BACK IN THE 1980s, before cable television was as ubiquitous as hot and cold running water and sports highlights ran 24/7, many a fan would conclude his weekend with the Sunday-night ritual of watching The George Michael Sports Machine. The syndicated show served up highlights that the local news didn't have time for, along with a side dish of kitsch--namely, the sight of its intense host operating the titular Machine, a wall-sized prop with huge buttons and giant tape reels that looked as if it were salvaged from the Batcave.
ESPN's SportsCenter and its offspringhave pushed the Machine to the edge of obsolescence. Yet it continues to chug along in its 20th season with Michael, 63, still at the controls. While ratings for the show, which is syndicated by NBC/Universal, have dropped from 2.4 in 1992-93 to 1.5 in 2003-04 (each ratings point is approximately one million housholds), the Sports Machine is still in demand: It airs on 162 stations, including those in 19 of the top 20 markets. (It's also broadcast overseas on Voice of America television.) The Machine has made a few concessions to modernity over the years: Last year it went to a touch-screen set and brought on Andrea Brody, who serves as a field reporter and cohost. Still, viewers won't find fantasy stats or news crawls on the Machine. No boo-yahs or back-back-backs either.
Michael films the show in an NBC studio in Washington, D.C., on a set he shares with Tim Russert's Meet the Press. He's been the weekday sports anchor for NBC's D.C. affiliate since 1980, working from a modest, low-walled cubicle at the station. In the neighboring work space sits Pat Lackman, the Machine's head writer and, incidentally, Michael's wife of 26 years. "She tells me, 'Three more Super Bowls and [we're retiring],'" Michael says, drawing a smile from Pat. "She already knows where each one will be played."
Michael was a pugnacious kid growing up as a grocer's son in Mehlville, Mo., outside St. Louis. His first job was as a sales representative for Motown in the early '60s. From 1966 through '74 he was a self-described "rock and roll hippie," deejaying for a Philadelphia radio station. In the mid-'70s he moved to New York City and went to work at WABC-AM, where he continued to spin records but added sports to his r�sum�, calling Islanders hockey games and guest-hosting on Howard Cosell's radio show Speaking of Sports. How was it working with the toupeed one? "In six years," Michael says, "Cosell never said hello to me once." In 1980 Michael moved to the WRC-TV station in Washington and started his Sports Final wrap-up show. Four years later he renamed it Sports Machine and took it national.
Michael's on-screen intensity is not an act. He gets worked up, for instance, when he mentions that for a long time the Machine was not carried in his home market of St. Louis. "It kills me," he says. "It kills me." Then he cuts himself off, opens his briefcase, pulls out a copy of the serenity prayer and reads aloud, "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference." Michael's copy is printed on the back of the memorial service program for a friend from the Philadelphia years who implored him to become more even-tempered. "I've kept it in my briefcase all these years, because it is important to know the difference," Michael says. "There are some things you can't change. So forget it. Let it go."
Michael expects to be on the air for at least three more years; his contract runs through 2007. While he's there, the Machine will keep on turning. Count it among the things you can't change.