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All three networks dipped into the Super Bowl—one for laughs, one for outrage, one for pathos. Now it's fourth down: punt
Frank Deford
February 08, 1971
Since the three networks are now partners with the National Football League, they all felt obliged to conclude the recent season with some sort of special bow toward the Super Bowl. Thanks to this three-pronged assault, it seems possible to draw some conclusions about how each network evaluates its sports viewers.
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February 08, 1971

All Three Networks Dipped Into The Super Bowl—one For Laughs, One For Outrage, One For Pathos. Now It's Fourth Down: Punt

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Since the three networks are now partners with the National Football League, they all felt obliged to conclude the recent season with some sort of special bow toward the Super Bowl. Thanks to this three-pronged assault, it seems possible to draw some conclusions about how each network evaluates its sports viewers.

CBS, which more or less pioneered the pro game on TV, must have decided that the football follower is a cretin, or at very best a buffoon. On something called The Super Bowl Comedy Hour the humor was trite and witless, made all the worse by a hyena laugh track. Essentially, the hour was devoted to a succession of senile sight gags, all based on the premise that because an athlete is big and strong it is a laff riot for sure when he bangs little men on the back or crunches knuckles shaking hands or displays a large appetite. There are so many genuinely funny things in sport that it is a shame this rare foray into athletic humor had to plunge its viewers into the depths of banality.

For its more modest part in the valedictory of the season, ABC took refuge in its strength: controversial personalities. On Wide World of Sports it used some tape and films of the Super Bowl game merely to provide an excuse for Howard Cosell, sport's answer to Martha Mitchell, to host a two-man show. With Cosell was Joe Namath, who is back to playing himself all over the dial after discovering that it really is true—you are only as good as your last movie.

Both Cosell and Namath felt compelled to praise the game films fulsomely, although they were so ordinary that Cosell could not even be as bitchy as usual. He did manage some residual disgust with the game, indicating how magnificent a critic he might have been in the booth had he worked the Blunder Bowl live himself.

Which brings us to NBC, this year's cohost of the championship, along with Anita Bryant. As well as game coverage, NBC provided the most ambitious side project, a eulogy—disguised as a documentary—of the late Vince Lombardi. While the show exhibited melodrama instead of dimension, it was occasionally touching and could easily have been accepted as no more than a nice tribute to Lombardi had not scriptwriter Jerry Izenberg virtually trumpeted that this was a far more substantial effort. "If you want legends go to the public library," warned narrator George C. Scott in his most stentorian tones. "This is about a man."

Not at all was it about a man. It was strictly about a coach. The sole reference to Lombardi's family or personal life was an anecdote relating how he told his brother, "You stink," after the kid missed a block. Furthermore, we were asked to believe that Lombardi's failure to advance into head coaching for so long was strictly a matter of anti-Italian bias. But if the man Lombardi was not approached, there was hardly any more of an effort seriously to assess the coach Lombardi and his controversial procedures. By the end Izenberg had abandoned even a ghost of objectivity. When Lombardi broke his Green Bay contract to take a piece of the Redskins, we were solemnly informed (complete with a shot of the Capitol) that he was "hearing the distant drums" in Washington. Obviously, a fair analysis of this intriguing personality must wait until we all are out from under the shade of his tragedy.

NBC saved its real drama for the end of the Super Bowl itself, when it provided some revealing closeups along the sideline, especially of Jim O'Brien as he neared his rendezvous. Sadly, as superb as the camera work was throughout, even a Cowboy rooter would acknowledge that Don Meredith's talents were missed more at the mike than at quarterback. Curt Gowdy and his undistinguished color men just could not bring themselves to flat out say the game—stirring entertainment that it was—did not rank as a textbook classic. Nobody, least of all those well-paid quarterbacks, made mistakes; pressure, breaks, injuries, artificial turf and stout defenses were the explanations for just about every error short of the half-time Miami tinsel bomb.

And, by the way, speaking of Italians who didn't get the top jobs, Al DeRogatis, who is much the best football man NBC has—even if he isn't real pretty and speaks with the Brooklyn Bridge in his mouth—was on radio, where he invested the broadcast with his usual cogent style.

As my postscript plea for the season, could all networks agree to stop putting the cameras on homemade signs in the stands that say WELCOME NBC or HI CBS. Surely the networks—even ABC—are not so insecure as to require these quaint acknowledgments of their existence. Just consider the kind of youngster who would stay home and hand-letter a large love note to a television network while his contemporaries are out bowling and necking. By giving notice to these signs, the networks only encourage such deviant behavior and lead the perpetrators on to obscene phone calls, participation in daytime quiz shows and the like.

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