Now, children, put down your water pistols. NBC, no more poking at the big black eye. CBS, no more ruffling the peacock's feathers. Both of you, either straighten up or go to your rooms without dinner.
In case you haven't been reading the TV-sports columns in USA Today and other journals, NBC and CBS have been lobbing verbal mortar shells at each other. The sniping hasn't been over matters as grave as Jimmy (the Greek) Snyder's deplorable racial remarks of last week (page 7). In that instance, the other network, NBC, to whose Washington, D.C., affiliate Snyder happened to have uttered his unseemly statements, took the highroad by saying nothing. No, most of the network-versus-network rhetorical scuffling has been schoolyard stuff, but lately some of the talk has been hitting home—and hurting. Says Ted Shaker, executive producer for CBS Sports, "Things might be said in jest, but when you're on the other end of that barb, it's hard to take."
Says Shaker's counterpart at NBC, Mike Weisman, "Sniping is one thing. Good-natured jabs are one thing. But when it reaches the level of dirty tricks that Donald Segretti [of Watergate notoriety] would be proud of, then it's sad."
Last month, for example, while rookie NFL announcer Gayle Sierens of NBC was doing a practice play-by-play of a Buccaneers-Lions game in a booth at Tampa Stadium, CBS, which was telecasting the game, secretly made an audio tape of her dry run. It was a clear invasion of privacy. CBS says it made the tape "out of curiosity" and not with the intention of undercutting Sierens, who was to make her network debut two weeks later. But here's the catch: Shaker and CBS sports president Neal Pilson listened to the tape in New York, and someone at the network told USA Today TV columnist Rudy Martzke that Sierens was not "network-ready." As it was, Sierens got better reviews for her announcing than CBS did for its listening.
On Sunday, Nov. 29, on The NFL Today, CBS's Brent Musburger reported that Lee Trevino made a hole-in-one en route to winning the Skins Game, which NBC was to show on tape delay later that afternoon. NBC, angry, called the move "selective journalism." What if the Skins Game had been on CBS? Only that network's staunchest defenders believe Musburger would have announced the results without giving the audience a chance to look away or turn down the sound. "It was a dirty trick," says Weisman. "They did it to take away our audience, but viewers also were the losers."
Toward the end of the 1986 season, Weisman ordered his pregame-show coordinating producer. John Filippelli, to compare Jimmy the Greek's record at picking games with that of NBC's prognosticator, Paul Maguire. Maguire appeared with a cardboard cutout of the Greek. Guess who was declared the winner?
Weisman insists CBS publicists had put out "half-truths and lies" about Snyder's record. According to Snyder, NBC "lied" by selectively choosing which of his picks it would compare with Maguire's. See how it goes? Nah-nah-nah-nah-na-nah.
The print media can't avoid some culpability for these unseemly goings-on. Let's face it, some of us TV-sports writers are like barracuda going after monkfish when we hear a succulent quote from a network. And if the quote gets the pot boiling, so much the better.
The writer most involved in the NBC- CBS crossfire is Martzke. The two networks regularly trade knocks, digs and pro wrestling-style comments in his four-days-a-week column. Martzke denies that he's part of a vicious triangle—"We don't make up the controversy. It's either there or it's not," he says—but sources at both networks say that on slow news days Martzke isn't above eliciting a remark from, say, Filippelli and then running it by Musburger, who can match acid words with the best of them.
"A lot of it originates in his column," says NBC publicist Kevin Monaghan. "He loves to stoke the fires. The general rule is that whenever we hire somebody new or try something different, Rudy goes to them [ CBS] and says, 'Hey, what do you think?' He's like Conrad Dobler in the Lite beer commercial, always trying to get an argument going."