Unless you're a football-obsessed geek or a TV sports critic, no doubt you limit your Sunday NFL pregame viewing to one network. While CBS, ESPN and Fox all deliver on preparing fans for the day's action, they don't do so equally well. Here is Richard Deitsch's report card, with examples from last week's shows.
ESPN's NFL Countdown.
What The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer is to news coverage, Countdown is to NFL pregame shows, offering the best mix of merriment, information and journalistic bona fides. Last week analyst Tom Jackson—in unheralded fashion becoming one of the best in the business—scolded Vikings wideout Randy Moss for admitting he took plays off: "This is not so much about Randy Moss as it is about the integrity of the game, which he puts into question." Countdown's features are sharp and informative, and the pace moves briskly thanks to traffic cop Chris Berman. As Carly Simon says, Nobody does it better.
Fox NFL Sunday.
Much like its network's biggest star—Bart Simpson—NFL Sunday is flashy, fun and a little mischievous. While the show has carried the frat-house revelry of anchor James Brown and analysts Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long and Cris Collinsworth to ratings victory (Fox averages almost double the audience of its over-the-air rival, The NFL Today on CBS), it's also worth noting that Long and Collinsworth are among football's most astute commentators. Fox's features often lack the gravitas of ESPN's, but reporter Pam Oliver's piece on the Bears' depth at running back was Sunday's best pregame feature on any network. You can—and should—question the need for T&A (weather forecaster Jillian Barberie), but it's clear why viewers flock to Fox: The folks on camera seem to be having as much fun as we are watching them.
The NFL Today on CBS.
While Fox's pranksters are running on all cylinders, CBS's Jim Nantz-led crew remains a work in progress. Former coach Jerry Glanville is on hand to provide comic relief, but he's not very funny. Moving the show outside onto New York City's Fifth Avenue, however, was a winning move, and The NFL Today has enterprising reporters in Armen Keteyian, Lesley Visser and Jay Glazer. Rookie analyst Deion Sanders, easily the best-dressed Sunday personality, has added more flash than substance. Last week he provided viewers with a list of coaches he expected to be fired. While it was a little confusing as to why he selected the coaches, Sanders made it clear that the segment was being sponsored by Southwest Airlines.