David Zurawik

CBS makes a bold, winning call in 'Thursday Night Football' premiere

The premiere of "Thursday Night Football" on CBS was a winner in my book before a second of the game between the Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers was played at M&T Bank Stadium.

Given the nuclear fallout all week from the TMZ video that showed Ray Rice beating his then-fiancée, CBS found itself about to launch one of the biggest productions in the history of the network in a highly emotional and totally unstable situation. In some ways, it was a situation without precedent for a TV sports operation.


The network made a daring call and scrapped all the entertainment and showbiz elements of its pregame show and went for the first 30 minutes with news and analysis of one of the biggest stories in league history.

That meant dropping a huge musical opening that was to feature Rihanna singing Jay-Z's Grammy-winning "Run This Town." It's the CBS answer to NBC's "Waiting All Day For Sunday Night" with Carrie Underwood. The opening was to also include narration from actor Don Cheadle highlighting the rivalry between the two teams and their towns. Rihanna herself had been injured in a high-profile domestic abuse incident with Chris Brown.


It is a big, big, prime-time kind of opening that will be used in coming weeks, and scrapping it on opening night in an attempt to find what CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus described as the right "tone" for the telecast in the wake of the Rice story could have turned the pregame show into a shambles.

But the perfect note of treating sports as news and sociology in the wake of the ongoing Rice story was instantly sounded as host James Brown brought CBS anchorman Scott Pelley on-camera at the top of the broadcast. Pelley didn't have anything new to offer, but his presence as the network anchor, brief as it was, established a zone of seriousness for all that followed.

I have criticized McManus for a lot of stuff, from not having sideline reporters to keeping Dan Dierdorf in the booth way past his sell-by date last year, but he earns only praise from me Thursday night for the call the network made on that first 30 minutes of pregame TV.

And once the pre-game show did turn to football at 8 p.m., it was all Deion Sanders, the analyst from the NFL Network whom CBS has wisely given marquee billing on "Thursday Night Football." Did Sanders ever light it up. As an on-screen presence Thursday night he lived up to his "Prime Time" nickname every bit as much as he did in his playing days on the field.

What fantastic energy. And what a joyous presence he is on the set.

Let's be honest, there is nothing I have ever liked about Bill Cowher -- from his looks to his attitude to his penchant for talking empty coach-speak. He launched into some of that when Brown essentially asked for the deeper meaning of the Rice situation in terms of league image and players' and coaches' attitudes. What Cowher said -- or was trying to say -- sounded like Ray Lewis babble talk to me.

But Sanders' banter with Cowher simultaneously energized and softened this stick-in-the-butt guy to the point where I was actually smiling as the two disagreed in a friendly and animated way about almost everything. (For the record, Sanders was right about the Ravens winning and mostly correct on how they would do it. Cowher was wrong on almost everything.)

Kudos to Brown as well, who as host had to constantly navigate between sports, news and sociology. No one played a larger role in helping the telecast hit the right tone than him. I always thought Brown was hopelessly soft on the NFL, because of the conflict inherent in CBS Sports reporting and analyzing NFL news even as it is in business with the league in a billion-dollar way.


That conflict didn't disappear Thursday night by any stretch of the imagination -- in fact, it was the elephant on the set. But Brown did as well as one could wish given that compromised relationship between network and league.

As for the game itself, which the Ravens won, 26-6, it seemed like the producers were still adjusting to some of the added bells and whistles and never really found a rhythm for seamlessly incorporating these new elements into the telecast.

I felt like they were trying to showcase Tracy Wolfson, a fine reporter, but the calls to her seemed a little awkward. Her reports were informative, but movement from the booth to her and back was ragged.

And the one time they did use retired referee Mike Carey, it seemed forced. I did, however, like the simple, straightforward explanation Carey offered on why penalties are being called almost any time a defender hits an offensive player above the neck, even if it is with a shoulder instead of the crown of his helmet. There were a lot of them Thursday night that left me wondering.

The replays were generally superb all night -- and viewers often got replays from two or three angles before the next play was run.

In the booth, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms were solid. In fact, Simms was outstanding in some of his analysis, from being quick to note and explain the reasons for the vastly improved offensive line play of the Ravens, to calling on Joe Flacco to exploit the over-aggressiveness of the backside linebackers for Pittsburgh. That was two plays before Flacco did exactly that for the Ravens' first touchdown pass to a wide-open Owen Daniels.


I don't know if ditching the showbiz aspects of the pregame show will hurt the premiere of "Thursday Night Football" in the ratings with viewers who came looking for Rihanna only to wind up tuning out talking news heads like Pelley and Norah O'Donnell.

But it was the right thing to do in terms of social responsibility and respect for what happened this week with Rice. And I can't remember the last time I was able to say that about any network decision made at this level with so much money at stake.

Chalk one up for the better angels.