ABC could have done worse with its inaugural U.S. Football League telecasts this weekend.
Some of us should be mildly surprised, however, that ABC, like a couple of USFL teams, wasn't ready to do better.
In Washington--which saw a regionalized Blitz-Federals blowout while most of the country saw Keith Jackson preside over a harder-fought New Jersey Generals-L.A. Express game--there was as much room for improvement as anywhere.
Granted: first game, first season, first telecast. And, granted, one game does not a season make (to paraphrase WMAL radio's Pete Wysocki, the Federals' color analyst who found roughly 37 different ways to say so Sunday). It should be said right off that the game at RFK was attended by a gratifyingly electric--and well-miked--crowd, despite the score. And that on-field play, like TV coverage, was far from awful. A little opening-day understanding would be nice.
But a little less Lee Corso, and a little more preparation on ABC's part in general, also would be nice.
Corso, the football coach Indiana let go this year, was picked up by ABC less than a month ago when the network decided to regionalize its first USFL weekend. ABC made him a color analyst and paired him with young Jim Lampley.
Color this analyst purple.
"I don't know what Herschel Walker got but this guy's better than Walker!" Corso said after Blitz receiver Trumaine Johnson made one of many easy-looking catches.
Lampley, to his credit, did not agree--and even tried, weakly, to explain how Walker and Johnson each had his own specialty, see, and . . .
Sorry. Lampley, short on presence and more used to quick sideline and studio work, was outnumbered.
"I don't know how much (Federals quarterback Mike) Hohensee gets paid but he doesn't get paid enough!" Corso hollered, later.
Near the end of the game, about the time Lampley finally informed viewers that paid attendance at RFK was more than 38,000 (kind of a key issue in the USFL, perhaps?), Lampley jokingly asked his boothmate if he had memorized "the rebroadcast statement"--the disclaimer that goes, "This telecast is the sole property of . . ."
"Are you kiddin' me?" said Corso. "I'm just lucky to be here."
Yes. And if we're lucky, ABC will follow through on its plans to bring us only "a few" more regional telecasts as part of its 18-weekend season. The rest will be national affairs handled by Jackson, Lynn Swann and Tim Brant.
In the N.J.-L.A. game, seen on both coasts and in the south, Jackson hit his usual big-voiced stride early, and was helped along by better and more frequent close-ups and replays than we saw in Washington, and by an audibly harder-hitting game.
Jackson and his uncharacteristically subdued partner, Swann, were not helped by the fact that only 34,000 fans sat in the 100,000-seat Coliseum, but at least Jackson mentioned attendance in the first quarter. Director Craig Janoff and producer Mike Pearl's crowd shots were wisely as tight as their frequent visual trips to the huddle and bench.
In Washington, most of the tight shots seemed to focus on one particular blond member of the Untouchables, the Federals' cheerleaders.
In L.A., Tim Brant managed to maintain his dignity through a series of sideline and halftime locker room interviews that added little to the telecast--partially because his best potential interview, Herschel Walker, plays for a coach, Chuck Fairbanks, who doesn't allow his players to talk on TV during games.
What would have added more to the game than sideline interviews, perhaps, but conspicuously absent in both telecasts: taped miniprofiles, or features, on players and coaches and the rest of the USFL cast that most of us know little about. ABC had promised more such features in its USFL coverage; the only in-depth matter it delivered Sunday was Jackson's semisoft halftime interview with USFL Commissioner Chet Simmons, during which Simmons defended the signing of Walker.
ABC's "day of mystery" (as Jackson named it) was made more mysterious by Frank Gifford, who sat at a control desk in New York to spread highlights around the three regional telecasts (ABC also put up Philadelphia at Denver). During the N.J.-L.A. telecast, Gifford gave the score of the Tampa Bay Bandits-Boston Breakers game as 21-17, Boston. (Tampa Bay won.) During the Washington-Chicago halftime, Gifford told us N.J. was ahead, 13-9. (Instead, Los Angeles was leading.)
On the day, ABC's best interview, sideline or otherwise, was with Federals Coach Ray Jauch, asked at halftime by Al Lerner (whom ABC borrowed from WLS-TV in Chicago) if he was "disconsolate."
"No," said Jauch, looking disconsolate. "I'm just trying to get back to the bench.