Choose your own announcer

Sports Business Daily reports that the National Football League is in the process of renewing its over-the-air broadcast contracts with Fox (for NFC games, including most Packer games), CBS (for AFC games and games where the AFC team is the road team, such as Sunday’s Packer game) and NBC (for Sunday Night Football).

The league is close to renewing TV deals with all of its broadcast partners that will result in massive rights fee increases of more than 60 percent across the board, underscoring the unrivaled strength of NFL programming.

For the first time, each of the broadcast networks will pay an annual average of at least $1 billion for the rights to carry NFL games. The expected windfall from CBS, Fox and NBC will be worth more than a combined $24 billion over the next eight years. …

Combined with ESPN’s annual average of $1.8 billion a year for “Monday Night Football,” DirecTV’s out-of-market “Sunday Ticket” deal, the league’s planned Thursday night game package that it is preparing to shop, Sirius Satellite Radio, Westwood One radio and Verizon’s mobile deal, the NFL could wind up generating close to $7 billion annually in national media revenue starting in 2014. That represents a whopping 64 percent increase over the $4.28 billion that the NFL received from national media before the most recent round of renewals.

As part of the contracts, there is one innovation I’d like to see: the fans’ opportunity to choose their own announcers for the CBS and Fox broadcasts. The technology is available, because it’s been done well before now.

The first NFL-wide TV contract was with CBS in 1963; before then, CBS and NBC had contracts with individual teams after DuMont exited broadcast TV. (NBC briefly exited the NFL after it replaced ABC in covering the American Football League for the AFL’s final six years of existence.) Until 1963, the NFL only had a contract for the NFL championship, which led to the odd spectacle of CBS’ covering the NFL regular season, but NBC’s carrying the Packers’ first three appearances in the NFL title game.

When CBS took over NFL coverage (and remember this was well before computers or anything digital), CBS hired a set of announcers for each team. Packers fans (except in Green Bay and Milwaukee for home games, which were blacked out) watched Ray Scott and Hall of Fame halfback Tony Canadeo announce their team, while fans of the Packers’ opponent watched their own announcers call the same game. (For the rest of the country, CBS chose one of the two announcer teams. In one season, 1964, one team’s announcers called one half and the other’s announcers called the other half.) This was, remember, back in the days when none of what you watched had any computer contribution at all. (Video was sent by land line from the game site to CBS in New York to the individual stations.) The tech needed to send two different audio signals to TV stations was more complicated than it is in today’s era of the Second Audio Program and digital subchannels.

The advantage for viewers of specific teams is that that their announcers became more knowledgeable about their teams because, like the teams’ radio announcers, they watched them every week. Fans did not have to put up with name mispronunciations, inaccurate facts, or faulty analysis because, in the Packers’ case, Scott and Canadeo saw every play of every game.

(The list of ex-Packers or announcers with Green Bay or Wisconsin connections to have called Packer games is relatively small, compared to former Cowboys or Giants or 49ers. Besides Canadeo, the longest-serving ex-Packer announcer is Paul Hornung, who worked for CBS from 1975 to 1981, and did preseason games for several years afterward. Jerry Kramer worked for CBS in 1969. Bart Starr worked for CBS in 1973, including Super Bowl VIII, and 1974. Gary Bender was the Packers’ radio announcer before coming to CBS, where he worked NFL games from 1975 to 1981 and in 1986. Willie Davis worked for NBC from 1970 to 1975; his replacement for the next two seasons was his defensive linemate, Lionel Aldridge. Former Brewers announcer Merle Harmon called games for NBC from 1979 to 1983. Kevin Harlan, son of Bob — yes, that Bob — worked for NBC in 1991 and Fox from 1994 to 1997, and has worked for CBS since 1998. James Lofton called NBC games in 1997. Ron Pitts, a defensive back for the Packers in 1990 and the son of Packer running back Elijah Pitts, has called games for Fox since 1994. Bill Maas, who played nose tackle in 1993, called Fox games from 1998 to 2006. Sean Jones worked for Fox in 2001, and John Jurkovic worked for Fox in 2002 and 2003. Former Brewers TV announcer Matt Vasgersian worked for Fox from 2005 to 2009.)

CBS ended the team-announcer practice after the 1967 season. NBC never had team announcers while it carried AFL and AFC games, and neither has Fox since it began carrying the NFL in 1994. Since the Packers have been good for nearly 20 years, Packers games have been called by better announcers, usually Fox’s or CBS’ first or second announcer teams. (Fox’s lead team, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, called the first six games of the Packers’ current 18-game winning streak; CBS’ lead team, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, who called the Broncos–Packers game earlier this year, get Sunday’s Raiders–Packers game.) But Packer fans of the ’70s and ’80s teams (if that’s what you can call them) remember some truly awful CBS and NBC announcers assigned to cover, well, the Gory Years teams.

