Popular highlight show won't air on Sundays in '06
Posted: Monday September 19, 2005 12:51PM; Updated: Tuesday September 20, 2005 12:19PM
Chris Berman and Tom Jackson have hosted ESPN's NFL Primetime for 19 seasons.
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On Sunday nights in the fall, back when I was in high school, after I came home from church but before I went to sleep, I'd stick a tape in the VCR and push "record." And I'd leave the cable box, set to ESPN, on all night. This was before TiVo, before DVRs, before I had figured out how to set the VCR to record stuff at particular times.
Monday night, when I got home from school and basketball practice, I'd rewind the tape, fast-forward through SportsCenter, and settle in to watch NFL Primetime. This was before ESPN had individualized nightly highlight shows for pretty much every sport except darts, and way before SportsCenter went for 90 minutes on Sunday nights.
Primetime was a revelation to me. Highlights for two or three minutes at a time, with multiple angles of big plays, arrows pointing to key blocks and a healthy dose of the day's bizarre plays. For an NFL fan, it was miles better than anything on local news, and it beat the heck out of George Michael and his wacky Sports Machine. (Anyone remember this show? The not-a-pop-singer Michael yanking that huge lever and triggering highlights?)
After a while I started learning Primetime's inside jokes: Chris Berman setting up Tom Jackson to yell, "Louisville!"; Berman's occasional sound effects; the chants of "Prime Time!" whenever Deion was up to something; and my personal favorite, the way T.J. would chime in with "Hee-hee!" whenever a highlight rolled of Cleveland Browns receiver Michael Jackson. If I remember correctly, at some point during my college years in the mid-'90s they started tinkering with the format, even having Stu Scott and Billy "The Judge" Pidto come in to do occasional highlights. But they always had the highlights, and even had truncated box scores on screen before fantasy numbers were en vogue.
These days things are different. The Internet gives us up-to-the-second scores, and FOX and CBS have extended highlights following games. Even Primetime has changed. Now it's in High Definition, with highlights in HD (good) and Jackson wearing increasingly strange suits (bad). We're back to just Boomer and T.J. (great), though late last season I noticed some of the same highlight packages on SportsCenter and Primetime (horrifying). Berman's shtick is starting to gray (expected), and with the proliferation of highlight shows on TV, there's less fresh content for T.J. and Boomer to kick around (sad), though last week's clips highlighting Chad Pennington's weak arm was both alarming and original, and illustrative of why NFL Primetime remains must-see TV.
I try my best to be home at 7:30 on Sunday nights, so I can watch the live version of Primetime, and it's far and away my favorite show on ESPN -- at least since they cancelled that American Sportsman show starring Deion Sanders. What's interesting is that next season, thanks to the NFL's new TV deal, NBC will have the rights to all highlights up until midnight on Sundays, meaning at the very least, Primetime won't be in its customary 7:30 slot. Rumor is it's moving to Mondays, which will make all of us even more reliant on Bob Costas for our Sunday night highlight fix, so we can be conversant around the water cooler first thing on Monday morning when someone mentions Moss' amazing catch or Culpepper's meltdown. If being a leader in their field means anything to ESPN, next season it'll start Primetime at 12:01 a.m. on Monday morning.
Like many of my friends, I find ESPN increasingly grating, with their constant self-promotion, their mind-numbing stabs at "original entertainment" and, most egregiously, consistently sacrificing content in favor of style. How ironic is it, then, that the best show on ESPN is the one it is going to have to find a new home for, the one show where content is always the king?
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Lang Whitaker is the online editor at SLAM magazine and writes daily at http://www.SLAMonline.com.