Leonard Shapiro, Sports Columnist

Tough Questions Are Not for 'Official Networks'

Chick Hernandez
Chick Hernandez hosts Comcast's 'Monday Nite Live,' which clearly is feel-good television despite the Redskins's dismal record this season. (Comcast)
By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 12, 2006; 2:23 PM

Comcast SportsNet sportscaster Chick Hernandez was a 10-year-old fan of the Dallas Cowboys when he showed up one night in a Channel 9 studio decked out in full Cowboys regalia to sit in the audience for the old "Redskins Sidelines" show back in the late 1970s.

He still remembers Sidelines co-host Sonny Jurgensen playfully suggesting that someone throw the mini-Cowboy kid out the door and Redskins fans booing him as he sat in the bleachers on the set. But Hernandez was allowed to stay and watch that night and the Sidelines show was always on his must-viewing list, even if he did fancy the Cowboys as his favorite team so many years ago.

Hernandez, of course, went on to become a talented sports broadcaster himself, eventually returning to his hometown market to work for Channel 5 before taking over as one of the lead anchors handling nightly sportscasts for Comcast SportsNet. But always in the back of his mind was the idea of hosting his own Sidelines-like show on the regional cable network that also is now the team's "official broadcast partner." (More on that issue later.)

Three years ago, that dream came true when Comcast began airing "Monday Nite Live", which now emanates every week during the NFL season from the Champps restaurant near the Reston Town Center.

Hernandez hosts the lively hour-long show along with two current Redskins, Jon Jansen and Renaldo Wynn, and there are a few more bells and whistles -- including a live band every week and non-football guests like Gary Williams, Ted Leonsis and Alex Ovechkin -- than Sidelines ever had. Out in the production truck making it all flow seamlessly is another link to the old show -- long-time Channel 9 producer and director Ernie Bauer, an off-camera wizard who's been with Comcast for most of the last decade. He now directs "Monday Nite Live" every week, just as he directed Sidelines for so many years.

I stopped by Champps one evening a few weeks ago to take in the "MNL" scene, and clearly it's feel-good television, even if the team's 4-9 season has made so many Redskins fans feel so down and out this fall.

A year ago, according to "MNL" producer Leslie Reader, when the team was streaking into the playoffs, crowds were large and boisterous. The night I visited, there were plenty of empty tables and not much to cheer about, though quarterback Jason Campbell, fresh off his first start of the year the day before in Tampa, received an enthusiastic reception when he walked on to the set.

Hernandez said he likes the show's format if only because it helps personalize the players for the fans and allows him to be far less informal than when he's manning the Comcast anchor desk for the real news of the day.

Clearly, anyone watching live at the restaurant or at home knows there's not going to be much breaking news or any whiff of controversy coming out over the next sixty minutes. The emphasis is on entertainment -- one night Ovechkin even fired a few pucks at Hernandez -- and the more fluff the better.

The night I was there, cornerback Shawn Springs, an Ohio State alum, showed up with a Buckeye jersey that Jansen, a Michigan man, had promised to wear if Ohio State prevailed over the Wolverines the previous weekend. Stop the presses -- it can now be reported that Jansen honored his bet and wore the jersey for the duration of the show, even if it looked like a size medium on his 3XL torso.

It was all fun and games, just the way Redskins management and the suits at Comcast SportsNet seem to like it, even during one of the more disappointing seasons in recent team history. Then again, when you become the "official" network of any team, you also run the risk of occasionally pulling your punches rather than making too many waves that might jeopardize the relationship.

That's certainly the message Comcast SportsNet also put out when it suspended (with hardly anyone even taking notice) one of its postgame show broadcasters last month for asking a couple of tough questions of veteran quarterback Mark Brunell.

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