Most phenoms have nicknames, so it's only fair to hang a few on the newest hotshot in TV sports, Terry O'Neil, the man responsible for CBS's thorough but unexceptional coverage of Sunday's Super Bowl. For starters, how about Little Big Man? This describes O'Neil's modest size (he claims to be 5'9") and enormous talent. Then there's Napoleon. Like the original, O'Neil supposedly is ruthless and intent on building his own empire.
O'Neil, 34, the executive producer of the network's NFL coverage, is one of those faceless figures who, from the anonymity of the control truck, determine what we see at home. Remember the first-quarter replay of the Redskin punt that bounced up and nipped Raider Ted Watts in the hand? O'Neil called up that revealing shot without having seen it before; he knew the low end-zone camera would have it. Remember the second-quarter graphic pointing out that the Redskins were averaging 1.4 yards on first down and the Raiders 10.3? O'Neil ordered it onto the screen because it said more about the game at the time than the scoreboard. How about the "Chalkboard" replay in which John Madden checked off the 10 little Indians Washington had on the field? O'Neil once again. For all we know he may have coached the Raiders' special teams.
Let's get one thing straight. Super Slaughter XVIII was a dull game. But you can't make filet mignon out of chopped chuck, and you can't blame O'Neil for a blowout. Aside from director Sandy Grossman's missing two live shots, most notably the Raiders' blocked-punt touchdown, and a player misidentification here and there, the game was well documented. Ultimate credit goes to the Little Big Man—or did we settle on Napoleon?
It's hard to tell which name is right, so successful—and rancorous—has O'Neil's tenure at CBS been since he arrived there from ABC in 1981. He has changed the face of CBS' NFL coverage, and won two Emmys in the process. The network's production techniques have come out of the '60s and into the '80s. You'd need a Montgomery Ward to catalog O'Neil's innovations, but here's a sample: He introduced a modern version of the old Winky Dink and You gimmick called the Telestrator and renamed it the "CBS Chalkboard." Madden uses it to diagram the action on wide-angle replays. O'Neil also wheedled lots more money, which translated into more cameras and personnel. He designed a "playbook" for isolated replays, determining in advance "which oysters yield the most pearls in certain formations." What's more, he fought for and got the pairing of the imperturbable Summerall and the frenetic Madden. They're now CBS's No. 1 team.
The big black eye signed up O'Neil for $275,000 a year—cheap by TV standards—with the idea that he'd become the cutting edge for change. O'Neil had authority to hire and fire right down to the coffee gofers. He bruised feelings by bringing so many people with him from across the street that CBS Sports for a while resembled ABC South. He was like Sinatra: He did it his way. In the 1980 preseason, while producing ABC's Monday Night Football, he lost a behind-the-scenes clash over editorial control with Howard Cosell and director Chet Forte.
Once at CBS, he resumed his empire building and raised a lot of hackles. Today the atmosphere at CBS Sports remains tense. Says Ted Shaker, executive producer for The NBA on CBS, The NFL Today and The NCAA Today, "I can't talk about him." Shaker winces visibly when asked about O'Neil. Says Kevin O'Malley, who as executive producer for college sports also must vie with O'Neil for influence, "It [O'Neil's manner] necessitated an adjustment by people at CBS, and a large part of that adjustment was to his different personal style. Ours is a relaxed and people-oriented place. ABC has been less so over the years."
"I'm not sure I've always handled people as well as I could," O'Neil says. "I've failed at times when I might have done the job in a more diplomatic way."
If critics knock O'Neil's style, they can't bad-mouth his substance. During CBS's B.O. (Before O'Neil) period, key production personnel weren't watching game films, talking to opposing coaches or memorizing formations. O'Neil, who has never played more than touch football in a municipal league, now holds classes the week of a big game, assigning cameramen certain isolated shots depending on the formation that comes out of the huddle. Last Friday he even used Tampa's Jesuit High football team for an on-field CBS dress rehearsal of Raiders' and Redskins' plays. "We used to have directors blow into town the morning of a playoff game," O'Neil adds. "We've convinced people it won't be done that way here anymore." As we saw and heard on Sunday, the results continue to speak for themselves.
O'Neil rules with an iron hand and an innovative mind.