By John Maynard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 1, 2007
Channel 4's George Michael, Washington's best-known sportscaster and a pioneer of the modern sports highlights show, signs off from the station's 11 p.m. newscast tonight for the final time.
Michael rejected a new contract in November after learning more than half of his 20-member staff would be laid off in cost-cutting ordered by parent company NBC Universal. Among the casualties: Michael's wife, Pat Lackman, a writer.
"I came here 27 years ago -- and the ratings were awful," Michael said. "And [then-general manager] John Rohrbeck said, 'Trust me, we're going to make this exciting, and we're going to win with sports.'
"And, 27 years later, we got the ratings, we're making the profit -- and it's over."
The station has been the ratings leader in Washington since the early '90s. Michael's departure breaks up the city's longest-serving news team: anchors Jim Vance ("my soul mate," Michael says), Doreen Gentzler and weatherman Bob Ryan.
He really made his name with his nationally syndicated "Sports Machine" show on Sunday nights, which combined scores with a mixture of news, interviews and a fast-paced highlight reel. While the show's national popularity has waned in recent years, it was ahead of its time when it debuted. Its style influenced other sports shows, including ESPN's "SportsCenter," which is today seen by more than 20 million people a week.
"For me, 'The Sports Machine' really was 'SportsCenter' before 'SportsCenter,' " said Steve Levy, an anchor for the daily ESPN news show.
Levy confesses that when he was sports director for the TV station at the State University of New York at Oswego in the '80s, he not only copied Michael's techniques, he actually stole his footage.
"We didn't have editing techniques or machines or the time or any way to get feeds. So we would take his highlights as is, every single highlight, and I would just revoice them."
Washington Wizards President Susan O'Malley says: "He figured out how to use the bloopers and the Tuesday replays and everything 'SportsCenter' does. Maybe he was even the first MTV because he put stuff to music before anyone else did."
The Wizards paid tribute to Michael during halftime of last night's game with video clips on the scoreboard of his career, including an appearance on "The Tonight Show." He was seen in the Wizards owner's box displaying a team jersey with his name and surrounded by owner Abe Pollin, Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs, former Oriole Cal Ripken and former Washington Bullet Wes Unseld.
Bob Peterson, creative director for CBS News, worked with Michael in 1984 when "Sports Machine" launched nationally (it started off as a local show in 1980).
"George's philosophy was always get the best equipment and the best people," Peterson said. "He didn't care about the money and, ironically, that's how it ended."
Channel 4 reporter Tom Sherwood, who has worked with Michael for 18 years, said things will be a lot quieter at the station's Nebraska Avenue offices without Michael.
"He behaves in the newsroom just like he behaves on TV -- boisterous and brassy," Sherwood said. "He's a well-liked but volatile guy, and that can aggravate some people and put them on edge. But if you haven't been yelled at by George then you're really out of the loop."
Joe Schreiber, a producer for Michael for the past 23 years who is being let go, was blunt. "He kicked my [rear]," he said. "Sometimes it wasn't pretty."
Comcast SportsNet anchor Jill Sorenson, who worked for Michael from 2000 to 2004, remembered her first interview with Michael when she was a 23-year-old sports reporter from Duluth, Minn. "Everything about him was larger than life. He was loud and enthusiastic," Sorenson recalled.
Sorenson left the station because she no longer wanted the pace that Michael required.
"I reached a position in my life where I was married and wanted to have a family, and I didn't have two days off in a row," Sorenson said. "I loved it, but I needed to have a balance in my life."
"Working for me was not a job, it was a lifestyle," Michael said. "You either commit to it or don't take the job."
Recent Channel 4 hires Lindsay Czarniak and Dan Hellie will split the sports anchoring duties for Channel 4. The last "Sports Machine" is March 25. Michael will continue moderating the weekend sports panel shows "Redskins Reports" and "Full Court Press" and will continue his Monday afternoon chats with Redskins coach Gibbs next season.
Michael, who gives his age as 65, said he has been approached by the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, the regional cable operation jointly owned by the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals. "I don't know what I'm going to do. I just know I want to do something.
"Do I want it to end? Hell, no."