It looked like an NFL game. It sounded like an NFL game. It felt like an NFL game. It even had beer and car commercials. Yes, the NFL on ESPN made its debut this week, and even if the heads of the three network sports divisions were sticking pins in cable-shaped voodoo dolls all night Sunday, it appears that football's new TV marriage will not bring down the republic.
It was only a preseason game -- a boring one, at that -- but the Chicago Bears-Miami Dolphins telecast marked the beginning of an era in sports-television history, one in which the fan will get more (or less) of the NFL than ever before, depending on the viewer's cable access and willingness to pay for that access. Right now, only half of the country can get ESPN.
ESPN, as part of the NFL's new three-year TV contract, is televising four preseason games, eight regular season games and the Pro Bowl each season. More than 97 percent of ESPN's affiliates have signed up for the NFL package, and ESPN President Bill Grimes has said he hopes the regular season games can attract a 10 rating (percentage of cable TV homes tuning in).
Sunday night's meaningless preseason opener turned into a meaningful indicator for Grimes' goals.
The game produced ESPN's highest rating ever, an 8.9, with the telecast going to 3.81 million homes. (ESPN's previous ratings record was an 8.0 for a Georgetown-St. John's basketball game in 1985.) Considering this was only an exhibition, one might conclude that ESPN's attractive Sunday night schedule in the second half of the NFL season easily should exceed a 10 rating.
As for the production end of ESPN's NFL debut, it is important to note that the telecast, more or less, looked like any network presentation of a game. There was the technical explosion of inexplicable images at the telecast's outset. There was a studio host, Chris Berman, ably filling the Brent Musburger/Bob Costas role. There was a studio analyst, a three-man broadcasting booth, a lot of informative graphics and a lot of cameras.
There also were problems: Color commentator Roy Firestone was terrible. Guest analyst Dick Butkus was terrible. X-O Cam studio expert Allie Sherman was terrible. Play-by-play man Mike Patrick wasn't terrible, but he hardly ever told us how much time was remaining or what the score was. Which means, in a way, he was terrible.
ESPN is sensibly taking a nuts-and-bolts approach to the games, but the problem is that it's using too many tools.
With a rotating guest analyst, we get the familiar, ill-conceived three-man booth -- too many voices to be heard over the roar of the crowd. Firestone, an intelligent, witty personality, used all of his prepared material and perhaps a little of Howard Cosell's leftover material from old "Monday Night Football" telecasts. He spoke far too much. Granted, Firestone often was trying desperately to draw out Butkus, usually a funny and engaging fellow, who spoke almost at a whisper and offered few insights.
In addition to the three main announcers, we got the highly competent Berman in a studio, plus a highly useless Sherman sitting elsewhere in front of some monitors, playing with a Magic Marker someone mistakenly gave him. That means there were five people speaking to us (not to mention the voice of a director behind Sherman, giving directions). So, you've got a half a dozen people to keep track of on ESPN and maybe a half of dozen people watching the game with you (because not everyone has ESPN, meaning that larger groups will be gathering in one place for telecasts). Hey, that's 10 people or so jabbering away, making the experience akin to sitting in a crowded singles bar trying to concentrate on a William Faulkner novel with Janis Joplin on the jukebox.
Halftime was a mess. Patrick did an interview with NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle that began with a question about how happy the league is to have ESPN aboard, and it went downhill after that. Firestone did an interview with actor Burt Reynolds that went downhill before it began and was highlighted by the fact that it ended.
We also got our biggest dose of Sherman. Let's take an early, clear stand on this Sherman thing -- his presence on these telecasts is A National Plague Upon Our Societal Well-Being, and his continued presence the rest of this season will be A National Blight Upon Our Consciousness. The Giants fired him, why can't we?
But perhaps there is a price to pay -- other than the monthly subscribers' fee -- for the opportunity to see NFL games a lot of people can't pick up.