ABC, Fox, ESPN, and CBS go head to head each week on the field

By Mike Flaherty
October 23, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Having digested the networks’ new fall offerings (well, almost; Brother’s Keeper‘s still sticking in our throat), it seems high time to analyze the $2.2 billion annual programming gorilla that is TV’s NFL coverage. At first glance, all the pregame, play-by-play, halftime, and postgame jawboning by talking heads and ex-pros seems woefully the same. But there’s a stadiumful of differences among the nets’ pigskin game plans. So, as we approach the NFL’s seasonal midfield, here’s how its four carriers measure up, in both the studio and the broadcast booth.

CBS The geriatric new kid on the block may aspire to Buddy Faro-esque cool, but it is, alas, the JAG of this genre. The NFL Today teams vanilla anchor Jim Nantz with famed veterans Marcus Allen and Brent Jones and ever-somnolent ex-San Francisco 49ers head coach George Seifert. Its game coverage is similarly middle-of-the-road, most notably in the marquee pairing of ex-New York Giant Phil Simms with Greg Gumbel. Like two math class standouts, they’re more inconspicuous than nerdy, but unlikely to turn heads at the school dance. In TV land, that’s a refreshing, if uninspiring change of pace. In-studio show: B- Game coverage: B

FOX Hosted by journeyman sportscaster James Brown, Fox NFL Sunday is a McLaughlin Group for the gridiron. Sunday‘s Emmy-nominated boon — and insufferable boor — is cohost Terry Bradshaw, the locker-room loudmouth of this boys’ club, with Brown and NFL vets Howie Long and Cris Collinsworth deferring to his corn-fed hamminess. On the upside, Fox, which snatched the NFL from CBS in ’93, boasts TV’s best behind-the-mike duo in Pat Summerall and John Madden. First paired in 1981 on CBS, the twosome, with their breezy, seasoned chemistry, are still football’s class act. Studio: C Game: A-

ESPN The cabler’s quirky NFL PrimeTime picks up where its cheeky promos for SportsCenter leave off. Preceding their Sunday nightcap game is a jam-packed rundown of the day’s contests hosted by the net’s golden boy, Chris Berman. Snark personified, he effortlessly weaves football factoids with wacky pop- culture references. A tough act to follow; still, ESPN’s Sunday Night Football lacks punch. Play-by-play man Mike Patrick and analysts Joe Theismann and Paul Maguire get the job done with shtick-free unobtrusiveness, but that’s exactly what places them just outside ESPN’s mold. Studio: A- Game: C+

ABC It’s clear from the cringe-inducing git-go (Hank Williams Jr.’s ”Are you ready for some football!?”) that Monday Night Blast is dying to be cool — dying being the operative word. A double-dutying Berman looks strained by Blast‘s pseudo-festivity, appearing visibly relieved to hand things over to poor Frank Gifford, who presides over the invariably mawkish ”Outside the Zone” human-interest bits. Things pick up come game time, as Monday Night Football‘s trio take over. Al Michaels’ concise game call may be the best in the biz. Blabby NFL vet Dan Dierdorf ensures that there’s no dead air. And ex-New York Jet Boomer Esiason is surprisingly poised for a broadcast rookie. Studio: D Game: B+

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