Now, children, put down your water pistols. NBC, no more poking at the big black eye. CBS, no more ruffling the peacock's feathers. Both of you, either straighten up or go to your rooms without dinner.
In case you haven't been reading the TV-sports columns in USA Today and other journals, NBC and CBS have been lobbing verbal mortar shells at each other. The sniping hasn't been over matters as grave as Jimmy (the Greek) Snyder's deplorable racial remarks of last week (page 7). In that instance, the other network, NBC, to whose Washington, D.C., affiliate Snyder happened to have uttered his unseemly statements, took the highroad by saying nothing. No, most of the network-versus-network rhetorical scuffling has been schoolyard stuff, but lately some of the talk has been hitting home—and hurting. Says Ted Shaker, executive producer for CBS Sports, "Things might be said in jest, but when you're on the other end of that barb, it's hard to take."
Says Shaker's counterpart at NBC, Mike Weisman, "Sniping is one thing. Good-natured jabs are one thing. But when it reaches the level of dirty tricks that Donald Segretti [of Watergate notoriety] would be proud of, then it's sad."
Last month, for example, while rookie NFL announcer Gayle Sierens of NBC was doing a practice play-by-play of a Buccaneers-Lions game in a booth at Tampa Stadium, CBS, which was telecasting the game, secretly made an audio tape of her dry run. It was a clear invasion of privacy. CBS says it made the tape "out of curiosity" and not with the intention of undercutting Sierens, who was to make her network debut two weeks later. But here's the catch: Shaker and CBS sports president Neal Pilson listened to the tape in New York, and someone at the network told USA Today TV columnist Rudy Martzke that Sierens was not "network-ready." As it was, Sierens got better reviews for her announcing than CBS did for its listening.
January 25, 1988
On Sunday, Nov. 29, on The NFL Today, CBS's Brent Musburger reported that Lee Trevino made a hole-in-one en route to winning the Skins Game, which NBC was to show on tape delay later that afternoon. NBC, angry, called the move "selective journalism." What if the Skins Game had been on CBS? Only that network's staunchest defenders believe Musburger would have announced the results without giving the audience a chance to look away or turn down the sound. "It was a dirty trick," says Weisman. "They did it to take away our audience, but viewers also were the losers."
Toward the end of the 1986 season, Weisman ordered his pregame-show coordinating producer. John Filippelli, to compare Jimmy the Greek's record at picking games with that of NBC's prognosticator, Paul Maguire. Maguire appeared with a cardboard cutout of the Greek. Guess who was declared the winner?
Weisman insists CBS publicists had put out "half-truths and lies" about Snyder's record. According to Snyder, NBC "lied" by selectively choosing which of his picks it would compare with Maguire's. See how it goes? Nah-nah-nah-nah-na-nah.
The print media can't avoid some culpability for these unseemly goings-on. Let's face it, some of us TV-sports writers are like barracuda going after monkfish when we hear a succulent quote from a network. And if the quote gets the pot boiling, so much the better.
The writer most involved in the NBC-CBS crossfire is Martzke. The two networks regularly trade knocks, digs and pro wrestling-style comments in his four-days-a-week column. Martzke denies that he's part of a vicious triangle—"We don't make up the controversy. It's either there or it's not," he says—but sources at both networks say that on slow news days Martzke isn't above eliciting a remark from, say, Filippelli and then running it by Musburger, who can match acid words with the best of them.
"A lot of it originates in his column," says NBC publicist Kevin Monaghan. "He loves to stoke the fires. The general rule is that whenever we hire somebody new or try something different, Rudy goes to them [CBS] and says, 'Hey, what do you think?' He's like Conrad Dobler in the Lite beer commercial, always trying to get an argument going."
Last week Martzke quoted Musburger as saying that if CBS's NFL Today is an Edsel compared with NBC's NFL Live!—as Filippelli had alleged in Martzke's column the week before—it's "the quickest Edsel I've ever had." Musburger also fed Martzke a put-down of NFL Live!, saying Filippelli ought to "go back to a live audience." Ouuuuuch! NBC, you may recall, experimented with a studio audience on its pregame show in 1986, and it was a disaster.
The bad blood between the two networks goes back about four years, or roughly to when Filippelli arrived at NBC's pregame show and Martzke started writing his column for USA Today. But, for the first few years, the charges traded in Martzke's column were prim and proper. Then in 1986 Weisman suggested in print that the two pregame staffs get together for an end-of-season touch football game. Annoyed that NBC had been playing fast and loose with the ratings—at least in CBS's view—Musburger gave Martzke this zinger: "I don't want to play touch football. Let's play Scruples with NBC."
At last year's Super Bowl, CBS, which was televising the game, went bananas when Bob Trumpy, who was covering it for NBC Radio, questioned why CBS needed 18 minutes to come up with a replay of a crucial catch by Denver's Clarence Kay. When an NBC exec suggested to columnists that there was no way CBS could have inadvertently "lost" the replay, as it had claimed, CBS publicist Mark Carlson exploded. "That's it," he warned a friend at NBC. "From now on we take the gloves off."
At the end of NBC's early-afternoon pro football game on Thanksgiving, Filippelli aired a puff piece on the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. His sole purpose could only have been to sabotage the ratings of NFL Today, which was being aired simultaneously. Three days later Musburger ran the Skins Game results.
Weisman accuses CBS of planting vicious rumors. One had it that Filippelli was going to be fired last year. He wasn't canned. Another said that despite the professed surprise of Bob Costas at Ahmad Rashad's on-the-air marriage proposal to Phylicia Ayers-Allen in 1985, Costas knew Rashad was planning to pop the question. He didn't know. Before Snyder was fired last week, CBS publicist Susan Kerr charged NBC with spreading rumors that the Greek was on the skids. He wasn't.
The whole thing has been "a strategy on their part," says Kerr. The way she sees it, NBC, which is second in the NFL ratings, has nothing to lose and everything to gain by sniping at No. 1. Says Filippelli, "You'd have to be an idiot to take all of this seriously. They have no humor at CBS at all. The last original idea they had was I Love Lucy."
In an effort to kibosh the skirmishing, Pilson allowed last week how CBS is "not wholly guilty nor are we wholly innocent. We're not going to perpetuate this. We will concentrate on what we do rather than what they do."
Will the armistice hold? No way, says Martzke. "It's not going to stop. It's just human nature." Adds Filippelli, "I found out early in this little game that the people at CBS can be baited, and I enjoy baiting them sometimes. It's harmless as long as people don't get hurt. By the way, I think two weeks at Club Med would do Brent a lot of good. It would loosen him up."