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Catching Up With George Michael a Year Later

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, April 22, 2008 11:03 AM

Don't you miss George Michael at 6 and 11?

Don't you miss his signature phrases, "let me take you out to FedEx Field" or "now hear this," not to mention rasslin', bull-riding, and Jack Russell terrier races?

Don't you miss the snappy byplay between Michael and his buddy and long-time foil, Channel 4 anchor Jim Vance?

And most of all, don't we all miss the now bygone era of the six- and seven-minute sportscast, the amount of time Michael often was allotted by news directors for most of his 27-year career at the NBC-owned station, truly an eternity in a ratings-based often cruel business that usually offers the same sort of job security as an undrafted NFL free agent.

Hard to believe, but a full year has now passed since Channel 4 and Michael decided to part ways, for whatever reason either side cited a dozen months ago. Did he walk away because he could no longer stand for management directives to slash his off-camera staff, asking him to take far less money and perhaps give up some of that precious sportscast air time? Or was he simply let go by General Electric-owned NBC in a move to improve the station's bottom line?

At this point, who cares? It's all ancient history and time for one and all to move on. He's been replaced by Dan Hellie and Lindsay Czarniak, a couple of sweet-tempered, photogenic up-and-comers, both of whom grew up in the Washington area. They put on a far shorter nuts and bolts sportscast, almost totally devoid of Michael's nightly bombastic bluster and anchor banter, as well as his often blatant self-promotion.

In fact, when you survey the sportscasts at all the network owned or affiliated stations in town, there's not much difference between any of them these days. Some scores, some highlights, maybe a quickie local feature and very little self-generated local news breaks or heavy analysis. No one seems to have the time, the money, or the staff necessary to present anything other than straight up sports, and hold the schtick.

The most comprehensive local sports news broadcast can now be seen much earlier in the evening on Comcast SportsNet, a half hour at 6 p.m., an hour starting at 10 p.m. CSN seems to have plenty of manpower, multiple anchors and far more time to give extensive highlights and the occasional longer feature, though they generally avoid much criticism of the local teams they cover and hardly ever break a major news story.

Still, we also appear to be drawing ever closer to the day when the Bethesda-based cable outlet, as well as more Baltimore-centric MASN, might even have local sports all to themselves, considering the shrinking sportscasts (not to mention the overall viewing audience) on Channels 4, 5, 7 and 9. In fact, there are times you wonder why those stations bother with sports at all.

Michael, meanwhile, said in an interview last week that he's having a terrific time in his so-called semi-retirement.

He'll resume his live Monday reports from Redskins Park with Sonny Jurgensen starting in the fall, as well as his still popular (and profitable) hour-long studio shows -- Redskins Report and Full Court Press -- during the football and basketball seasons. And while he said he's had several feelers about returning to a regular local sportscasting gig, apparently, he's not that interested.

"Do I miss doing it?" he said. "I miss it like heck, sure. I miss the challenge, I miss the battle. But they're not going to let a George Michael come along any more. We were kind of an independent unit (at Channel 4), and most news directors don't want that now. We had the time to do it right. We had the resources to do it right, and we had great people."

One of those people was his wife, Pat Lackman, Michael's main writer for all those years, a savvy behind the scenes force with an ear for the sound of her husband's most entertaining voice and the ability to provide him all the right words to bring out his best.

There were many others who came through the Channel 4 sports operation over the years and went on to bigger and better jobs on and off camera, including my Post colleagues and ESPN superstars Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon, both of whom broke their television maidens working with Michael.

And when he did go off the air last year, a number of e-mails came this way from former on and off-camera Channel 4 alums, many of whom started as interns and went on to bigger and better broadcasting jobs around the country. The theme was virtually the same in each one -- that Michael could often be a volatile, demanding taskmaster, but that his work ethic and attention to detail offered them a road map to success in their own careers after they moved on.

Michael and his wife still live on a farm out in the far Montgomery County suburbs, where they've downsized from a high of 127 horses to a more manageable stable of 13. They both still attend a number of sports events and Michael said he now has the luxury to spend several hours a day on his very private passion -- doing detailed research on old baseball photographs. He also continues to work the phones to a wide variety of players, coaches and sports executives to stay up on the latest news on the local and national sports scene.

"I still watch a lot of sports to see who's doing what, and it's amazing to me that there is such a gap, such a void (in local TV sportscasts)," he said. "No one is doing a local sportscast that people have to tune in. If I just give you the score, you'll tune out. If I show you highlights that don't mean anything, what's the point?

"You need to tell people why Tony Stewart just rammed Kurt Busch, why Manny Acta got so mad in the seventh inning. If you just do the sports, people are not going to stay with you. I watch, and I wonder, where's the fire?

"Who's working to find out who the Redskins are going to draft? When they were going back and forth a couple of years ago between (drafting) Kellen Winslow and Sean Taylor, I had both of them on the air, and we told people why it was better to draft Taylor, who was a flake, yeah, but would be better for the franchise. Who's telling you exactly what's going on and why the Caps can't score on the Flyers? Tell me something I don't have."

Michael also insisted his comments were in no way meant to criticize any of the sportscasters in town, and particularly Hellie and Czarniak.

"I hired Lindsay and I think she's terrific; she can do anything she wants to do," he said. "I hired Dan Hellie to come here, and he inherited a tough situation. He thought he was coming here to what we were, thinking he was going to be part of a big machine. All of a sudden, it goes klunk.

"I've got nothing but respect for their effort. It's not them, it's the system they're working under. It's about management. I don't know if anyone in management wants to make that kind of commitment (to local sports). We had the time to do it right. We had the resources. That's not the case any more."

Back in the 1980s and early '90s, both Channel 4, with Michael, and Channel 9 with the late Glenn Brenner, both had the resources and the resolve to do it right in what may well have been the golden age of local sports on Washington's nightly newscasts. Michael and Brenner were great rivals, but also friends, each man appreciating what the other brought to the table.

"I always loved the competition between Glenn and me," Michael said of Brenner, who died from a brain tumor in 1992 after 16 years on the air at Channel 9. "He'd call me up and say 'I got a one-on-one with Sugar Ray (Leonard) and you don't.' I'd say to him "I've got the greatest bull ride ever,' and he'd come back at me and say 'aah, who cares?' We were trying to beat other's brains out, but had fun doing it.

"Now, if I'm doing the sports and management doesn't really care, how do I do a good job? We were on each other all the time to try and do it better. I don't see that any more."

E-Mail of the Week

Except for Sunday's perennially delicious drama, I'd probably stop watching CBS's Masters coverage. The announcers have become downright nauseating in their descriptions of Augusta National's course, the hokey tight shots of the flora (whose brilliance is probably juiced with chemical overdoses) and the goose bumps over everything including the pimiento cheese sandwiches. But the 3-D animations are an improvement and HD coverage gives the TV viewer a better sense of the topography. The butt kissing, however, [is] way over the top. If the members are Sigma Chi frosh, then the CBS team acts like the pledges. Thank you for highlighting this issue from your bully pulpit.

John Singley

Memphis, Tenn.

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Len.Shapiro@washingtonpost.com.

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