After 25 years in the booth with two of the NFL's most storied and successful media franchises, NBC sportscaster Al Michaels has become the voice of prime-time TV football.
But his voice extends even further throughout American culture and shared memory as a result of his work at the microphone during such landmark events as the U.S. victory in men's hockey at the Winter Olympics in 1980 and his coverage of an earthquake in San Francisco during the 1989 World Series.
Michaels came to NBC's "Sunday Night Football" five years ago after 20 years with ABC's legendary "Monday Night Football." His NBC broadcast this fall has become the first sports franchise in TV history to be the highest-rated show in prime time — topping all sitcoms, dramas and reality TV series.
Question: From where you sit, how does this showdown Sunday stack up? Is this one of the biggest games of the year?
Answer: This is definitely one of the biggest games of the year. This has become a great rivalry — very intense, very physical. It's pretty much the NFL's answer to a cage match. That's what it's become.
These are two teams that are not fond of each other. There's an intense dislike here between these teams, topped off by the fact that you have two teams coming in at 8-3. The winner of this game is going to be in a lot better shape than the loser, especially if it's Baltimore, because they'll have a one game lead, but they will have won both meetings, so, in effect, they will be two games in front with four to go. And that will put them in position to win the division and maybe get a bye in the playoffs. The loser, meanwhile, is going to have to fight for a wild-card berth. Without projecting too much, the winner of this game is probably looking at a [No.] 2 or 3 seed, if it all plays out the way we think it will. And the loser is looking at a [No.] 5 or a 6 [seed]. So, it's big, it's big in that regard.
Plus, the games have been very intense. That AFC championship game a couple of years ago was as physical a game as I can ever remember seeing. It captivated the country. And these teams just seem to play great, hard-fought, intense, rough-tough games. And unless something happens that I can't possibly foresee, we're going to get another one on Sunday night.
Q: And the fans dislike each other as much as the teams, I think. No matter what I write in my review of the telecast, fans on one side or the other will feel the referees called a terrible game and I totally missed it.
A: That's the one thing I can guarantee — or that the announcers were rooting for one team or the other. But another part of this rivalry that makes it even more intense, maybe 3 or 4 percentage points, is the fact that in Pittsburgh, the Ravens are still thought of as the Cleveland Browns. Even though the Ravens are their own franchise, and the records and colors and all of that stayed in Cleveland, for a lot of Pittsburgh fans who go back a ways, the Ravens are the old Cleveland Browns. And they hated the Cleveland Browns. So, they can hate two Cleveland Browns right now, the real Cleveland Browns and these Cleveland Browns.
Q: As revered as ABC's "Monday Night Football" is in our collective memory, it never reached the ratings pinnacle NBC's "Sunday Night Football" has this year as the highest-rated show in all of prime-time TV? How do you explain the ratings juggernaut "Sunday Night Football" has become.
A: There are a couple of factors here. When I did "Monday Night Football," I loved it. It was great. It was thought of as the premium prime-time game. And "Sunday Night Football," which came into being in the mid-'80s on ESPN, was the second sister.
Then in 2005, there was a movement within the league to make the Sunday night game the premiere game.
ESPN was able to get the Monday night package, and there was a moment in time when the Disney Co. [owners of ABC and ESPN] could have had both, Sunday night and Monday night. And God knows what would have happened to NBC had that happened. But I give Dick Ebersol [head of NBC Sports] a tremendous amount of credit for understanding what the league was trying to do. … And he was able to figure out a way to get the Sunday night games on NBC…
And this is part of it, too: Remember, ABC had John Madden [Michaels' play-by-play analyst] doing "Monday Night Football," and instead of [Disney] saying, "Let's continue with John on Monday night," no, they pretty much said, "We'll see what we want to do," and John was out the door. Bang, there goes John. Or boom, there goes John. … Again, I credit Dick with all of it. He loved what we had done [at ABC] with Monday night for years and years and years, and he jumped in and was able to bring people from that team, including John, over to Sunday night. I was the last piece, and we've been able to grow it and enhance it. It is, right now, the No. 1 show on television.
I think part of it, too, looking overall at TV in toto, this is reality television. This really is. You can talk about all these other shows being reality television, but it's kind of fake reality television. Now, is football real life? Well, it's a little bit of a fantasy for people, but it's wonderful entertainment and it's unscripted. People don't know what's going to happen.
Q: And nobody is wondering whether they're rigging the vote for Bristol Palin.
A: Yes, that's reality television, too. When you look at "Dancing with the Stars," that's reality/sports. And a show like that has a shelf life. ["Who wants to be a Millionaire?"] came along and two or three years it had phenomenal ratings, and then it dies down. The thing about the NFL, this is not going to die out. The NFL's been around for a long time. It's clearly been America's pastime for probably 30 years now. That transition from baseball to football probably took place in the late '70s to 1980 when everybody went, "Whoa, football is king." And football is really king right now, and I think it is going to continue for a long, long time.
Q: Is there a special reason NBC's production of "Sunday Night Football" is king right now?
A: We treat every Sunday night as if it's a mini-Super Bowl. OK, it's not the Super Bowl. But it's a national telecast, and we have millions of viewers, and you want to make it look rich and big-time.
But as to the larger question about why the NFL on TV is so popular now, I think first is the balance in the league. I mean, Buffalo should have beaten Pittsburgh last week. How could that happen? But it almost did happen. And every week, there are a couple of big upsets.
Second, I think football on television is just spectacular, the way it looks, especially under the lights. The colors are just spectacular. And now you have all the technology and camera angles and Cablecam, the sideline cameras with lenses that put you right inside the players' face masks. Then there are the beautiful shots above a stadium. You put all of this together and it looks like a movie. But it's one take. So, it's the best Hollywood director doing a movie, but you're doing it live and in one great take.
Q: Last question: I'm not sure about your contract, are you in for the long haul on Sunday nights on NBC?
A: Oh, yeah, I'm locked in until they throw me out.