(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Noel Murray takes on the NFL. Next week, Zack Handlen tackles one of cable's top-rated dramas, The Closer.)
This past Friday, I switched on college football at 10 a.m. and kept flipping from game to game for 13 straight hours, right through to Nevada’s improbable overtime victory over Boise State. On Saturday, I started at 11 a.m. and kept going until around 11 p.m., when Oklahoma knocked off Oklahoma State. Then, Sunday dawned, and outside of a key matchup between the Packers and my Falcons, there wasn’t much to look forward to—at least not for me personally. I don’t have any of the “Sunday Ticket” packages, so my only football options this past weekend were the Fox doubleheader, the CBS game, and Sunday Night Football. Compared to an average day of college football, an average NFL Sunday is paltry, at least for those who rely on the broadcast nets. Even for the plugged-in, the choice of match-ups on any given week can be pretty dire. We’re faced with a lot of 13 to 10 games between 6-4 and 4-6 teams, or weeks where the 8-2s trounce the 2-8s. In 2010, the NCAA has been putting on an unbeatable show week-in, week-out, while the NFL has been much blander (perhaps as a tribute to the late George Blanda).
Nevertheless, NFL ratings have been strong this season—unbeatably so. While audiences shrink and fragment for nearly every other kind of program on TV—including other sporting events—football soldiers on, easily dominating on any night it airs. NBC, for example, has won Sunday night for 12 straight weeks with SNF.
I’m sure a big part of the reason for that has to do with how tightly the NFL controls its product. I don’t have an NFL app on my iPad that lets me watch or listen to any game I want, the way I do with Major League Baseball. If everyone’s talking about an amazing play in a game, I can’t always count on finding it online the next day. To some extent, the NFL’s approach would seem to be counter-intuitive. I would gladly give the NFL a little bit of my money if I could do what I just mentioned, but I’m not going to pony up the big dough for their all-encompassing TV package, and I’m sure that there are a lot of people out there just like me. It would seem that the NFL is leaving money on the table, especially since the regional slant to the broadcasts means that some areas of the country get stuck watching crummy games week after week. (Here in Arkansas, we get the Cowboys as first choice, with the Rams or Chiefs as back-up.) Instead, exclusivity has been a boon, especially on Sunday and Monday nights. Want to watch pro football tonight? Well, how does the 49ers versus the Cardinals grab you?
As it happens, this week, NBC had a decent match-up on Sunday Night Football, with the stumbling (but still division-leading) Indianapolis Colts facing off against the San Diego Chargers, a surging team that over the past few years has seemed to have the Colts’ number. NBC set it up as a slugfest between the two quarterbacks, the Chargers’ Philip Rivers and the Colts’ Peyton Manning, dubbing the game “Rivers-Manning: The Duel.” Usually, I get bothered by the way networks overhype their sporting events—as with tonight’s Monday Night Football intro, which cited “the will of warriors” as a way to get viewers excited about a face-off between two 3-7 teams—but I thought NBC’s level of promotion was just about right. The intro set up the story well, covering all the recent Colts/Chargers history.
That the game itself turned out to be something of a dud certainly wasn’t NBC’s fault. If anything, the measure of a good sports broadcast is how well it can hold a viewer’s attention when the action doesn’t measure up, and NBC has two pros in the booth with Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth, to my mind the best current NFL television announcing team. After a tight 16 to 14 first half, the Chargers pulled away from the Colts in the second half, winning 36 to 14, and Michaels and Collinsworth took advantage of the mini-blowout to analyze what’s gone wrong with the Colts this season and why these Chargers always start slow and then come on strong in November and December. Both were candid and specific in their assessments, talking about the Colts are misusing their undrafted free agent offensive tackle Jeff Linkenbach, noting how a young defensive line has a difficult time reading the play-action, and so on.
Similarly, during the game, Michaels and Collinsworth broke down plays in ways that were easy to follow and genuinely insightful, whether they were pulling up videotape to chart different NFL quarterbacks’ arm-motions or describing the physics of an interception (while pointing out that it should’ve been called pass interference) or using some live game audio to show how quarterbacks call plays via code words that a smart defensive back can easily decipher. The NBC broadcast is relatively uncluttered with clean graphics and not much in the way of special features to take away from the game. (I do find the moving head-shots in the player IDs to be a little creepy, like looking at heads in jars, but NBC isn’t the only network to do that.) They mainly rely on Michaels and Collinsworth to explain what’s interesting about what’s happening on the field.
ESPN’s Monday Night Football is somewhat flashier, at least on the surface. The graphics are equally simple—at least they’re not as obnoxious as Fox’s rockin’ robot graphics, which are easily the worst around—but to my ears, ESPN amps up the crowd noise on the sound mix and uses a lot of grinding music and razzle-dazzle wipes on the transitions. They also throw a lot of numbers at the screen—or have the announcers throw them—and while I’m generally in favor of sports broadcasters taking statistical analysis seriously, I wouldn’t say that “analysis” is what ESPN is up to here. They toss out red-zone percentages and the like, but without much in the way of context. Unlike Michaels and Collinsworth, they’re not using the data to develop a narrative.
