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Responding to that question so often asked—what kind of a nation is it that can put a man on the moon but can't put pro football in prime-time TV?—ABC began its NFL Monday night season last week with the first of 13 specially scheduled games that the left hand of Pete Rozelle took away from the right, CBS and NBC, on Sunday afternoon. The game was an attractive one, Cleveland Browns vs. New York Jets, the ratings share was a stunning 35%, and enough different sponsors flashed their wares on the screen to comfort network treasurers.
Artistically, however, the results were mixed. ABC is earnestly and wisely dedicated to the proposition that it can make a pro football telecast tolerable to the sensitivities of that portion of the population that is functionally literate but, despite the best intentions, the opening game found the ABC team unduly timid and too often working at cross-purposes.
ABC is attempting to provide more comprehensive and distinctive technical coverage than has been customary in the past, while accompanying this with revolutionary TV sports dialogue, i.e., honest criticism. For the latter, ABC constructed a balanced ticket. Keith Jackson was brought in from the West Coast to provide an uncluttered play-by-play; Don Meredith, the ex- Dallas Cowboy quarterback, was cast as your just-folks "expert analyst." (Don't grimace. In a land of "free gifts" you are certainly entitled to a run-of-the-mill redundancy like "expert analyst.") And Howard Cosell was supposed to be, well, Cosell. In support of this chorale, Producer-Director Chet Forte had nine cameras at his disposal, which is two more than the usual quota. Prior to the game, Cosell was worried that Forte would go berserk trying to show off all his dazzling technical tricks, but Forte exercised commendable self-control, using his various replay techniques on no more than 20% of the plays. Cosell and Meredith exhibited similar restraint, but for the worse. Neither was as revealing, acerbic or humorous as he had intended to be, although there were some laudable moments of candor.
The employment of ex-athletes as color commentators is a vote for incompetence that we have long tolerated. It is the product of a mentality that would hire a patient to advise at his next operation. But Meredith—as ABC well recognizes—is a potential exception. He is smooth and clever in the TV genre ("Anyway, I can beat you here," he told Bart Starr once after they appeared together on the Johnny Carson show). In his rookie game, however, Meredith was tight. Cosell, trying nobly to help the new fellow along, unfortunately kept referring to him as "Dandy Don," which conjured up an image of a round-faced ventriloquist's dummy. There was also a general effort, which Meredith encouraged, to make him over into some sort of Joe Garagiola with shoulder pads. Meredith was too good an athlete to be thus cast, and may end up as too good an announcer as well.
Cosell's problem is more involved, for it is not with himself but with his role. "I question seriously whether I will have time to be myself," he said beforehand, and he was right. The only outspoken national television journalist in his field, Cosell was wasted, for he was generally restricted to play-by-play footnotes. Since the "expert analyst" is there for that very task, Cosell would be more valuable if he could sit back and collect his thoughts, seize the mike only infrequently and then discourse at greater length on the overall sense of the game, or on any other related subject. His nadir came at halftime when he was merely required to prattle on about film highlights of games that were exactly as old as yesterday's news. This would have been the perfect spot for a pungent Cosell essay or interview.
"With the intelligent viewers, I'll destroy the parrots in the cages who have been providing us with their fatigued litany for years," Cosell said—off mike—before the game, yet his role in the end reduced him to the likes of: "The Jets are outstatisticking them, but the Browns don't make mistakes." Back to you, Keith.
Just as Cosell could provide the broad view, and may when he gets the feel of what he is up to, so, as counterpoint, could some of the myriad cameras better seek out the rare small spectacle of personality and emotion. ABC has added both cameras and talented personnel without changing the basic philosophy of football coverage. Everything is still concentrated upon each play as an entity, rather than as part of a whole game. With the isolated camera, slow motion and replay, TV gives us the play. But a question arises. Could it now give us the game? Could it show more reactions of the principals, for instance, as Forte did once with a magnificent shot of a defeated Namath. Each split screen is passer and catcher—all fine technique. But how about a split screen that shows offensive stars watching their defensive cohorts on a goal-line stand? Or, occasionally, let us see, live, other components of action. At second and four on the 35, say, forget the ball for once and show us the small drama at left tackle. (If it turns out to be a draw play that goes for 65 yards and a touchdown, blush and be quick with the instant replay.)
To sum up, last Monday night ABC took a faltering first step toward bringing more intimacy and scope to pro football. As first steps go, it wasn't too bad.