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Al & John: Solid for Fans, Valuable for NBC

For the last few years, NBC's primetime lineup has been steadily dropping in the ratings. While some shows have received critical acclaim, many haven't been on long enough for most viewers to notice they were canceled. Gone are the glory days of "Must See TV" with George Clooney and Jerry Seinfeld. Now, based on numbers, the biggest stars on NBC are men in helmets.

NBC knows that their audience for Sunday Night Football is nearly twice that of any other time during the week, and they take full advantage of that, wasting nary a second of air time without some sort of promotion for Chuck, Life, Heroes or My Own Worst Enemy. NBC doesn't give the viewer football. NBC gives the viewer entertainment with enough football mixed in to keep the audience around.

Even the Faith Hill-infused opening is a giant sponsorship opportunity for NBC and the NFL. Set to the tune of "I Hate Myself for Loving You," Hill is besieged by enormous Sprint logos while adoring fans bop to the music while watching football highlights on their new Sprint phones. Even the credits, interspersed into the video with enough fake fireworks to make the Chinese government blush, make it clear that NBC is in the entertainment business first. This football game is filmed before a live studio audience, or so the saying goes.

THE HOSTS

NBC's pregame show boasts seven high-powered sports figures in Bob Costas, Keith Olberman, Dan Patrick, Tiki Barber, Jerome Bettis, Cris Collinsworth and Peter King. But for the game, they need just three: Al Michaels, John Madden and Andrea Kremer.

Michaels has called some of the biggest sporting events in the history of, well ... the world, really. Kremer is a veteran of the NFL sidelines, having worked for ESPN for years before moving to the Peacock in 2006. Like another noted NFL primetime TV analyst, Madden is afraid to fly and takes a bus to games. Unlike said analyst, Madden is a former NFL player, Hall of Fame coach and namesake for the biggest video game franchise of all time. So he's got that going for him. He is, however, decidedly less orange.

THE GAME

Leading up to a huge Sunday night division game between the NFC East-rival Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys, it seemed perfect to dissect a huge division game between NFC East-rival Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. The matchup had huge ramifications on the division race. "A game that will very much alter the complexion of the NFC East," is how Michaels described it at the start of the telecast.

THE INTERNET FOOTBALL IS ON COMPUTERS NOW

One of the greatest features in the history of American sports is Gametracker. Having the ability to watch a small graphic move statically across a screen with updated statistics in nearly real-time has revolutionized sports. Well, the NFL and NBC have made watching football online even better with actual live game action, from five different camera angles. You can choose from the TV broadcast to the end zone to the floaty thing above the field to a camera isolated on the star players from each team. The only drawback to watching the game online is that they don't give you the option to continue watching during broadcast breaks in the action. Although methinks the cheerleader shots might get quite gratuitous during breaks, and we don't want any cameramen losing their jobs, do we?

BELLS AND WHISTLES GALORE

Watching football on NBC is like watching a movie. The replays are shown in super slow motion with the highest of definition. The camera angles don't seem any different than other channels, but they inexplicably feel different. Perhaps it's the night sky, but watching football in prime time just feels more important. NBC does a good job capturing that sentiment.

To introduce the teams, NBC employs a rotating 'living headshot' with each player on offense and defense giving their name and school affiliation. While the feature seems to add to the telecast in theory, game play forced the introduction of the Giants defense into the second quarter. Regardless of their time spent on the field up to that point, we should know the participants well before the game is one quarter completed. And why, in the case of Eagles safety Brian Dawkins, do they let players wear white, pointy socks on their heads? There's a joke there, but I'm not making it.

NBC also produced in-game features that run between plays and during stoppages in play. One such feature was a series of snapshots of the Giants offensive line, which gave us this exchange:

Madden: They're going to catch heck for that too.
Michaels: Oh, of course they are.
Madden: That's the old rule in the NFL; offensive linemen never pose.
Michaels: Looked like a GQ shoot.

THE PHILLIES

"Al Michaels, John Madden and Andrea Kremer here at Lincoln Financial Field in South Philadelphia - home of the World Champion Philadelphia Phillies who play their games across the parking lot at Citizens Bank Park." I'm sure the Eagles brass love lead-ins like that to their prime-time football contests. As a Phillies fan, I sure do!

BOOM COUNTER

Many people think John Madden has become a parody of his former self. Perhaps it was the gravitas or competitiveness of the game, but Madden seemed oddly subdued throughout the contest. In fact, in a game that he likened to "a championship fight" the count for his patented "Boom!" was stuck on zero. There were some hard hits, and not one 'boom' from Madden.

In addition, there was a sign asking for some Turducken and Madden brushed it off, saying, after Michaels suggested he's replaced it with foie gras, "No...fwa grah...turkey. Plain old turkey."

I blame Frank Caliendo for this.

Madden did use the word 'heck' at least a dozen times, including the exchange above and in calling the game, "a heckuva battle. This is the way football should be played, really."

Not to be outdone with the heck references, Michaels upped the ante after a failed run attempt by Philadelphia by saying, "The Eagle crowd just said, 'What the hell was that play call?' "

ON TRACK, OR UNTRACKED?

