The Game is the Game

At a time when “reality television” is anything but, sports comes the closest to manifesting that designation

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AlMichaels.jpgI have one of the world’s great jobs. And so I often tell people that if reincarnation
does exist and God wants to get even with me in my next life, I’ll be working in a
sulphur mine. In Mongolia.

On the night shift.
If there’s a better mass media marriage than sports and television, call me collect.
At a time when “reality television” is anything but, sports comes the closest to
manifesting that designation. Great games provide high drama, multiple storylines,
tension (doubly so for the bettors), and from time to time, a little comedy. At its best, it’s a wonderful communal experience—you know
you’re sharing your viewing pleasure oftentimes
with millions or tens of millions of others.
Having now done the play-by-play for the
NFL’s No. 1 primetime game for the last
26 seasons (20 on ABC’s Monday Night
and the last six on NBC’s
Sunday Night Football), I’ve seen
firsthand something else. There’s a
buzz in the stadium that starts well
before the game and generally lasts
throughout the contest that isn’t
replicated at most other games. And
it has everything to do with the fans
understanding that what they’re watching
in person is being seen by a huge
television audience.

I’ve been on the inside of network television
sports for nearly all my adult life, and I'm still exhilarated by it. A lot of that has to do with the
evolvement of technology and the fact that, for the most
part, I’ve worked with the best of the best in the industry.
And I’m not just talking about some of my well-known
on-air partners (John Madden, Cris Collinsworth, Tim
McCarver, Bob Costas, Doc Rivers, Jim Palmer and yes,
Howard Cosell, to name just a few) but the best producers,
directors, tape operators, camerapersons and
all the folks you rarely hear about who make
television sports the spectacular visual treat
that it is. Telecast after telecast, these folks
make a very complicated endeavor look
amazingly simple. And after all these
years, I’m still blown away by how it
gets done. A lot of it has to do with
the fact that it’s live, and we all live
with the pressure of getting it right
the first (and only) time. In the sports
television business, there’s no take two
(or take 20 or whatever it takes to get
movie scene just right). Hollywood
has its world-renowned Steven Spielberg.
I'll take my unknown Drew Esocoff , our
Sunday Night Football director, who pitches a
three-hour, near-perfect game week after week.

And never gets to say, “take two.”

So what’s next for sports television? I can’t think of any
quantum leaps on the horizon, but I do think that technology
will keep evolving on an orderly and consistent basis
and the viewing experience will get better and better. Over
the last several years, hand-held cameras, high-definition
pictures and the ability to position remote cameras above
the playing surface on cable rigs have been phenomenal

I don’t know what’s next, but here’s a word of caution
to my peers and colleagues. Don’t let the technology overwhelm
what our job is—and that’s to bring the audience
the game itself. Our role is to combine information with
entertainment and to do it in a manner that allows the
telecast to breathe. Wall-to-wall talk from the booth or
every-two-second camera cuts to fans in the stands chewing
fingernails is what will get an audience ready to throw
shoes at their television sets. Sometimes it’s good just to
slow it down a little.

And here’s something that I think is timeless. Remember
Jim McKay’s classic line that opened ABC’s Wide
World of Sports
? “The thrill of victory and the agony of
defeat.” What followed was, to me at least, even more
defining—“the human drama of athletic competition.”

There’s no better way to enhance a telecast than to provide
insight into the people providing that drama. Years
from now, a football game will still look pretty much like
a football game as we know it now. But the cast of characters
is ever-changing. And endlessly fascinating.

Veteran broadcaster Al Michaels is the voice of NBC’s
Sunday Night Football.