booth analyst three times.
Those normally would be the signs of a network in panic, yet this year's changes -- adding Joe Montana to the studio and teaming Phil Simms and Paul Maguire together with Dick Enberg -- come after NBC won the regular-season race last season and drew its highest pre-game show rating in five years.
Artistically, this year's moves are paying off: Simms and Montana, the newcomers, are slowly but surely gaining stature.
Montana, who is working a limited schedule of six or so appearances this season, showed dramatic improvement yesterday. For the opener two weeks ago, he looked understandably nervous. He needs more work, though, and it might not be a bad idea for NBC to arrange satellite hookups to his San Francisco home a couple of times, as Fox did last year with Jimmy Johnson, so that Montana doesn't lose momentum.
Meanwhile, Simms has been most impressive in his three games with Enberg and Maguire. He has learned to make good points in a quick manner and has mastered the telestrator. Any concerns about having enough air time for the three men have evaporated as they have developed a fine balance between information and banter.
Sometimes, it seems, change is a good thing, but the end-of-season ratings will be the ultimate judge.
Millen on the mark
Washington quarterback Gus Frerotte wasn't the only person at Mile High Stadium who grew up yesterday. Fox's Matt Millen had a solid telecast, injecting a feeling of being a fan with some solid analysis.
By the way, what the heck happened with WLIF (101.9 FM)? The station's coverage of the Redskins-Denver game mysteriously vanished at 7 p.m., a few minutes before John Elway threw the winning touchdown as time ran out.
Remember how all the NFL-niks were declaring that there was more excitement for this season than any other, thanks in part to labor strife in the other sports?
It appears all that supposed interest hasn't translated into fannies in the seats. Six of this weekend's 15 games were not sold out within 72 hours of kickoff, meaning viewers in those markets couldn't see their team's game. And, thanks to league rules, they were only allowed to see two afternoon contests, not three, because their team was playing at home.
In fact, if WCAU, the new NBC affiliate in Philadelphia, and WTVT, the Fox station in Tampa, hadn't bought up remaining seats, those two cities would have been blacked out as well. If this trend continues, look for ratings to slump slightly.
Ainge joins Turner
Ainge, a member of two championship Boston Celtics squads, also spent time with Sacramento and Portland. He ostensibly replaces the often-brilliant Doug Collins, who left Turner after last season to become coach and general manager of the Detroit Pistons.
Mike Pearl, Turner Sports' executive producer, said the two sides had been talking for about four to six weeks, but added that the company waited for Ainge -- who auditioned recently at Turner headquarters in Atlanta -- to decide whether or not he would return to the Suns this season.
"He made it more interesting to watch the game that I had already seen, plus he's a warm body just out of the game. You can't be more current than that," said Pearl.
Announcer pairings between the play-by-play callers Verne Lundquist, Dick Stockton and Bob Neal and analysts Ainge, Chuck Daly and Hubie Brown will be decided this week, Pearl said.