Generally speaking, I don’t have a major problem with the current MNF broadcasting team of Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski, and Jon Gruden, aside from my inherent dislike of the three-man booth. (But that’s a discussion for another day.) Monday Night Football has had worse announcers over the years; I know a lot of people can’t stand the Tirico/Jaworski/Gruden combo, but to me they’re mostly just dull. Compared to Michaels’ genuine excitement and delight at a big play on SNF, Tirico and company are more reserved, though they do occasionally crack each other up—or baffle each other, anyway. The highlight of tonight’s broadcast was a bizarre Gruden rant about the commissioner should intervene and not allow a sub-.500 NFC West team get a slot in the playoffs over a team from another division with a winning record. He was joking, surely, but he was oddly adamant about it, even going so far as to demand that Tirico and Jaworski agree with him. (For Jaws’ part, he complained about the speculation over what might happen at the end of the season. Because apparently it’s never been explained to him that analysts are expected to predict stuff.)
Granted, the announcers didn’t have a whole lot to work with tonight. The best they could do was to note that whichever team won this game would move to 4-7 and be one game out of first place in the woeful NFC West. Like Michaels and Collinsworth, Tirico/Jaworski/Gruden did try to explain why the Cardinals and 49ers are so lousy this year, but the discussion tended to devolve into generalities. The 49ers can’t settle on a quarterback. The Cardinals lost all their leaders and now “someone’s gotta step up.” (Gruden grumbled when Cardinals QB Derek Anderson smiled on the sidelines when his team was down 18 points.) I do think Gruden breaks down plays reasonably well, using MNF’s cool 3D version of the telestrator to lay out blocking packages and the like. But too often the MNF crew has nothing to say about a replay beyond, “Was that a good catch? Should the coach challenge?”
I understand why these shows do well in the ratings. There’s not as much football on the air as there is of other sports, which means there’s no real competition for the eyeballs of football fans. (And football is the most popular sport in the country.) I don’t fully understand though why a fan would suffer through an MNF broadcast with two awful teams. I’ll be interested to see if the numbers for ESPN’s game tonight are as high as usual; I suspect it’ll do just fine, which is baffling. Even if I followed one of these teams, I think I would’ve bailed after the first half and watched something else—anything else. Even The Event.
Final assessment of two of the most-watched shows on TV every week? The Monday night game is something you’d watch in a bar with your buddies, while drinking and snacking and only half paying attention. The Sunday game you could watch by yourself in your easy chair, as actual entertainment, even if the match-up was iffy and the game went south in a hurry. But all things being equal? I’d still much rather watch the Saturday afternoon SEC game on CBS.
- In a DVR-era, the NFL would seem to be the ultimate timeshift-resistant event, but I have to say: I watched both these games on my TiVo, starting about an hour after kickoff, and it was so much more enjoyable, being able to zip through the commercials and the halftime chatter. The replay-challenge in particular has made NFL games a grind to watch at times, as the action stops cold and commercials fill up time while the referees confer. (I can only imagine how tedious that would be if you were actually at the game.) Also, I have to agree with KenTremendous, who wrote on his Twitter feed Sunday night: “DVRs were basically invented for the 5-minute commercial-kickoff-commercial racket the NFL runs every game.”
- Do you really think of ESPN’s Monday Night Football as the MNF? I have a hard time feeling the continuity. Whenever I’m watching MNF these days and Hank Williams Jr. starts singing, I think, “Oh yeah, that's right.”
- I have vivid memories of reading an interview with Howard Cosell in TV Guide when I was about 10 years old and being disillusioned by how annoyed he was at the match-ups he had to deal with every week on Monday Night Football. He said something like, “I mean, the Rams and the Falcons? Who cares?” As a Falcons fan, that hurt.
- That said, I miss Cosell’s MNF halftime highlights packages (even though he rarely included the Falcons). I’m not anti-Chris Berman, but he’s no Cosell.
- I’m half-tempted to complete the trilogy and cover Thursday Night Football on The NFL Network this week. (But I’m mired in year-end list-making business, so I don’t have time to get into it, sadly.) I have watched the last couple of weeks of TNF, and I have to say, that’s some shoddy production coming from a league that prides itself on professionalism. Between the cruddy sound mix and weak announcing crew, it’s like watching a high school game.
- Do any sports announcers say the name of their sport as often as football announcers do? (“A great football player knows how to make football plays and win football games. Football.”)
- I’ll have more to say about my problems with modern-day sports broadcasting (including the three-man booth) next week in a Big Questions column called “Why does most sports broadcasting suck so hard?” Seriously.