Someone settle this debate. This is like the Seinfeld episode where he ponders if his heckler is on the wagon or off the wagon. Don't you want to get back "on track" to get where you are going? Michaels disagrees, offering, "Give is to Westbrook. Philadelphia's offense trying to get untracked and when it gets untracked it'll be Westbrook who will do a lot of the untracking."

DAY TRADING, NIGHT COMMENTATING

Michaels is a noted day trader and seemed to show a little frustration with the economic situation when talking about the story of Giants running back Derrick Ward going from a Warner Brothers production assistant to "a guy they'll write a movie about."
Madden joked that if he keeps up his success, he'll end up owning movies, which led to:

Madden: What do they calls those guys that own 'em - the investors? The Producers?
Michaels: The moguls.
Madden: The executive producers.
Michaels: These days I don't know what you call anybody who invests in anything.
Madden: Or anyone that has money, you say 'Where'd they come from?'
Michaels: (laughing) Right. They dig up a couple of cans in the back yard.

HEELGATE

The play of the game was without a doubt the challenged call of Eli Manning's third-down completion to Kevin Boss for a first down deep inside Eagles territory. Originally flagged for an illegal forward pass having crossed the line of scrimmage, Manning and Giants Coach Tom Coughlin decided to challenge the ruling, which was overturned to give the Giants the ball at the Eagles 4-yard line. The Giants scored two plays later, for a net gain of four points -- the turning point of the game.

NBC showed at least five thousand replays. Maybe six. We saw this play from every possible angle, including, I believe, a shot from inside the shoe of Eli Manning. Which led to this:

Michaels: A great challenge by Coughlin. Whoever saw this upstairs - phenomenal whoever called this down.
Madden: I still don't know if it's right though because it's when the ball is released. We stopped it with the left foot when he still had the ball in his hand. Then once the ball came out - I mean even when I was watching the play live I thought he was over the line.
Michaels: Every part of his body but the right heel was across the line.
Madden: But I think when the ball was released, I think every part of his body was across the line.

Following the touchdown, they revisited it, and Al Michaels seems pretty certain they got it right. A little too certain for Madden (and me):

Michaels: It's all about the right heel. Was the right heel across the line of scrimmage?
Madden: Yeah, but the ball has to be released.
Michaels: Right, well the ball is coming out right now, and there's his right heel and his right heel is not totally past the red line. It has to be completely past it. And when I look at it again now, it's splitting hairs, but I think (referee Terry) McCauley got it right.
Madden: Okay, I'll go with you and McCauley and Tom Coughlin. It sure looked like he was over the line to me.
Michaels: To the naked eye there's no question about it. It was all about the right heel.

But what they failed to acknowledge at the time is that THE LINE WAS MOVING. The inexact science that is the line of scrimmage and first down television concoction was moving when they were trying to determine if Manning had crossed this imaginary threshold. And, while debating if he had crossed the line, they never once explained if the referee was seeing the replay with the red line there, or just with, as Michaels put it, the naked eye.

In the fourth quarter, they revisited the play again, with a very important change to the replay:

Michaels: A better look here...clearly at that point you can see Manning is behind the line, the ball comes out. His whole right foot, as we readjust the line, is now not across the line.
Madden: Yeah with the readjusted line, I can see it now. I didn't see that before. I think the key word being readjusted line.
Michaels: Life is all about readjustments, let me tell you.
Madden: I saw that one. Everyone says, "oh yeah, heck yeah." Didn't look like that before.

OVERALL

Michaels could roll out of bed and call a game better than anyone else around. At a few points in the game you could make the case that he had done just that. It's not that he comes off as unprepared, but more nonchalant. It just seems so effortless for Michaels that you sometimes wonder if he's putting in enough effort. I'm hoping that doesn't come off as disparaging in any way.

And while Madden has become a shadow of what he once was, he still knows the game better than most. Sometimes you find yourself dozing off while he talks, but honestly, it might be because Madden is dozing off, himself. These games are on late and he's 74 years old, so it stands to reason. That said, I was pleasantly surprised with the way Madden analyzed the game. Kremer didn't add much but that was primarily because the game was close and the need for sideline reporting was very slim. There was one funny moment after the game where Kremer introduced Manning and Giants running back - and horse trailer honoree - Brandon Jacobs, yet asked Manning at least five questions before kicking it back to the booth without further acknowledgement of the player of the game. But other than that, she was solid in everything she provided.

Overall NBC puts on a good football show. The simple straight-forwardness of Madden is nicely juxtaposed with the eloquence of Michaels, using terms like 'scintillating' and 'ignominious' throughout the telecast. The two-man booth is much easier to digest, especially when coupled with all the other bells, whistles and fireworks NBC provides. Now if only Christian Slater and Steve Carrell could wear football helmets on their shows, NBC might be in better shape.

Dan Levy is the host of "On the DL," a podcast covering sports, media, politics and entertainment.

By Dan Levy  |  November 12, 2008; 12:23 PM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Comments

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This was an excellent read.

Keith Olberman & Cris Collinsworth = Root Canal

Bob
www.BobsBlitz.com

Posted by: Bob Mantz | November 12, 2008 3:13 PM

Very interesting take. Thanks!

Posted by: phillip | November 12, 2008 4:45 PM

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