Lindsey Nelson, the primary broadcaster for the Mets' baseball games during the spring and summer and one of the busiest football announcers in the fall, was asked recently to describe his behavior on those rare occasions when he gets to watch his colleagues at work. "I'm just like everybody else," Nelson said. "I sit quietly for a while, then I start talking back to the set: 'Come on, Curt, give the score. Hey, Keith, what's happening in the Michigan game? Something must be going on with Alabama. What is it?' "
Getting up-to-the-minute scores can be a very frustrating exercise for college football fans. Because of time limitations—the station manager's oldest excuse—some radio stations now give results only of games involving top 10 teams, and local TV news broadcasts too often are guilty of the same approach. To make matters worse, West Coast night games seldom make the early deadlines of Sunday newspapers. Unless one happens to live west of the Great Divide, it often takes until Monday to find out who won Saturday's San Jose State-San Diego State game.
But in the last two years, pro football fans have been treated better than ever because of two highly competitive programs, NFL Today on CBS and NBC's Grandstand. Both shows give all the latest pro scores (along with taped highlights of many of the games) in a relaxed manner that belies the considerable complexity involved in getting them on the air. Each program employs about 100 people, including anchorpersons, frantically working control-room teams and platoons of tape technicians. Although a viewer in a particular locale might see only four or five brief segments of NFL Today or Grandstand during a Sunday of football watching, as many as 20 versions of each show must be done in order to accommodate the varying starting times of games in different parts of the country.
Typically, as soon as Brent Musburger, Phyllis George and Irv Cross, who anchor NFL Today, or Grandstand's Lee Leonard and Bryant Gumbel finish a segment for one area of the country, they are told to "stand by for five seconds," then do it all over again—or another version—for viewers elsewhere.
"Two weeks ago we did shows for 50 consecutive minutes," says Bill Fitts, producer of Grandstand. "And once we had a sudden-death game between Denver and Pittsburgh that kept our staff, which had gotten to the studio at about 10 a.m., going until 7:45 p.m. Sometimes the film clip of a spectacular first-half play must be junked on the wrap-up show so we can show the deciding play. You also have to keep up with which parts of the country have seen what."
Fitts was producing NFL Today for CBS when Musburger was brought in one Sunday in 1974 to do the show. "I don't think Brent really had any idea of what he was up against," says Fitts. "At one point he was seated at his desk, looking at all the games on various monitors in front of him, and said, 'It's like being in a candy store.' "
Like Leonard, who came to NBC from New York's WNEW-TV, and Gumbel, who spends the rest of the week as the 6 p.m. sports reporter on KNBC-TV in Los Angeles, Musburger, 36, has been a regular on network television for a relatively short time—only three years. But he has already covered track and field in the U.S.S.R., the Olympics, the Chicago Bears and the NBA and, together with Jack Whitaker and Pat Summerall, now gives CBS a "front three" in sports announcing that is hard to beat. In addition, Musburger does a nightly radio program for CBS.
He is a rare case of a sportswriter turned sportscaster. Musburger left the now-defunct Chicago's American in 1968, when the general manager of station WBBM in Chicago asked him to try doing radio sports reports. "People at the paper told me I was crazy," Musburger says. "Had I been on the Chicago Tribune, I might not have made the switch. But the American was failing, and television was coming on strong. I felt that rather than just sit in a press box and gripe about TV and radio, I would give it a try." Following a period during which he broadcast seven shows a day on radio, Musburger moved to WBBM-TV to do the 6 and 10 p.m. sports.
"On television you speak in a kind of shorthand," he says. "On radio you have to be more careful, because you have no pictures to put captions on. But still, there is nothing as rewarding as writing a good story for print. Eventually I plan to sit down and do that kind of writing again.
"The first time I did NFL Today, we did 14 shows," he says. "I couldn't believe it. You had to keep up with all the games, scores and highlights. There have been times when I've sat at the desk on that show for four hours without ever getting time to stand up."
Like Nelson, Musburger used to talk back to TV: "I thought it was bad. The announcers would babble and let their faces hang out. They wouldn't attend events or talk to people. More than anyone else who walked off the street into this business, Howard Cosell is a journalist. He knows people and gets on the phone to find out things. I try to do that all the time. I don't believe just because you have a network affiliation that you can just show up at an event and get the story."
As long as Musburger retains that attitude and is able to avoid the old broadcaster's problem of overexposure, he will be an asset at CBS. Certainly on NFL Today, he has proved that he knows what the score is.