When an executivenamed Bob Basché left NBC Sports recently to join Atari, the joke within TVcircles was that he was moving up in the business—from the fourth network tothe third. That kind of black humor no longer applies to NBC Sports, whoseextraordinary coverage of Sunday's Super Bowl may be remembered by a nation offootball fans long after words like Rigginomics fade from their vocabulary.Certainly neither CBS nor NBC has ever done a better job with the Super Bowl.Dick Enberg can forget his theory about television usually looking good whenthe score is 28-27 and always looking bad when the final is 28-0. No asteriskson this TV game. So insightful were Enberg and Merlin Olsen, so revealing werethe replays, and so disciplined was the overall direction that NBC would havelooked brilliant if the score had been 56-zip.
Much of the creditfor the boffo performance—totally unexpected considering NBC's lacklustercoverage during the NFL playoffs—goes to Olsen and Coordinating Producer andDirector Ted Nathanson. This may have been Olsen's last appearance on NBC.After the game he became a free agent, and he is negotiating for next seasonwith ABC and CBS as well as with RCA's peacock. He couldn't have jacked up thebidding for his services any more shrewdly. Not only was his commentarytypically intelligent and almost prescient, but in effect he also served as thetelecast's deputy producer by advising the truck which players deservedisolation on replay cameras. The result was an outstanding series of replays,especially of battles along the line.
During its playoffcoverage preceding the Super Bowl, NBC had overused its technological toys andforced so many replays onto the screen that games seemed to lose theircontinuity and pace. In fact, in the previous two weeks alone, NBC had missedthe start of at least 12 plays by cramming up to five replays between whistles.During the Super Bowl, though, Nathanson used only 106 replays—far fewer thanthe record 147 NBC resorted to in the 1979 Super Bowl. Nathanson's mind was onthe game and not on cheerleaders seeking Hollywood auditions or rainbow-hairedpatrons mugging for the camera. Why show goof-balls when you can focus onDolphin Cornerback Don McNeal slipping on John Riggins' game-winning touchdown?Why show babies on mommies' laps when you can show Joe Theismann tipping theball from touchdown-bound Kim Bokamper's hands? This is the Super Bowl,Nathanson clearly realized, and not a Family Circle special entitled How toPacify Belinda in Big Crowds.
Until last week,CBS seemed to have a lock on the award for best football television in thispostseason. One major reason was that marvelous devotee of the Boom! Whoof!Bam! school of announcing, John Madden. He has become something of a phenomenonin sports TV these past four years, and not just because he practices soundeffects and breaks through a paper wall on a beer commercial. A jewel ofsimplicity and clarity, Madden is more consistently enlightening than any otherpro football analyst on television, including the gifted Olsen. Madden isforever telling you something you didn't know about the sport, yet he nevertalks down to you. He's also the kind of guy who doesn't call sweatperspiration, which helps account for his entertainment value.
While Maddennarrowly eclipsed Olsen this year as preeminent analyst, Enberg defeatedSummerall in the play-by-play sweepstakes with room to spare. Summerall isclearly the game's second-best announcer, but one of his main strengths, areluctance to intrude, can become a weakness. His delivery is so cool anddispassionate that he sometimes drains drama from a game. Granted, we don'tneed Ray Scott's Voice of Doom from years past, but Enberg's spirit andenthusiasm are welcome. He also does a better job of telling us the down,yardage and tackler, and he keeps better track of players entering the game.One can't depend on graphics—especially misspelled graphics—as an informationbank. During the Jets-Raiders game NBC identified New York's Marty Lyons asMary Lyons.
Finally, wethought we'd sum up this TV season with a few choice clichés heard round thedial the past few weeks. So close are NBC and CBS in quality of coverage that"it's a game of inches" (Olsen). Enberg, Olsen and Nathanson are"not too shabby" (John Brodie). Both networks have cameras"literally" everywhere (literally all announcers use this wordnowadays), but only CBS's pre-game show is "right on the money" (HankStram and Jack Buck). Now, as Enberg has often said, "This season [or halfor game] is history."