NFL Pregame Shows are Unwatchable

It’s possible, as stated in the previous entry on this general topic, that the actual NFL game may never reach un-watchable status, but the various NFL pregame shows have already reached that point. They’re a joke, a constant joke after joke, that no one, other than the giggling hosts, find humorous. Overnight ratings for the three primary pregame shows were down an average of 11% in week one of the NFL (2014), and this trend will continue as they continue to move away from the strict commentary and specific analysis of the game to the jibber jabber that I assume is designed to  entertain.

The Giggling

The Giggling

Core, NFL fans of a certain age remember a day when Brent Musburger’s NFL Today show on CBS, ruled the roost in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. We deemed this broadcast the gold standard by which all competitors, past and present, would be judged. It was a tight, seamless, and informative production that was deemed by most core, NFL fans to be indispensable Sunday viewing. We all missed a few of their broadcasts of course, but the fact that we remember those instances should cement the value this show once had on our love of the game. The NFL Today show did not just add value to the game, for many of us it was the game. Some of the actual NFL games were boring compared to the production that the NFL Today staff, Irv Cross, the Miss America contestants, and Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder put together, and there was a segment of the American youth that couldn’t get enough of it. As covered in the previous entry on this topic, it is obvious that NFL fan is no longer the primary demographic for the NFL pregame shows.

As the decades passed, some NFL pregame broadcasts decided to capitalize on the fact that we couldn’t get enough of football talk, by giving us more. Another hour of nothing but football –and in one cable channel’s case three more hours*– was the premise of the promise of more. Two hours of football talk before the fellas could even take the field? What red-blooded American, born and raised on football, would be against that? More is more, and more is always better, right? Plus, when the alternative programming, on Sunday, consists of political talk shows, bowling, fishing shows, and mass for the shut-ins, we should be watching right? The NFL pregame shows have led most of us to spend more time with our family.{1}

The eventual, and perhaps inevitable, conclusion that more is not always more, or better, was soon realized as these productions began adding more to make their show more for the specific intention of attracting more, beyond the core. The core, NFL fan is now showered with the dreaded human interest stories, stories that were once deemed the exclusive right of Oprah Winfrey and Ellen Degeneres. We are now inundated with stories that inform us that players are people too, and they have all the hopes, fears, and dreams that we do. We are informed that some of them laugh a lot, and some of them cry. Some of them have sick children, and some of them engage in charitable activities that help out their local communities, and some of them have wives that can teach us twenty-three ways to reuse a banana peel for those NFL families that need to learn how to budget on an annual 1.9 million dollar salary.

Once the dreaded human interest stories conclude, the NFL fan returns from the World Fishing Network to hear some football talk, and we hear playful, radio-lite banter that occurs between the bosom buddy hosts. We learn that these ex-jocks that aren’t afraid to provide us with some self-deprecating, zany anecdotes that will lead to further antics and hi-jinx. Some productions then provide segments that force their hosts to have Abbot and Costello-like adversarial relationships with recurring guests and more hi-jinx, with incessant giggling to follow. And if that isn’t enough, we get to see hot chicks tell us about the weather reports for each stadium, and the sideline reports that inevitably lead to hi-jinx, antics, and banter.

When all these non-football, NFL-themed human interest segments finally conclude, and the NFL fan does receive some actual analysis of the game, they hear these ex-jocks deliver the least controversial, safest opinions they can find. Long gone are the Jimmy “The Greek” no holds barred opinions on a player’s actual ability to perform on a NFL level, and they are replaced by non-critical, safe, and positive opinions by ex-jocks not wanting to hurt a current NFL players’ feelings.

These ex-jocks, and one professional broadcaster, are then required to spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on those teams with a higher fan base. If the Dallas Cowboys fail to make the playoffs this year, it will be the fifth straight year they’ve failed to do so; if the Jets fail to make the playoffs this year, it will be the fourth straight year they’ve failed to do so; but if the Falcons do make the playoffs this year, it will be the fourth time in five years that they’ve made the playoffs. Yet, the ongoing focus of these shows concerns what the Cowboys and the Jets have to do to be competitive again. Dallas is America’s team, and the Jets have the broader market, but they have both sucked for some time now. They suck so bad that talk of them reveals the attempts these NFL pregame shows are making for what they are … unwatchable.

Howard Cosell often spoke of the degradation of his craft with the admission of ex-jocks in the broadcasting booth. That warning surprised me at the time, because I thought ex-jocks could deliver a unique perspective on the game. As the years passed, and I watched these ex-jocks deliver passionate, and well-rehearsed, analyses on the game, I realized that Cosell probably feared what we would all soon realize: just about anyone can do this.

