Television was still a distant innovation when the first football combatants rambled forth from queer formations. Little did they know that they were developing a sport designed for an electronic image box made in America, perfected in Japan.
"There's just no question about it," Chet Forte, the director of ABC's Monday Night Football, said recently, "the networks do pro football better than anything else.
"The game makes it easy for us. It's colorful, you have just the right amount of scoring, and there's just the right amount of time for the guys in the booth to talk between plays." The rhythm is an athletic cha-cha: Chat, chat . . . smash, smash, smash.
Following the lead of Forte and Roone Arledge, ABC's sports guru, all three networks now sprinkle the stadiums with dozens of cameras and microphones. The spectator at home misses no angles, no grunts.
The real differences come not on the field or in the control trucks but in the booth, with the announcers and color men. This year all three networks have planned changes behind the microphone.
O.J. Simpson made his debut as a partner to ABC's Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford when the Redskins played their miserable preseason match against the Dolphins two weeks ago. ABC plans to use Simpson instead of Don Meredith for seven of its games. The former Cowboys quarterback has asked to work the entire season, but has never been able to come to terms with ABC. Arledge reportedly did not care for Fran Tarkenton, who was a Meredith substitute, and went after the less "negative," more "contemporary" Simpson.
Though he tried hard and was responsive to Cosell's invitations to be more forthcoming, Simpson is not as amusing or naturally casual as Meredith and not nearly as conversant in the particular game at hand. He resorted to the tactic of taking swipes at Cosell, which is understandable but getting to be a tiring routine. Moreover, Simpson was clearly not as familiar with the characters running around on the turf as he might have been. He called a lot of players by their numbers.
Monday Night Football is a flashdance sort of operation. The announcers in the booth demand and receive attention more than any other team on the air. So when Simpson stumbles, his errors, hesitations and dull spots are doubly noticed.
Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen, for better or worse, are the smoothest combination around and they will be NBC's A-team again this season. Both NBC and CBS contend that after the main team the rest are not ranked. But of NBC's remaining tandems--Marv Albert/John Brodie, Bob Costas/Bob Trumpy, Charlie Jones/Bob Griese and Don Criqui/Ahmad Rashad--the Costas/Trumpy pair is the youngest and most fun.
Len Berman will again host NBC's pregame show, NFL '83. Two changes are planned, one welcome, one not.
Dave Marash, a newscaster of some distinction in New York, will try to beef up the "journalistic" side of NFL '83 with more interviews and feature stories of a more serious mode than the customary puff. Pete Axthelm, whose on-the-air presence further reminds one that he is a very good print journalist, will be doing more gambling analyses.
Obviously, Axthelm's increased attention to point spreads is a bow to the popularity of Jimmy (the Greek) Snyder's prognostications on CBS's NFL Today show. Snyder will again be in place with Brent Musburger, Irv Cross and Phyllis George. One can only hope that the sugary quality of the show will not give diabetes to us all.
Pat Summerall and John (The Workingperson's Merlin Olsen) Madden are in their second year as CBS's A-team. Of the network's six other announcing combinations, there are two new ones: Frank Glieber/Dick Vermeil, the former Eagles coach, and Tom Brookshier/Charlie Waters, the former Cowboys safety.
Vermeil has taped "audition" games for the network and sources say he is "pretty good." This is the same network that promised Mean Joe Greene would be as smooth as Caruso, as tactically astute as Omar Bradley.
Greene bombed. Viewer beware.