“NFL Today” heads into 50th year on CBS
NEW YORK (AP) — You are looking live — at the 50th year of “The NFL Today.”
That catch phrase for the CBS pregame show dates back to the days of Brent Musburger as host. James Brown has that role now, and was preceded by the likes of Frank Gifford, Jack Whitaker, Pat Summerall and Greg Gumbel. The current cast includes Bill Cowher, Boomer Esiason and newcomers Nate Burleson and Phil Simms, who moved over after Tony Romo replaced him as the network’s lead game analyst.
“The NFL Today’s” mission remains the same, regardless of who is in studio.
“Information and entertainment,” says producer Drew Kaliski. “We want to educate the viewers and we want them to say, ‘I learned from what they’re doing and I smiled and laughed.’
“We want viewers to say that these guys know football.”
Clearly, they do. Cowher offers a coach’s side, while Esiason (and now Simms) can present things from a quarterback’s view. Burleson played 11 seasons as a wide receiver and has smoothly transitioned into a broadcasting career.
Granted, there is no defensive expert among the former players, but certainly Cowher, a former linebacker and special teams demon, brings that to the program.
“To inform the fan is key,” says Cowher, now in his 11th year on the show. “The info is our insight and our perspective. We’ve won Super Bowls and we’ve all been through tough years, and that’s what the (viewers) are looking for from us.”
The viewers have been tuning in since Gifford did a 15-minute show in 1964. Yes, the math doesn’t seem to work that this would be Year 50, but CBS didn’t televise the NFL from 1994-97 after Fox took away the NFC package. CBS returned in 1998 when it outbid NBC for the AFC package.
Unquestionably, the ground-breaking years for “The NFL Today” were 1975-89 when Musburger, Irv Cross, Phyllis George and Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder formed the panel. Until then, pregame shows had little cachet; it was the postgame program with highlights from Sunday’s action that held sway.
Musburger, who went on to become the voice of college basketball and football for ABC and ESPN after leaving CBS, believes one factor made his show — and by extension, all of those that followed — must-watch TV for football fans.
“The fact we were live,” Musburger says. “We made no bones about it. There is nothing like live TV. I hate taped television.
“The great CBS newsman Harry Reasoner was doing a radio show and was taping and he stumbled and just kept going. I asked him why he didn’t stop the taping and redo it. His answer: ‘It shows you are human when you make a mistake, and people think it is live.’”
Musburger’s studio shows not only were live, there were frequent cuts to the various stadiums from which CBS games would be telecast. His “You are looking live” mantra, which seems to define him as much as “Back, Back, Back” belongs to Chris Berman, was applied to the stadium shots, which were designed mainly to show weather conditions.
Of course, as Musburger points out — and his current venture is the Vegas Stats and Information Network, which has a presence on SiriusXM radio with Musburger at the microphone — those stadium shots were a favorite of bettors looking for any edge. That hasn’t changed, with the added attraction of fantasy football players nowadays.
Even in this digital age, Musburger insists “The NFL Today” and its offshoots serve a major purpose: cheaper programming, even though the likes of Esiason and Cowher make nice salaries for the show.
“Its biggest impact certainly was on studio shows, and everyone soon realized this would be a part of your NFL coverage,” Musburger says. “As rights fees went up for actual coverage of games, then the shows expanded from 30 (minutes) or one hour because you could run more commercials. That is why there are much longer pregames than during my era.”
That’s not the only reason for the added length. Many of the pregame programs need to make sure the casts of thousands get their say, and all the yucks and jokes get on the air.
That’s not the purpose of such studio shows, Gumbel notes.
“It’s pretty much the same as now, trying to get a hook on the viewers. It’s really a grab for viewers,” Gumbel says. “And you want it to be fun.
“You try to get the best out of the people you work with. But there is nothing worse than forced yucks.”
“The NFL Today,” of course, also presents halftime and postgame highlights and analysis, as do the other network studio shows. But it’s really the pregame presentation that resonates.
“It brought a sparkle around the games,” Musburger says. “Still does.”