Leonard Shapiro, Sports Columnist

Saying Goodbye to George Michael

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 21, 2006; 11:41 AM

George Michael's departure from the sports anchor desk at Channel 4 in March almost certainly will mark a major sea change in the way Washington gets its sports news, if only because he's been such a dominant force on the local broadcasting scene for most of the last three decades.

Michael, 67, announced last week that he will be leaving the daily grind at 6 and 11 starting in March, even though NBC Universal, which owns and operates Channel 4, made him a fabulous offer to stay large and in charge.

But Michael also was told by the network suits that no matter what, his department was about to be decimated by major layoffs, including some of the most valuable and talented members of his staff -- Pat Lackman, his gifted head writer (and his wife), and world-class producers Joe Schreiber and Steve Dresner, the behind the scenes backbone of his sports operation for so many years.

Michael decided he couldn't live with himself if he took all the money and stayed, while his long-time colleagues and friends were shoved out the door as part of NBC Universal's downsizing across the board, with 700 jobs being cut in the midst of trimming $750 million a year from the budget.

Just as significantly, according to several sources at the station, Michael insisted that NBC Universal do the right thing and provide generous severance packages for all of them. The company agreed, and Michael, a fixture at Channel 4 since 1980, now will enter semi-retirement, handling only his Redskins Report and Full Court Press studio shows, and the Monday interviews at Redskins Park with Joe Gibbs and Joe Bugel.

"I have been working for a long time with a lot of great people," Michael said over the weekend. "I don't think God would have been very happy with me if I'd taken the money and made other people's lives miserable."

Long-time Sports Waves readers know that over the years I've taken the occasional shot at Michael. I was never much of a fan of the bull-riding and wrestling segments. I sniped at him for paying players and coaches to appear on sportscasts that were presented during news shows (you think Brokaw ever paid anyone to appear on the Nightly News?). I occasionally questioned early in his tenure if he was being tough enough in his questioning when those paid guests were being interrogated on camera.

To his credit, no matter how harsh the criticism, Michael never failed to call back, and always fought back to offer his side. Often, we agreed to disagree, and left it at that, knowing we'd be sparring soon on another day.

In our most recent conversation, for example, he said that when he came to Washington in 1980, he, too, had never heard of anyone in television news paying players or coaches to appear regularly on camera, until he learned that Channel 7 was paying quarterback Joe Theismann to show up every week and that Channel 9 had then head coach Jack Pardee locked up, as well.

"I had to compete," he said. "If that's how the game was being played, then you had to play the same game or you'd lose."

Michael and Channel 4's news division have been winning the local ratings race for a number of years. At the moment, the station's shows at 6 and 11 average about eight minutes of sports a night, nearly twice as much airtime as Channels 5, 7 and 9 offer up. From day one, he was a wizard with a tape machine, showing more highlights than had ever been seen before on a local newscast. Over the last few days, I've also had at least a dozen people -- mostly middle aged women -- tell me they like to watch Channel 4 just to hear Michael banter with his long-time friend and foil, anchorman Jim Vance.

It also turns out that features on wrestling and bull-riding actually were shown to draw more than just the hard-core sports fan to the newscast. The same goes for those Jack Russell terrier races shot every year at the Washington International Horse Show and aired over the next few months.

Michael also began asking some very tough questions, to the point where Redskins owner and media recluse Daniel Snyder has been ducking him for years, even when Channel 4 was the team's official station (ugh!) and Michael was doing play-by-play for the team's preseason games. Recently, Gibbs almost choked on his microphone when Michael said something to the effect of "Joe, you've really screwed this thing up. Are you going to be back next year?"

Long before NASCAR became a network ratings bonanza, Michael was making regular pilgrimages to the Daytona 500 for interviews with the drivers and offering plenty of racing highlights on his sportscasts. His Sunday night Sports Machine also was ahead of its time, a 30-minute, late-night highlight show that began airing in the early 1980s. It was far better written and produced -- Lackman and Schreiber were mostly responsible -- than anything ESPN was doing back then and still remains a popular show in a number of big markets around the country.

Michael also had a keen eye for talent.

Maryland graduate Bonnie Bernstein got her start at the station as an intern while she was still in school. The late Darrian Chapman went from inexperienced weekend anchor at Channel 4 to sports director at the NBC station in Chicago before his tragic death from a heart attack. Wally Bruckner came up I-95 from Richmond to become the best weekend man in town as well as a terrific interviewer in his own right, a guy who could have been the main sports anchor in most any major market in the country.

My own colleagues at The Post, ESPN mega-stars Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser and TNT basketball maven David Aldridge, got their first taste of television working the studio shows with Michael, as did another Post alum, my old pal David Dupree now at USA Today.

Over the years, scores of interns from all the local colleges -- even a few professional athletes preparing for their lives after being paid to play -- have worked at Channel 4's sports department learning on-air or off-camera skills. Many have since gone on to productive broadcasting careers. And he also did the right thing from the start of his tenure in town by giving women and minorities a fair chance to work in sports in an era of mostly unequal opportunity.

So what's next for sports on Channel 4? Two of Michael's recent hires, Washington natives Dan Hellie and Lindsay Czarniak, likely will be the most visible faces. They're both young, photogenic and said to share Michael's legendary work ethic.

I love the fact that Czarniak's dad is a long-time sportswriter at USA Today, so the nose-for-news gene is definitely in play, evidenced by her initiative in having the only on-camera interview with Jason Campbell last Monday, the same day Gibbs announced he'd be the Redskins new starting quarterback. Michael, for one, believes that Hellie and Czarniak will become stars in their own right, though I'm not quite ready to make that quantum leap of faith myself.

With so much cost-cutting mandated by NBC Universal, it does not seem likely that Channel 4 will go out and try to replace Michael with another big name. Among current local sportscasters on the air, my personal choice as a potential lead anchor at Channel 4 would be Dave Feldman over at Channel 5, who does more with less resources than anyone in town.

The best choice of all would be to bring back Bruckner, though he seems perfectly content with his new life hard by the Long Island Sound in Connecticut. NBC Universal is not likely to spend the kind of money it would take to lure him or any other big-timer into the fold, particularly with a financially strapped sports department soon to be missing many of its most talented off camera stalwarts.

And so, the end of another era in local sports news will draw to a close starting on or about March 1, when Michael signs off for the final time, a sad but must-see television moment.

So, as the man himself might say, "Now Hear This!!!" George Michael belongs right up there with Warner Wolf and the late Glenn Brenner as one of the all-time greats in Washington broadcast news history, rasslin' and bull-riding included. And sports on Channel 4 at 6 and 11 never will be quite the same.

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Badgerlen@hotmail.com or Badgerlen@aol.com.

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