By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, December 29, 2008 3:37 PM
On what now turns out to be the last "Redskins Report" show to be aired on Channel 4, host and instigator-in-chief George Michael pressed all the right buttons last week when he initiated a lively conversation about Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell's future.
What followed was an opinionated, tough-talking and highly entertaining discussion between long-time panelists Sonny Jurgensen, John Riggins and Mike Wilbon. It was the sort of spicy back-and-forth now available daily on local sports talk radio, but hardly ever heard on the all-too-predictable sports reports on the local nightly news at 6, 10 and 11, at least on Washington's four over-the-air network-owned or affiliated stations.
Ever since Michael stopped doing the sports on Channel 4 in March, 2007, highlights, a few features and a little happy talk is generally the order of the day at Channels 4, 5, 7 and 9, especially in rushed and often incomplete local sportscasts that now seem to average about three minutes max a night.
And now, we won't be watching Michael and his garrulous gang any more on Channel 4 either, a revolting development first reported last week by DCRTV.com and eventually confirmed by the station.
Never mind that "Redskins Report," on the air since 1980, consistently has been among the highest rated programs in the market on Saturdays for years. Station general manager Michael Jack, the very same fellow who has been gutting Channel 4's local news shows for the last two years as the parent NBC network continues to insist on cutting costs, informed Michael two weeks ago that his services -- including those equally entertaining Monday interviews with Jim Zorn and Joe Bugel -- were no longer wanted at the NBC-owned and operated station.
Jack did not return a telephone call to his office Monday, and was on vacation last week when the story of Michael's departure first broke. The station issued a cotton candy statement under his name in which he was quoted as praising Michael and his cohorts for their work. But he never gave any indication why yet another quality-be-damned cut was so necessary.
It's no secret that local over-the-air television stations (not to mention newspapers) are hemorrhaging money these days, especially in their news divisions, as viewers turn to cable news and the web for more up to date news and information on a moment's notice. And don't be surprised in the next year to see the departure of other long-time popular news personalities at the station, and perhaps other local broadcasting outlets, as well.
Still, ditching Michael and his popular show seems like a strange way to do business, particularly if it continues to draw high ratings and even make money for the station, as Michael indicated has always been the case.
"Look, the guy (Jack) wants to cut costs," Michael said in an interview Sunday. "There is no logical explanation except that the man making the decisions is saying 'I don't want to spend $5 to make $7.50.' Instead, it's 'I want to spend nothing and make a dollar' ... He can run other things in that time slot that won't cost him anything, and he'll get paid for it. If ratings are not a concern, you make a profit and you don't spend anything."
According to several industry and station sources, Michael and Jack also have been at odds over a variety of issues in recent years. As arguably the most popular local sportscaster in the country, Michael seemingly had some leverage, at least for a while. But even that exalted status apparently was not enough for him to stay employed weekdays at 6 and 11, and now, to remain on the air with his popular signature Saturday show and Monday night interviews.
Despite his outsized ego and a far too cozy relationship with Redskins owner Daniel Snyder in recent years, I've been a big George Michael fan for a long time. The man always put on the most complete local sportscast in the market and rarely shied away from controversy, or asking some very tough questions, particularly when they involved the Redskins and any other local teams.
Just a couple of weeks ago after the Redskins' inexcusable loss to the woeful Cincinnati Bengals, Michael said he looked Zorn in the eye the next day and asked him "does the fact that you may get fired interfere with your job? Zorn said to me 'why would you ask that?' But that's my job, and that's what I do."
Clearly, thousands of viewers also like the way Michael does his job. One of them e-mailed last week when he read about Michael being taken off the air.
"I am one of the people who actually makes it a point to watch these shows, not because I'm such a fan of George Michael but because the content of his broadcasts was interesting and informative," a reader wrote. "Since Michael left Channel 4, I have switched my evening news viewing to another channel because I have been disappointed in WRC's sports coverage. It is vapid; fey even. No punch, no fun and no controversy.
"Now I have no reason to bother with Channel 4 sports coverage at all (unless the Redskins are on Sunday night). It seems to me that they have done themselves a disservice by taking Sonny and Riggins off the air ... For the first time, I find myself wishing Dan Snyder would syndicate a TV program."
Will Michael try to get his show on another outlet in the Washington market?
He said he told Jurgensen, Riggins and Wilbon to give him a month to see if he could make a deal to air "Redskins Report" on another local station or regional cable operation. Several industry sources said yesterday that Channel 7 already has shown some interest in the show, but Michael insisted that "right now I have no idea" if he can get it back on the air.
Michael, 69, also indicated he had no desire to go back to the daily grind of doing a nightly sportscast but would love to keep doing the Redskins show, and its winter spin-off, "Full Court Press" that replaces "Redskins Report" after the football season.
"You can't be bitter about it," he said. "The thing that drives you is to be successful, and if you're successful, you'd like to think you'd also have some security. But in these economic times, some people react differently, so you accept that and move on. I've got some time to work things out. Sonny and John and Mike have been great. They all said 'I'm in, count me in.'
"Do I know if something will happen? I don't know ... Will we do the show again? I certainly hope so."
He is not alone.
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Len.Shapiro@washingtonpost.com.