For too long the smooth and snooty NFL Today, CBS's Sunday pre-game show, has been stomping on the competing NBC show in the ratings. It's a shame what Brent, the Greek and smiling Irv (and—egads!—even Phyllis George while she was there) have done to NBC over the last decade. This year, fighting back, NBC is spending some $100,000 on a blitz that has flooded the airwaves with promos for its new-look NFL '85. But while the NBC show is somewhat more entertaining than in previous years, it gives sports journalism a bad name. And, more than any other show around, it glorifies the subculture of football gambling. That may or may not explain why CBS, which through its coverage of NFC games dominates the larger markets, has so far staved off the challenge; in fact it has slightly increased its ratings advantage this season, averaging 7.0, compared with NBC's 4.9.
NBC runs its tout service right out front for bettors, 9-year-olds and office pools to see. Pete Axthelm openly picks five games against the spread, while over at CBS Jimmy the Greek winks, makes cryptic comments to Brent Musburger and predicts a few scores, leaving the viewer to deduce whether he feels a certain team will or will not cover the spread. You can argue that NBC is more in touch with reality, but that doesn't make it right that NFL '85 revels in betting lingo, with Ax picking "lamb-chop games," "dreaded MOTO [master of the obvious] games" and "my psychopathic, masochistic game of the week."
Almost as objectionable as NFL '85's tout service are its literally unbelievable weekly reports by Larry King in which he comes up with hot "scoops" from unnamed "sources" that we are supposed to "etch in stone." The only problem is that by the following week many of his scoops have been proved wrong. King's segment may be entertaining—that's one thing. But as journalism or even soft information, it's rubbish. One Sunday, King told us that Kyle Macy would soon be traded from the Phoenix Suns to the Los Angeles Clippers. At that very moment, Macy was suiting up with the Chicago Bulls. NBC ought to use King for interviews, at which he's terrific, or give him a one-way ticket to Fantasy Island.
It's too bad NFL '85 has gone off the track contentwise, for it does have a refreshing air of sassy irreverence, thanks to its host. Bob Costas. And the NFL Today certainly is vulnerable. Take Jimmy the Greek. The Greek's information is so fuzzy to begin with, and he's so vague on names that he doesn't seem to serve much of a purpose anymore. The Greek's Corner segment, in which Brent and Jimmy sit at a little table and post check marks on a board, is close to being inane, primarily because the Greek is not the communicator he used to be. Without Musburger, the show would come apart at the seams.
But make no mistake, the NFL Today still has the edge in content if not in style. It is on the story, it has the timely taped highlight or live interview and its reportage generally runs deeper and is more analytical than NFL '85's. When Michael Spinks upset Larry Holmes, for example, CBS had Holmes on camera with his crude "Marciano couldn't hold my jock strap" remark. And CBS beat NBC on several other stories, including the TCU football suspensions and fistfights in the Packer locker room.
On Thanksgiving Day, NBC's Ahmad Rashad proposed on camera to Phylicia Ayers-Allen, who accepted—on camera—during halftime of the Detroit Lions-New York Jets game. It was a stunt fully consistent with NFL '85's loosey-goosey approach. "Anything goes," says NBC producer John Filippelli. "We're not doing the SALT talks in Geneva, and football isn't supposed to be the Sermon on the Mount. Personally, I wish they [CBS] would take the starch out of their underwear."
Personally, I prefer starch to the scattershot syndrome and Gambling U.S.A. Give NBC an A for effort and an F for ethics.
There is nothing subtle about the way Axthelm grinds out his weekly pro picks.