For the second straight year, the most gripping soap opera on television has been the CBS football pregame show that people in the control booth call "Psych 101." Will the Greek punch Brent's lights out again? Will Phyllis actually cry on stage? Will the entire 3 1/2-ring circus (Irv Cross' ego is only a half) self-destruct?
The only certainty after Week 3 is that "The NFL Today's" motley bunch is together once again, much to the satisfaction of viewers and much to the displeasure of "NFL '81," the competing pregame show on NBC. For all this we can thank CBS Sports President Van Gordon Sauter.
The feeling here is that Sauter gets the Henry A. Kissinger Diplomat Award for 1981. It was Sauter who worked out a compromise between Phyllis George and Jimmy (the Greek) Snyder, who were at greater odds with each other than Begin and Sadat when Sauter held separate summit meetings with them a few weeks ago.
As we tuned away from this melodrama last season, the Greek had landed a right cross to the jaw of Brent Musburger in a New York restaurant because the Greek wasn't getting enough air time. The next thing we knew, Phyllis started crying on the set just before air time because the Greek said something nasty about her husband, Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown.
This gave Sauter two options. He could keep only Musburger and rebuild "The NFL Today" from the ground up, thus risking CBS' Sunday afternoon lead in the ratings. Or he could play Kissinger, somehow massaging the mammoth egos of the Greek and Phyllis, and bringing them back for one more dance.
According to network sources, the problem was that Phyllis refused to be on the same set with the Greek. She said she couldn't concentrate with him around and therefore didn't want to see his pinky ring or his face in or around the studio. It was left to Sauter to convince the Greek that his 3 1/2-minute spiel should be taped 2 1/2 hours before air time. That way the Beauty would never meet the Beast.
In one sense, the Sauter Compromise weakens the show because the Greek cannot engage in live on-camera banter with Musburger. This gave the show an appealing spontaneity. What's more, some of the Greek's information used to come from field-side tipsters just before game time. At 10 a.m., there aren't too many line coaches or CBS announcers on the sidelines.
But the compromise did reunite the old crew.
In fact, the Greek's daughter, Stephanie, helped strike an agreement with Phyllis the other day under which all "NFL Today" hands could pose for the class picture, Snyder said. "Phyllis turned around and said, 'Hi, Jimmy.' I said, 'Phyllis, you're looking better.' She is, you know. She's lost a lot of weight."
Bringing the old faces back was a master stroke by Sauter. Despite his new emphasis on journalism at CBS Sports, "The NFL Today" succeeds because it's as comfortable as an old shoe. If you want familiarity, you watch CBS. If you want hard journalism, you watch "NFL '81" on NBC.
Here's the pregame scorecard through Week 3:
Plus for NBC -- The Ken Stabler story, Week 1. NBC gets high marks for fairness and enterprise in covering Stabler's alleged involvement with a known gambler. It scored a beat when Bob Windrem, a producer for NBC News, told Bryant Gumbel that he had seen Stabler embrace the gambler and exchange hand signals with him over the course of two years. It also spoke to Las Vegas handicapper Lem Banker, who said oddsmakers would have been able to "smell a rat" if games had been thrown. Over at CBS, the story was buried amid halftime highlights. The Greek pooh-poohed the controversy, saying, "You can't be that accurate (as Stabler's passing has been) and be a thief, too."
Double minus for NBC -- Zzzzzzzzzz. Those lengthy reviews of the Pete Rozelle-Al Davis trial in Weeks 1 and 2 were unbearably dull and not all that newsworthy. Serious fans probably had read about the trial anyway. If NBC had to focus on the case even though it had no breaking news, why didn't it examine where a victory by Davis might lead? CBS, which does a better job on what may happen rather than what has happened, countered with a timely piece on the Fred Dryer contract squabble.
Plus for CBS -- Nothing against Gumbel, who may be leaving NBC Sports for a spot on the "Today" show early next year, but no one can compare with Musburger on highlights. He makes them interesting by varying his pace. He'll speed up and then slow down, telling you to "watch this play com-ing-up riiiight-now." Everything flows.
Plus for NBC -- Another journalistic coup on the John Jefferson contract imbroglio the last two weeks. Producer David Stern went after the story in Week 2, then followed up last week with a graphic alleging that most of Jefferson's San Diego pay was deferred with no interest. CBS ignored the story in Week 2. Neither network asked the most pertinent question: What is the meaning of the word contract in sports today?
Plus for CBS -- On his "Legends" of football show at halftime, Jack Whitaker interviews the retired player and the profile has some depth. NBC's "Kickoff" nostalgia piece, which the network describes as a "commercial entity" made for it by Old Spice, is simply a hash of newsreel footage.
Plus for NBC -- If you're going to provide tips for bettors even though gambling is illegal in most of the U.S., better to do it boldly. At NBC, Pete Axthelm openly picks teams to beat the spread. At CBS, the Greek gets across his message with a wink or by saying, "I like the Vikings a whole lot in this one."
Plus for CBS -- I never thought a sports show's set mattered much until I compared the two. CBS paid a small fortune to build this one, which doubles for "CBS Sports Saturday/Sunday." The only drawback is "The Greek's Corner," which cost $60,000. Musburger, shown from the back of the head, looks like a junior high school kid asking Snyder questions. NBC's set seems stark. The U.S. map behind Gumbel looks like a weather board. I keep waiting for the cold front to come through.
Verdict -- "The NFL Today" wins on a two-point conversion.
Phyllis knows as much about football as Betty Crocker, the Greek is forced to use circumlocutions, and Irv Cross -- well, he's just good old Irv. But "The NFL Today" is so much greater than the sum of its parts. It beats "NFL '81" because it gives us feeling, not necessarily content. Let the old gang grate on each other. They wear well.