New season, old approach: NFL fans will buy anything

THE BALTIMORE SUN

How easy it must be to be a television executive whose network has a piece of the NFL. Before the game, all you have to do is gather a few talking heads together, let them toss around insults and strategy and watch the viewers tune in. It doesn't matter what is said or by whom; it's football and people will watch.

And once the game starts, the routine is the same. Get a few more talking heads to talk more intricate strategy, roll out the cameras and point them at whatever moves in a uniform and watch the viewers tune in.

Again, it doesn't matter what is said, or even who is playing; it's football and people will watch.

That's essentially the television formula that has served the NFL well for, lo, the last three decades or so, and as another season begins Sunday, the football version of higher physics returns, with a few changes here and there.

For instance, at CBS, which got back into the NFL business last season for the first time in five years, the network has scrapped what seemed to be a reasonably intelligent pre-game show and gone for the yuks, keeping only host Jim Nantz.

Former San Francisco 49ers coach George Seifert has headed back to the sidelines to take over the Carolina Panthers. Brent Jones has been sent to the booth, where he'll work Sunday's Ravens-St. Louis Rams game with Gus Johnson, and Marcus Allen has lost his chair on the set and will become a "feature reporter."

In their places, Randy Cross, the former No. 2 booth analyst, comes into the studio, to be joined by Craig James, who shifts over from the college football studio. Fox castoff Jerry Glanville drops in right off the "Hee Haw" set, though it's unclear at this writing whether CBS rescued him from pickin' or grinnin.'

Their job is simple: sound reasonably intelligent while attempting to out-guy Fox.

"It's a pretty entertaining group of guys," said CBS Sports executive producer Terry Ewert. "It's a good combination of personalities and talent. I think it will work well."

Dan Dierdorf takes over as CBS' No. 2 analyst, and his departure from ABC's "Monday Night Football" leaves that booth with just two members, Al Michaels and former Maryland quarterback Boomer Esiason.

Dierdorf was cut loose after 12 seasons on Monday night, amid whispers that he and Esiason didn't get along, whispers that Esiason doesn't understand.

"I don't know where that came from, because I never felt that," said Esiason. "Dan gave me more room to operate than I could have expected. Now, I don't have to worry about the room. The room is there, and I can fill it with logic and discussion."

Michaels, meanwhile, who has headed two- and three-man booths, says that less is more and that he is looking forward to this season as much as any in his 14 years with the series, ABC's highest-rated, which moves back to its traditional 9 p.m. kickoff, starting with Monday's Denver Broncos-Miami Dolphins game on Channel 2.

"In a two-man booth, we have the opportunity to begin a story and weave it throughout the telecast, without it being a distraction. We can allow the telecast to breathe. You don't have to keep up a constant patter," said Michaels.

Beyond adding reports from the Weather Channel to its broadcast pre-game show, Fox's biggest change for the coming season is the addition of yet another hour of pre-game chatter, but on the cable side.

Fox Sports Net will debut "The NFL This Morning" Sunday at 11 a.m., seen locally on Home Team Sports, with host Chris Myers and studio analysts Jackie Slater and former Bills coach Marv Levy.

Unlike the broadcast pre-game, which is often so heavy on jocularity that it needs a laugh track, the cable show will apparently be aimed at the fan who needs more chalkboard talk.

"This is all about information. If you're not a football fan, you should not watch this show," said executive producer Arthur Smith.

The 11 a.m. start time is clearly aimed to siphon some of ESPN's viewership, but Myers doesn't think his show is overkill.

"On the morning of a game, I don't know that there is a saturation point," said Myers, an ESPN refugee. "That's why there are football fans tailgating before a game, because they want to be around football."

Myers suggested there even may be interest in a 24-hour football channel. But for that concept to fly, the NFL would have to think progressively, a trait not often apparent in the league.

For instance, ESPN officials were hoping the league would push kickoff of the Sunday night game to 8: 30, so they could restore the one-hour format that "NFL Prime Time" enjoyed for many years.

Because kickoff of 4 p.m. games has been moved ahead 15 minutes, No Fun League officials won't let "Prime Time" start before 7: 30, to keep viewers from bailing out of a blowout game to watch exciting highlights from earlier games.

"The good thing is that almost all of the games are over before we go on the air," said Chris Berman, host of "Prime Time" and "Sunday NFL Countdown."

For the most part, ESPN is standing pat on Sunday night, with the only big change expected by mid-October, when a new technical addition is planned. No one will say what the change is, but ESPN officials hope it will come in time for the Ravens-Kansas City Chiefs game on Oct. 21.

One universal change across the four entities is that all will use that really neat line on the screen that shows where a team needs to get for a first down. ESPN, ABC and CBS used the line last year, and Fox has joined the club for this season.

Around the dial

WLIF (101.9 FM) and WJFK (1300 AM) begin a fourth season of Ravens coverage Sunday with Gary Stein's tour around the NFL at 10 a.m., followed by the pre-game show at 11. Scott Garceau and Tom Matte return to call the game, with post-game listener calls and comments following the proceedings. Meanwhile, "Countdown to Kickoff" returns to WBAL (1090 AM) Sunday at 11 a.m.

The year's final major tennis tournament, the U.S. Open, comes to a glorious close this weekend on CBS (Channel 13) with today's women's semifinals and the men's doubles final at 11 a.m.

Then, it's Super Saturday, with the men's semifinals sandwiching the women's title match, again at 11 a.m. The tournament culminates Sunday with the men's final after the Ravens game, somewhere around 4 p.m.

Week's ratings

The ratings for the top 10 most-watched sporting events on broadcast television in Baltimore during the past week (R-Rating; S-Share):

Event.............. ..............Day ..............Ch. ....................R/S

Orioles-Indians ..............Fri. ..............13 ...................8.8/16

O's-Devil Rays ...............Thu. ............13 ...................8.6/15

Ravens-Giants ...............Fri. .............13 ...................5.9/19

Orioles-Indians ..............Sun. ............54 ..................5.6/12

U.S. Open ......................Mon. ...........13 ..................4.3/10

N. Dame-Mich. ...............Sat. ..............2 ...................4.2/10

WNBA post-game ..........Sun. ...........11 .....................4.1/9

Orioles-Indians ...............Sat. ...........45 ...................3.8/11

Comets-Liberty ..............Sun. ...........11 .....................3.8/9

WNBA pre-game ............Sun. ...........11.................... 3.5/8

Pub Date: 9/10/99

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