Pat Summerall and Frank Gifford, New York Giants teammates in the late 1950s, have spent the past quarter century carving out distinct broadcasting careers. The former football players have a lot in common, with one glaring exception -- Summerall is often sensational, Gifford is often just Gifford.
The startling contrast in their work never was more evident than on Monday.
That was the apocalyptic day that started at 2 p.m. with CBS' five-hour U.S. Open tennis telecast and ended at 12:30 a.m. Tuesday with ABC's four-hour debut of "Monday Night Football." What we had was Summerall, the analyst-turned-play-by- play-master, directing traffic at CBS while Gifford, the play-by-play-bungler-turned- analyst, added to the traffic jam at ABC.
First things first: the tennis was delayed from Sunday, which put it up against "One Life to Live," "General Hospital" and the like. And you thought soap operas moved slowly. Summerall and analysts John Newcombe and Tony Trabert presided over the longest match in U.S. Open history -- 4 hours 47 minutes. There was superb shotmaking -- say, every 20, 25 minutes or so -- but most of the time, it was basic base line-to-base line tennis for Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander. It was the type of match in which you'd fix sandwiches during play to have something to eat while watching the commercials.
It was largely boring -- by comparison, the America's Cup seemed like a riveting contact sport -- and the announcing team did not shy away from chiding each player for refusing to play serve-and-volley a bit more. After one long rally early in the match, Summerall said: "That point cost us three flights."
As usual, Summerall seldom intruded, and Newcombe and Trabert engaged in their usual back-and-forth on strategy and the way the match was evolving. Everybody picked their spots, but unlike most three-man teams, there were plenty of dead-air spots, too.
Incidentally, when CBS was forced to fill time Sunday because the final was rained out, it served to show how the network's tennis production has improved dramatically in recent years. We saw highlights of the memorable John McEnroe-Jimmy Connors 1984 semifinal, and we saw CBS' old habit of switching cameras in the middle of points to show closeups of the player in the far court hitting the ball. That irritant is long gone; CBS now wisely sticks to one camera until each point is completed.
CBS might be faulted for not interviewing Lendl after his victory Monday, but that's because it had to shuffle off to "The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather" (or is it "The CBS Evening News With Brent Musburger").
After a 90-minute break, sports viewers then were brought the Chicago Bears and New York Giants, with ABC's revamped broadcasting booth -- adding analyst Dan Dierdorf to last year's Al Michaels-Frank Gifford team.
Gifford set the tone during the special 30-minute pregame show. Looking straight into the camera -- he does that as well as anyone in the business -- he told us, "The two teams are coming together, and it's going to be head and head, mano, the two last champions from the Super Bowl, getting it on, right here, tonight." Just minutes before that, he told us, "There's a feeling of electricity in the air;" just minutes after that, he intoned, "Imagine the emotions being played out in the locker room of the New York Giants and the Chicago Bears at this moment."
Both teams, of course, were 0-0 and driving for a playoff berth.
With Michaels' solid play-by-play and Dierdorf's sharp wit, one must wonder why Gifford remains in the booth. The answer, perhaps, comes from an old "I Love Lucy" episode in which the Ricardos and Mertzes buy a diner. Ricky greets the customers and Fred works the grill, Ricky explains, "because you've got the know-how and I've got the name."
But with that name -- and his 17 seasons as a goodwill ambassador for the NFL on "Monday Night Football" -- Gifford seems better suited to be an all-purpose host/greeter for ABC rather than an analyst. He could arrive at each city ahead of time, shake hands with the sponsors, greet the fans, make sure the crew's hotel reservations are intact and rental cars are ready.
The ABC folks with the know-how, meanwhile, could proceed with their unmatched productions -- the compelling graphics and the wonderful camera work -- all of which could be suitably enhanced by a Michaels-Dierdorf combo.
Did I mention that before the game, Gifford looked straight into the camera and said: "The two teams are coming together, and it's going to be head and head, mano, the two last champions from the Super Bowl, getting it on, right here, tonight." He really did. On national prime-time TV. Pat Summerall would have said: "And we'll be back with the opening kickoff right after this." Which is the difference between a sportscaster and a shill.