Dear Sunday Night Football: You're Doing It Right


We're all well familiar with bad sports broadcasting, because there's a lot of it. So instead, let's take a moment to appreciate NBC's Sunday Night Football, a broadcast far better than it has any business being.

If you didn't know any better, you might draw the conclusion that sportscasters exist for the purpose of being resented, as though the sports viewing experience isn't quite complete without a little inane commentary to gnaw on. That may actually be the case to some degree or another. At any rate, it's true that sports fans love trashing their play-by-play man, their color commentator, their sideline reporter, the guy responsible for making sure the chyrons don't have any typos in them. Anyone, really.

This is especially true of the Internet Sports Fan. Lord, there is so much whining. We will not shut up (and I am not discounting myself here; I'm as guilty as anyone). Sometimes we're dealing with a Craig James or Rob Dibble, and we really would be better off switching our stereo over to the DVD player so that we can listen to the audio from the menu screen of The Wicker Man for three hours.

Other times, the broadcasting falls well shy of "unbearable" and lands somewhere between "boring" and "inane." MLB on Fox is an example of this. While it may be that Joe Bucks's spirit animal is a sack of flour and Tim McCarver is your affable mailman who accidentally delivers your freelance check to the people down the street, they aren't so bad. They aren't bad people, and they do a great job of performing in the manner they intend to perform. People like these routinely have their characters massacred on the Internet.

Finally, there is the super-exclusive echelon of sports broadcasts and broadcasters that, for one reason or another, most of us can agree are pretty alright. This is the territory of Rich Eisen, Vin Scully, and the NBA on TNT. I'm speaking to you Monday morning because I believe NBC's Sunday Night Football belongs in this territory.

Sunday night's Cowboys-Eagles game turned out to be an awful, 34-7 non-contest. Such terrible games are useful for the purpose of determining how good or bad a broadcast, from a production and performance standpoint, actually is.

For just a little while, then, let's do what we almost never do, and appreciate a national broadcast for, in large part, getting it right. Here is how Sunday Night Football gets it right:

Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth. Michaels' play-by-play generally lacks the poetic language of Kevin Harlan or the unapologetic excitement of Gus Johnson, but he's usually just fine, and he serves as a valuable component of any broadcast: a familiar voice. He was there when the U.S. hockey team won the gold before I was born, and he was there when the earthquake hit the Bay area during the World Series -- one of the very first televised sporting events I can really remember. He's the father of your lifelong friend. Hello, Mr. Michaels. Thanks, I'd love a beer. Yes sir, I also think The Hangover was a real hoot.

Collinsworth, meanwhile, is one of my favorite color commentators in existence. The industry is full of ex-jocks, but Collinsworth is an ex-jock we can learn from. He points out tactics, he explains playbook concepts, and he can speculate on what a player is thinking without projecting too much. His occasional smugness can be forgiven.

He's also an interesting voice. Once in a while, he'll employ the sort of realtalk we usually only hear from a bored, rudderless Astros booth when the team is 19 games out of first in June. Did you hear him Sunday night? Without being incendiary or mean, he was openly lamenting the sorry state of the game he was calling. My sense is that if an ESPN guy does that, he spends the rest of his life eating hardtack and pulling blocks of limestone across the arid desert of their corporate culture.

Bob Costas' halftime segments. There are plenty of reasons to take issue with Costas. If you put a man in front of a camera for 30 years, you shouldn't be surprised if, here and there, he makes with cringe-inducing pandering or poorly-formed arguments or other disappointing things.

There isn't any music during his halftime segment. There isn't a gang of grandpas sitting behind a desk and retelling the contents of 101 Football Jokez! There's just him, speaking over a series of video clips from the football happenings of the day. His thoughts aren't always terribly interesting, but they do help to establish some sort of order, biased as it may be, to the jigsaw puzzle of your Sunday football viewing experience.

An hour and a half before the end of a day full of noise, Costas' segment is strangely, and pleasantly, quiet. There's this calm, old-school quality to it that sportscasting seems less and less interested in as the years go by.

The online streaming. Remember, we're considering the effort as a whole, not merely the quality of its voices. As one of many people who unapologetically watch bootleg Internet feeds of NFL games, it's sort of nice to be able to take in an online broadcast that was professionally constructed from start to finish.

There are issues with it. The not-necessary Twitter widget on the side of the window can be minimized, only to pop back up after each commercial break, requiring you to X out every five or 10 minutes. The online broadcast does not offer the variety of commercials carried by the TV broadcast, leaving us with a monotonous cycle of three or four commercials to watch roughly 15 times apiece.

But what really matters is that NBC has made the effort. ESPN3 and CBS Sports' online feeds are terrific services in their own right, but Sunday Night Football is the first to bring us a fully-authorized feed from the NFL, a hopelessly unfriendly entity that is too busy granting exclusivity deals to actually give a shit about what would make fans happy.

The theme music. We're talking about the main, John Williams-composed theme here. It caught a lot of Hell when NBC debuted its Sunday Night Football brand five years ago, and it still catches Hell from some people, but I've always loved it.

Damn if that doesn't make me imagine an alternate-history future in which a still-thriving Roman Empire fights a rogue robotic race in outer space. Even if, say, the Colts are playing (Week 13, you guys!), it helps you to believe that three moons and a stabilized wormhole are at stake.

Sunday Night Football is not perfect. Sometimes they'll fall into the same pitfall as everyone else in their business and turn their tunnel vision to Peyton Manning or Brett Favre or the Cowboys' Jumbotron or something. But given the often-terrible state of sportscasting, it is far better than a national sports broadcast has any business being. Good work, y'all.

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