By: Bob George/BosSports.net
December 21, 2005

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When your most endearing personality is an animated wiseacre like Thurston Long, something is very wrong.

Fox Sports came to Foxborough last weekend to do the Patriots-Buccaneers game, and naturally there was an outcry from the fans of lousy coverage that followed. It ranged from "Fox broadcasters don't know the Patriots!" to "Dick Stockton should retire!" to "Whose idea was that stupid snowplow?" The Patriots impressed the dickens out of the Fox people by flummoxing the Tampa folk, 28-0, but the TV broadcast impressed virtually nobody in New England.

To which we say: Oh, for the good old days of Ray Scott, Jack Whitaker and a much younger Pat Summerall. We'll even take back Brent Musberger, believe it or not.

Simply stated, Fox Sports kicks the tar out of CBS in NFL coverage in most every way. It is incredibly ironic, given that it was Fox that shocked the sports world by snatching the NFC package away from a stunned CBS in 1993, beginning coverage the following year. Fox has since gone on to become innovators in sports coverage, adding sound effects and other extrinsic elements to the broadcast while doing "hip" the right way (as opposed to NBC, which always did "hip" the wrong way).

Meanwhile, CBS has become stodgy, boring, and generally more uninformative than Fox. Patriot fans can complain that Fox knows little about the Patriots, and they are partly correct. But CBS probably knows just as little, if not less, except for the top crew which gets to cover them more often during the season.

Before we get into specifics of why Fox clobbers CBS, let's wistfully reminisce about what CBS used to be, and why they are so disappointing today.

It was 1956 when CBS began to broadcast games regionally, in the format that exists today as we know it. Chris Schenkel, who would later go on to greater fame and glory at ABC, was the prime figurehead in CBS's early days. For the most part, the NFL was a work in progress until the 1958 classic title game between New York and Baltimore, the famous 23-17 overtime win by the Colts. Televised football grew and grew, and by the mid-1960s, it was the hottest thing on television in the fall.

With NBC doing the AFL (after ABC had it the first few years), the networks had their own little border war just like the two leagues did. Despite the stunning talent of former Red Sox broadcaster Curt Gowdy in their fold, NBC was very capable but never matched CBS for overall consistency and excellence. Led by Scott, Whitaker and later Summerall, as well as vets like Jack Buck and newbies like Frank Gifford (who would later follow Schenkel to ABC), CBS set all sorts of standards in football broadcasting. In Scott and Whitaker, CBS actually had two number one men. Summerall was the top analyst before he became lead play-by-play man around 1971.

The pregame shows were well done also. In the 1960s, Bruce Roberts did the pregame and postgame show from "CBS Control". Gifford, then later Summerall and first sidekick Tom Brookshier, took it from there. Their commentary was always well done, especially since Summerall and Brookshier (who at the time also hosted the popular NFL Films show This Week In Pro Football) doubled as the top TV crew. In 1975, Musberger was brought in to host a new concept in pregame shows, called The NFL Today. Along with Phyllis George (later Jayne Kennedy), Irv Cross and Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, the show became iconic, and Musberger became the signature voice and personality of CBS Sports.

As the 1970s chugged into the 1980s, CBS was on a roll, as was their conference, the NFC. Brookshier gave way to John Madden in 1981, Summerall and the former Raider head coach clicked, and the NFC won all but one of the Super Bowls from XVI to XXXI. Musberger kept the pregame show buzzing along, blowing away anything NBC had to offer (usually Bob Costas). It was like a machine, with Summerall and Madden in the flagship role as perhaps the most popular NFL announcing tandem except perhaps Gifford, Howard Cosell and Don Meredith at ABC on Monday nights.

CBS was able to withstand a huge controversy in 1988. Snyder, who was likely drunk at the time, stated on camera at a party why he thought black athletes seemed to be better than white athletes. He mentioned something about "slave plantation breeding techniques" (thanks, goodbyemag.com), saying that "During the slave period, the slave owner would breed his big black with his big woman so that he would have a big black kid -- that's where it all started." CBS fired Snyder, but the pregame show continued to excel without Jimmy The Greek.

Things changed radically in 1990. Musberger got into a spat with CBS Sports and was eventually let go, a stunning and unthinkable development back then. The "signature voice of CBS Sports" wound up at ABC; Jim Nantz was brought in from the CBS affiliate in Salt Lake to become the new signature voice of the network. But it was Greg Gumbel who replaced Musberger (Irv Cross left the show that year also, replaced by Terry Bradshaw). Gumbel, who also did time at NBC, always does well, but he has never matched the charisma or the distinction of Musberger.

If Musberger leaving CBS was unthinkable in 1990, what happened in 1993 was a hundred times such. Deciding that they wanted to concentrate more on other sports and basically not being able to pony up the dough, CBS balked at re-upping on the NFC package. Fox Network swooped in and took the NFC package away from CBS. They took with them Summerall, Madden, Bradshaw, executive producer Ed Goren, and many other analysts and play-by-play men (including Stockton). CBS would be left out of the NFL picture for four years. A despondent Gumbel and Bradshaw were in tears when they closed out the final CBS postgame show at the 1993 NFC title game at Dallas.