The central character of these NFL pregame shows is often the professional broadcaster on staff, and he or she, often tosses the analysis portion of the segment to the ex-jock who delivers a passionate testimonial that centers around the idea that a quarterback’s job is to throw the ball to receivers, and that those receivers need to catch that ball. The offense will then need to run the ball to keep the defense off balance, and the defense’s job is to stop the offense. In the end, the analyst informs us, one team needs to score more points than the other. Anyone can deliver this message, in other words, and the average fans doesn’t care that they do it well, as long as their heroes –the former titans of the gridiron– do it.

Most core, NFL fans thought that extending a pregame broadcast to two-to-three hours would be an incredible plus, and it was … at first. It was, perhaps, inevitable that these broadcasts, and all of the people that knew their demographics, would try to find a way to land more audience, and keep that audience longer, beyond a “just the facts ma’am” approach of a Bill Belichick to that which we have today. The extra hour(s) led to a need to cover the game in a different way, until it became about the giggling, and the infotainment, and the One Life to Live type segments with a little Oprah-lite commentary to follow. The core, NFL football watching audience that wanted mano y mano analysis proved not enough to fill a two-to-three-hour broadcast. It became redundant, and it led them to try and find ways to expand their show to attract more, beyond the core.

One has to have some sympathy for those that try to put these shows together in the age of the internet, and the thousands of sports talk radio shows that now populate the airwaves, based on the fact that by the time these shows are set to air, on Sunday, every game has been analyzed from every possible angle anyone can think of, but the human interest/comedy/infotainment segments these pregame shows have developed to fill the time we once couldn’t get enough of, are now un-watchable.

*CBS Sports Network’s Other Pregame Show

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The NFL is Nearing Unwatchable

“Too Many Commercials!” “A Record Number of Flags Thrown!” “Too Many Instant Replays! “The Art of Defense is Over!”

There are other headlines in the National Football League (NFL), but those headlines have the league tottering.

The NFL is still enjoyable for me, thanks to a technological invention called the DVR, but it’s tottering on the brink of unwatchable. My current routine NFL viewing habits involve me taping the game and waiting 45 minutes to an hour before watching the game. This time allotment usually allows me to skip the inane gibber-gabber in the pregame analysis, most of the commercials, and the time it takes for an official to review all of the instant replays in the game now. The latter often involves the broadcast network filling that time by replaying the play in question about 15 to 20 times. If you are still an NFL fan, and you don’t have a DVR, I have no idea how you maintain peak interest. On those occasions when I go to a friend’s house, we usually talk through those delays, until we eventually lose track of the game as it plays in the background. I have to imagine that the current NFL is grateful for the technological innovation, for if it weren’t for the DVR, I know I wouldn’t be watching anymore.    penalty_flag

Although NFL referees are the face of the problem for the current rise in penalties, they are just following the orders of The NFL’s Competition Committee (NFLCC). The NFLCC was set up to make the game more fair, to protect the players, and to free up offenses to score points. The NFLCC might be the most powerful body of people, controlling what the audience sees on the field. The NFLCC is comprised of representatives from eight different teams, and they are team owners, general managers, presidents, and one coach. They are a reactionary body who pass edicts down to referees. If the NFLCC believes that the offense is holding too often or the defense is getting away with pass interference too often, for example, the audience should expect to see a flurry of flags to try to curb the activity in question in the week that follows.

The NFLCC also tries to find creative and inventive ways to make the NFL a pass-friendly league to the point that quarterbacks (QB) and wide receivers (WR) are now breaking every record on the books. The creative and inventive methods that they once used to tweak the game are now becoming so blatant that it’s obvious to every core, NFL fan that the competition committee doesn’t just want a more pass-friendly league. They want what the cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers, Richard Sherman once called “A more fantasy-friendly league.”

The NFLCC has proven reactionary in some cases, and when they realize that they’re perceived as too friendly to the offense, they call for officials to ramp up offensive pass interference calls, hands to the face calls on the offensive linemen, and defensive holding calls on defensive lineman. To rectify a situation, they almost always call for more penalties to be called. Their goal, I can only presume, is to have as many penalties called on the offense as the defense, but the end result is more penalties.

We should note that with few exceptions most that the penalties being called by today’s referees are not new, but that there is a greater concentration, based on certain points of emphasis, than there were in any of the previous years. Some of them, usually the game’s announcers, defend these new penalties in ways we core, NFL fans find incomprehensible. Most of the coaches in the NFL also call for more replays on more plays, and more penalties, and the only casualty is the game and the fans.

The network announcers are supposed to represent the voice of the fan, but when another yellow flag lands on the field, we usually hear the announcers say something along the lines of, “… and guess what … another flag.” This, essentially, puts the blame on the player who committed the infraction. Yet, when we view the replay of the infraction, we often see a questionable infraction that suggests that the current NFL referee now defaults to throwing a flag. We can only assume that the points an NFL official accrues throughout a week favor a call, however questionable, over a missed call. If I were an announcer, the audience of the broadcast would tire of my “let them play” cries.

