When CBS and NFL Network executives talked about how they would approach the pregame show for Thursday Night Football – a collaboration beginning on a cable network (the NFL Network), morphing to a broadcast network (CBS), and featuring a dozen or so announcers and reporters, two on-site sets, and one very loud Deion Sanders – the word that kept coming up was collaboration. The goal was to seamlessly float from NFL Total Access Kickoff, beginning at 6 p.m. ET on the NFL Network, to the CBS pregame portion of the show, running from 7:30 p.m. up until kickoff.
This will be an easier charge in the weeks ahead given both networks had to negotiate a unique challenge this week: the Ray Rice story.
CBS Sports officials told Sports Illustrated on Thursday that they changed the format of their pregame show the day before as a result of the previous 96 hours, which had been dominated by the NFL’s handling of the Rice case and, specifically, the release of the video showing Rice punching his then-fiancée Janay (now his wife) at an Atlantic City casino in February.
The seriousness of that story, which has shined a light on the NFL’s embarrassing history of domestic violence cases, prompted structural changes in the pregame, which I described in my column earlier on Thursday:
CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus has pulled an opener featuring actor Don Cheadle doing narration over Jay Z's “Run This Town," which is sung by Rihanna. A comedic segment was also jettisoned.
“It’s important to realize we are not overreacting to this story but it is as big a story as has faced the NFL,” McManus told Sports Illustrated from Baltimore Thursday afternoon. “We thought journalistically and from a tone standpoint, we needed to have the appropriate tone and coverage. A lot of the production elements we wanted in the show are being eliminated because of time or tone.”
McManus did not say the Cheadle/Rihanna opener was pulled in part because of Rihanna’s own experience with domestic violence, but that would no doubt be a fair supposition.
How did the collaborative pregame show handle the Rice story? For the most part, they handled it thoughtfully and with editorial smarts. As expected, there was no call from any on-air staffer for Goodell to resign (and very little discussion on his missteps) but the NFL Network – which has been crushed on this story by ESPN over the last 72 hours – got off to a strong start thanks to host Rich Eisen. He gave a rundown of the events, called the situation a disaster for the league, and throughout the NFLN’s portion of the pregame, he exhibited the proper skepticism regarding an independent investigation run by people with significant NFL ties. When speaking with reporter Albert Breer, who was stationed outside the Washington, D.C., law office of Robert Mueller III, the former Federal Bureau of Investigation director who will conduct an investigation into the Rice case, Eisen asked Breer about Muller’s connections and spoke for many fans when he said people are wondering how “independent it can be when conducted by someone who works for a law firm that has done work for the NFL.” Breer did well spelling out the conflicts and where the investigation would focus. The NFL Network assigned its lead newsgathers, from Judy Batista to Breer to Jeff Darlington to Ian Rapoport, to handle different parts of the story. All did solid work.
The NFLN’s main set analysts of Faulk, Steve Mariucci and Michael Irvin stuck mostly to the game matchup, with Faulk and Irvin disagreeing on how Ravens’ players would handle the moment (Irvin thought they would be emotionally drained; Faulk said he thought the short week would help). Eisen and Baltimore Sun columnist Peter Schmuck had a very good conversation about how this was playing in Baltimore and again Eisen had a very good line about the first Rice press conference. (“It was received as a thud locally and nationally.”) The NFLN’s outdoor set had a mini-College GameDay feel and nice energy from the crowd. Kudos to the producers.
The CBS portion of the pregame was a mixed bag. The highlight was host James Brown making an impassioned speech (for the second time in three years) challenging the NFL community on domestic violence. His words came across the screen like they were from the heart. Brown’s interview with Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti was also strong and revealed that Ravens’ security called the Jets and the Giants and said, "Do you have any influence, is there any way that you can help us?" (They did not, Bisciotti said.)
CBS also got Bisciotti on the record about the prospect of removing Goodell.
“I don’t agree with that at all,” Bisciotti said. “At all. Because again, this is an accusation from an anonymous source. Could it be trying to deflect blame from the police for being so light on them? Maybe. But why would I take an anonymous person’s word over a man that I’ve known for 14 years?”
CBS’s sports department got some cover at the top of its pregame by letting CBS News anchor Scott Pelley recap the Rice timeline, and had CBS This Morning anchor Norah O’Donnell, who interviewed Goodell on Wednesday, weigh in on her interview and the new information unearthed by the AP and ESPN that seemed to contradict her interview.
What didn’t work was the byplay among Brown, Cowher and Sanders, at least not yet. Executives love Sanders because he’s famous and brash but he delivers little more than an orgy of self-indulgent cacophony. Cowher has improved over the years and is a thoughtful voice, and he personalized the Rice situation as a father of three daughters – something he also did on a CBS conference call. But he did not answer Brown’s question on whether Goodell should lose his job if evidence exists that someone in the league office saw the tape. Instead, he predicted Goodell would lose his job if there was evidence of a cover-up – a big difference.
Where the CBS portion will need to be very careful – and this is a often a problem at this network on the NFL – is the weekly genuflecting of cast members. Yes, we know Deion was a great corner because he’s told us himself a thousand times. CBS spent the first 22 minutes of its pregame speaking on the Rice story – it mentioned it reached out to Goodell and Rice for comment and both declined– before moving to the usual football elements.
CBS officials said they would treat each Thursday night game as if it were a playoff game, and the network used 30 cameras last night, akin to an AFC Championship game production. The images were dramatic and beautiful; it felt like an NBC Sunday Night Football broadcast. You didn’t expect much about Rice during the game broadcast and the first and only substantial moment during the game broadcast came shortly before the end of the second quarter, when Nantz gave a rundown of the Rice timeline and made an editorial comment on the initial two-game suspension ("Which we all know was not the right call in the first place.”) Simms said it would be tough for Rice to come back to the league given how much selling would have to be done to a community and fan base. Interestingly, Nantz and Simms spent more time discussing Rice’s future prospects on the field than either pregame group.
All in all, CBS and the NFL Network plowed through a tough situation with no disasters. Next Thursday in Atlanta, when the Bucs meet the Falcons, the show will look and feel much different.