The nadir might have been during the 1994 season, Fox’s first on the NFL, when analyst Jerry Glanville said of a spectacular Brett Favre play that they were cheering in “Owosso.” (Glanville was Favre’s first coach before the Falcons traded Favre to Green Bay.) Harlan replied that he was a Wisconsin native, and he had no idea where “Owosso” was. (One state to the east, Jerry.)

This came to mind not because of Sunday’s Fox broadcast, but because of Saturday’s Fox broadcast — the Big Ten football championship game. Fox’s Gus Johnson is an acquired taste, to put it mildly …

… but I’m guessing Wisconsin Fox stations received complaints about Johnson and analyst Charles Davis for their apparent bias against Wisconsin, beyond mentioning the game-ending “Hail Sparty” play only about 4,966 times. (I write that as someone who doesn’t usually complain about announcer bias, and as someone who was once accused of bias against both teams I was covering that game.) Fox’s sideline reporter, former Minnesota coach Tim Brewster, was a case study of passive–aggressive behavior in the difference between how he talked about Michigan State vs. how he talked about Wisconsin. Fox host Kevin Frazier also said the UW Marching Band was directed by “Michael Leckron.” And how many times do Badger and Packer fans have to listen to “Wisconsin” with the emphasis on the first syllable (Bob Griese of ABC), and “Green Bay” pronounced as if it’s one word (ex-Packer Paul Hornung formerly of CBS, who should have known better)?

The alternative is to turn down the TV sound and listen to the radio, but that’s not an alternative in the digital age. Radio audio is several seconds ahead of TV video and audio (whether delivered over the air, by cable or satellite, or online), so you can’t really have a satisfying viewing experience mixing TV with either Matt Lepay and Mike Lucas or Wayne Larrivee and Larry McCarren.

These bigger TV contracts will mean increased costs to consumers. If you have cable TV or satellite, you’ll pay more. The networks will increase ad rates for their NFL advertisers, and since advertising is part of the cost of doing business, those advertisers’ products and services will cost more. So what added value can CBS and Fox provide their viewers for more expensive TV service and for more expensive products and services?

The answer is to give viewers their choice of announcers. It’s hard for fans to complain about bad announcers if they have more than one choice, particularly for announcers who follow one team all season.

The networks would have to hire more announcer teams, since CBS and Fox broadcast up to eight NFL games per weekend. (There are 16 games in all but the bye weeks; NBC does Sunday Night Football, ESPN does Monday Night Football, and the NFL Network does Thursday night games the second half of the season.) This would be less expensive than it seems, because most NFL announcers on CBS and Fox are part-timers, paid by the game.

Both networks already have some natural teams to which to assign their analysts. Fox could assign either ex-Cowboys Troy Aikman or Daryl Johnston to Dallas (or both, since they used to work together on Fox), former Viking assistant coach Brian Billick to Minnesota, ex-Buccaneer John Lynch to Tampa Bay, ex-Bear Tim Ryan to Chicago, and Jim Mora Jr. to either Atlanta or Seattle, since he coached the Falcons and Seahawks. CBS could assign ex-Charger Dan Fouts to San Diego, ex-Raider Rich Gannon to Oakland, Solomon Wilcots to either Cincinnati or Pittsburgh since he played for the Bengals and Steelers, ex-Bill Steve Tasker to Buffalo, and ex-Jaguar Steve Beuerlein to Jacksonville. Perhaps an announcer trade or two could be arranged to allow ex-Raven Tony Siragusa to call Ravens games for CBS, or ex-49er Randy Cross to call San Francisco games for Fox.

Assuming Larrivee couldn’t be persuaded to move to TV (and he has considerable TV experience with WGN-TV, ESPN and the Big Ten Network), the natural play-by-play guy for Packers games would be Harlan (who sounds nothing like his father; Bob had no explanation for Kevin’s voice when I once asked him), since he grew up in Green Bay. There is also a natural color commentator choice, someone who started doing college games this fall … Brett Favre. (He’s going to be announcing games for someone someday.)

Technology today makes this much simpler to do than in the 1960s, when CBS did it, or in the 1990s, when ESPN Plus had separate announcers for Big Ten games carried on over-the-air TV. For all the innovations TV’s seen over the past couple of decades — stereo sound, continuous score-and-time graphics, first-down lines superimposed on the field, HD video and now digital TV and subchannels — this seems like a natural next step. (And if Fox or CBS is interested in me, you know how to reach me.)


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