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Nevertheless, as the voice and face of ESPN, Berman has become the loud, shambling exemplar of a boisterous revolution. Broadcast television raised the generation that abandoned it for cable. It taught that generation its media vocabulary. It schooled that generation in media literacy. Then, when that generation grew up and used those tools to dismantle all the old standards and practices, broadcast got caught flat-footed. Chris Berman's highlights package, then, is almost perfectly postmodern, although he likely wouldn't use the word, unless, of course, the 49ers one day draft a wideout named, say, Wiley Modern, who would thereafter become Wiley (Post) Modern on some ESPN football program or other.
Berman does bristle, however, at the suggestion that his success is based on gimmickry. "[The nicknames] get in the way of the [sportswriters], I think," he says. "I don't know why. The public, I think, takes me seriously. I think the people I cover and the people [who watch] take me seriously, which is actually why we're in this business, and so do the people I work for. So, if I'm good to those three groups, what a jealous couple of guys write--I can't affect that, you know? I mean, it pisses me off."
And it is a substantial bristle. At 6'5" and a genuine 250, Berman dominates any room he's in, even the ones containing former football players. When he wants to make a point, he uses both hands and his voice drops into a lower register that makes him sound like, of all people, comedian George Carlin.
"It's the ones that are lazy," he concludes, "or that formed an opinion 15 years ago and haven't bothered to pay attention [ever since]. I can't help that."
He's the son of a mechanical contractor and a woman who worked as a researcher at Time magazine. He went from the Hackley School to Brown, from which he graduated with a degree in history in 1977. And, truth be told, he is a bona fide pop-culture catch basin, with a quicksilver ability to make connections between what he's seeing on the screen in front of him and what appears to be a limitless reservoir of otherwise useless knowledge.
By the old broadcast standards, none of that would have mattered. All that would have counted was that Chris Berman read scores decently and that his play-by-play skills were rudimentary at best. That would have likely doomed him to a life as a personality on some Eyewitness News set in Connecticut.
Which is about where he was at age 24, in October 1979, at Channel 30 in Waterbury, doing two shows every weekend for $23 a show. Reading the paper one morning, he noticed that, a little ways up the road in Bristol, some people were toying with the lunatic notion of an all-sports television channel. He called and was hired over the phone for $16,500 a year. He started on the 2:30 a.m. shift.
The place was quite literally a mud pit when Berman got there. (One famous episode has a producer named Fred Muzzy sinking into the muck up to his chest in a ditch on the ESPN lot. Had some coworkers not happened by, Muzzy might still be mired.) There was one building on the lot. The control room was a trailer, and the place was so rural and the security so lax that a skunk once wandered into the studio during a telecast and its aroma enlivened the premises for the next month.
From the start Berman was perfectly suited to ESPN. Like all cable television, ESPN began almost wholly as an improvisation. It ran dart competitions. It made a cult sport out of Australian Rules football. Cables failed. Cameras went dark. The job required someone who could maintain good humor at top volume in the middle of unmitigated catastrophe. Berman anchored. He did reports from the field. Most of all, he thrived.
"It was my first job doing sports full time," he says. "One of my goals was to get on TV doing sports full time by the time I was 25, and I did that. So I was young enough to think that this was a no-brainer, and I thought, Well, let's see where this goes. There were a lot of people like me [at ESPN], but it was still a scary thought at the time."