The current NFL and college football announcers decry the rare penalties in-game officials miss. “You want more penalties?” I want to scream at the screen. “Who do you represent in this call for more penalties, because I know it’s not me.” I’ve reached a point, a point near no return, where I no longer care if an official misses a call against my favorite team, if the alternative means another yellow flag. I no longer take any joy from a penalty against the opposition that awards my favorite team a first down. These are relatively new concepts for me, but I’m sick of it. I’m sick of all of the penalties, and I just want the NFLCC to loosen these restrictions up and let the players on the field play some football.

The calls for instant replay are also becoming absolutely ridiculous. I fast-forwarded through a call for an instant reply, the cut to a commercial, and the follow up decision, and I calculated an eight minute span. That time-span occurred on two different occasions in the same game. The other ten to twenty calls for a reply weren’t that long, but I don’t know how other viewers can maintain peak interest in a game that is broken up with such lengthy breaks?

Certain Points of Emphasis

While it may be true that these are not new penalties, no one can argue that these new points of emphasis on some rules have led to more penalties being called, more confusion regarding the consistency of those calls, and more delays in the game. The resultant complaint, as evidenced by Richard Sherman’s, is that the league has turned its officials against the once beloved art of defense.

Most defenses do not have a Richard Sherman, or an Aquib Talib, that can play hands-off and still cover a top receiver, so most defenses have little-to-no hope of stopping the league’s high powered offenses. To rectify this perception, the competition committee put in other points of emphasis to ostensibly level the playing field. Rather than narrow the definition of illegal contact, beyond five yards, they instituted a point of emphasis on offensive pass interference, and pick plays, which has led to led to more penalties being called, more confusion on the inconsistency of those calls, and more delays in the game.

This has all led to the perception that a penalty is called on just about every series of downs, which statistically it is not, but perception beats reality in most cases. It has also led to what seems like a penalty on just about every passing play, which again is not statistically true, but perception beats reality. It has led the game’s greatest fans from the dramatic anticipation of: “Is he, or isn’t he, going to catch that pass?” to “Is he, or isn’t he, going to throw a flag?”

“All your life you grow up saying I’m only going to call a foul if it creates an advantage,” said former official, and former Senior Director of officials, Mike Pereira. “You can’t look at it that way anymore. Any contact, it’s a foul.”

The old saying that the best referees in the game are the ones that you don’t remember when the game is over, is now out the window. Referees now affect drives with their new “When in doubt, throw the flag” modus operandi, and the way the game is played, and ultimately the outcomes of some games. Anyone who doubts this change, need only look to the broadcasting booth where just about every major broadcasting now has a go-to-guy, former referee to help analyze and explain the calls that are being made on the field.

“The officials may take the heat (for this),” Mike Pereira said in an interview with UT San Diego, “But the heat should go to the (NFL’s) Competition Committee. Why do they keep doing this? There already was a league record for most point scored.

“The players will have to adjust, not the officials.”{1}

One of the many enjoyable aspects of watching sports is the historical comparison between athletes of another era. Is Drew Brees as good, or better, than Joe Montana, is Ben Roethlisberger as good as John Elway, is Peyton Manning as good, or better, than Dan Marino or Johnny Unitas? NFL game announcers now speak of current QBs and WRs breaking those old records held by Hall of Fame players. No one cares anymore, in much the same way no one cared about the Major League Baseball (MLB) records that were broken at the turn of the millennium. Most of those MLB records —the home run records in particular— mean nothing now, and the NFL’s passing yardage, touchdowns, and receptions now carry the same asterisks in the minds of the core NFL fans of the future. The game is different now, old NFL fans now tell new ones that claim that current players are just better now. You just cannot compare them line by line anymore.

The NFL does not have the rich, century old history of the MLB, and the NFL is not as reliant on comparisons via records, but even its relatively newer, and less pertinent, traditions are being eviscerated through the points of emphasis that now foster a pass-friendly, fantasy-friendly game that breaks records on an almost weekly basis. We all saw what happened to the MLB, when they began desperately tinkering with their game (post-strike) to attract a broader audience, but the powers that be in the NFL seem oblivious to the aftermath that resulted from all that tinkering.

The idea that the NFL might follow the MLB down the path to total unwatchability seems improbable, as the game has never been more popular. As the NFL institutes on field and off field bells and whistles to broaden the base, the indispensable base is starting to think the NFL views them as dispensable. We’ve burned through a number of DVRs fast forwarding through the pregame commentaries that focus on non-game related activities, and the commercials and replays that test the fan’s endurance. Some of us even go so far as to turn the volume down during a game, so we don’t have to hear commentary from the broadcaster’s chosen analyst defend referees, the NFLCC, and rules in general. We try very hard to ignore the new aspects of the game we don’t care for in favor of those we do, but the NFL is making this more difficult with every passing year. Even while we grumble, however, we have some sympathy for those placed in the impossible place of trying to please Vegas gamblers, fantasy football players, and all of the people all of the time, but when they stoop to please the others too often the core NFL might reach that point of estrangement that they consider the game unwatchable.