Fox used this as a springboard to branch out into bigger and better things. They came up with the "Fox Box" and sound effects, which all national (and some regional) networks use. They brought a new flavor to the broadcasts, a fresh, hip style which did work well (as opposed to NBC's sardonic, wiseguy style which Costas, Marv Albert and Ahmad Rashad tried in vain to promote and establish as mainstream). They took over the major league baseball package in 1996 and introduced us all to Jack Buck's son Joe, who is now the lead man on both MLB and NFL telecasts. The younger Buck, who is clearly better at baseball than football, does come off as a young and dynamic signature voice of Fox much the same way Musberger did for CBS.

CBS regained the NFL in 1998 when it outbid NBC for the AFC package (no such tears were shed by Gumbel when the final NBC broadcast ended in Pittsburgh). But CBS made several tactical errors in its return to the big football stage: it still has no clear top man to make up for Summerall, and it has a lousy pregame show that has been tinkered with over the years and still gets killed by Fox regularly.

Gumbel came back to CBS and was made their lead man on the lead games, with Phil Simms (who also had been with Gumbel at NBC, working on the first team with veteran Dick Enberg) as the lead analyst. Nantz was brought in to do the pregame show with a gaggle of supporting cast members down and through the years. Gumbel did well in his role, but like his studio work, lacks the charisma of his predecessors. Simms is one of the best, if not the best, at what he does and remains CBS's most valuable asset (we were only half-kidding about Thurston Long). Give Nantz credit for trying to make a decent show despite such folks as Marcus Allen, George Seifert, Brent Jones, Jerry Glanville, Randy Cross and Shannon Sharpe to work with. Nantz and Gumbel switched roles in 2004, but Nantz is only a slight improvement. His light touch works much better at the Masters or the NCAA Final Four (which he and Billy Packer have down to a science).

Where CBS comes up short also is the other men in their broadcast booths. Enberg is the number two play-by-play man behind Nantz, but his best days are behind him and he is basically CBS's version of Stockton. Don Criqui, who does the Patriots in August, still sounds like his old self, while Tim Brando and Bill Macatee generally do a nice job. But guys like Gus Johnson, Ian Eagle, Kevin Harlan and Craig Bolerjack are several flavors of vanilla, while analysts like Dan Dierdorf, Cross and Jones (no longer with CBS) come off like they know nothing at all about the teams they are covering. Solomon Wilcots should be at least the number two analyst, as he is a rising talent and has been for years, but is miscast on low rated telecasts with Eagle.

If there is one area where CBS does match Fox, it is in sideline reporting. Armen Keteyian is perhaps the best of them all at any network, and often times is the only sideline reporter who can get an interview from Bill Belichick. Bonnie Bernstein also does well. Fox has the impeccable Pam Oliver and the stupefyingly bad Tony Siragusa, who was in Foxborough Saturday for the sole purpose of making dumb comments and nothing else.

Meanwhile, Fox's broadcasts are snappier and the pregame show is a kick. James Brown, Howie Long, Bradshaw and Jimmy Johnson mesh well and are fun to listen to. They have the chemistry that CBS had in the Musberger days, such that CBS has never been able to regain. Even weather gal Jillian Barberie, who serves no other purpose than to provide eye candy, works well on the show. On the other hand, Dan Marino and Boomer Esiason are much too bland and Sharpe cannot express himself eloquently at all. And CBS still acts as if it wishes it were still the NFC network, as their pregame show still tends to favor the NFC.

As for the games, Fox simply does them better. Buck heads up a list of play-by-play men which includes Stockton, former sideline reporter Ron Pitts, Kenny Albert, Curt Menefee, Sam Rosen and Matt Vasgersian. All of these men are solid in the booth and good to listen to. Despite the perception that Fox knows little about the Patriots, which sometimes comes off as such, CBS is more often guilty of incorrect reporting on the Patriots than Fox is, except for Simms, who sees the Patriots more than anyone outside of New England. At least Fox makes an attempt to reach out to Patriot fans, where CBS, which should know the champs inside out, often times either spits out incorrect information or come off as anti-Patriots.

Stockton gets vilified in this region, and unfairly so. He does get a bad rap because of his age and declining skills, but Patriot Nation should not forget that he used to call the Red Sox on WSBK TV38 and the Celtics on WBZ TV4, and married a local girl (former Globe writer Lesley Visser, who has her own nice career in televised sports), and therefore should be welcomed at any Patriot game. He was at the CBS mike for the last two Celtics championships with current FSNE analyst Tom Heinsohn. As for Saturday, the telecast went generally well, the only recurring problem being annoying snowplow moving the snow from across the top of the Fox Box (not to mention all those jingle bell sounds as well).

If you need more convincing of Fox's talents, you can check out the telecasts of the three Super Bowls the Patriots have won. CBS did the middle of the two, and it is far inferior to the two done by Fox. Their coverage of Super Bowl XXXVI was generally outstanding, more than making up for Summerall and Madden (doing their final game together) being completely shocked at the final outcome. Buck and his crew were right on top of the Eagles frittering away the final five minutes of Super Bowl XXXIX, which stood out among many other good things. They performed well despite a decidedly pro-Eagles crowd at AllTel Stadium.

If CBS wants to get back to the top, they need to find a chemistry that works in the studio, then find a definitive top play-by-play man and go from there. In Musberger and Summerall, CBS had all they needed. Everything good about them emanated from those two men.

Oh, and bring back that theme from the 1960s. And the old NFL Today theme too. Blows away anything Fox has.


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