Not surprisingly, I've long consumed anything football-related that the major networks have thrown in front of me from 11 a.m. ET onwards. It's a sickness, really. In years past, if one of the networks had scheduled an hour in which a precocious turtle and a manic sock puppet shot the breeze about the day's games, I'd have tuned in.
Over the last few seasons, though, the pre-game NFL shows have undergone a not-so-subtle shift. Where they once laid out the Sunday stakes and got out of the way, they now emphasize the outsized personalities of their 824 contributors. What was once a low-key primer for the afternoon's games has devolved into a free-for-all in which ex-jocks compete to laugh the loudest at each other's buffoonery.
The operative word here is "loud." Everything about these shows -- the emo-licious music segues, the wardrobes, the whirry graphics -- is indecently, unapologetically loud. Having a point isn't enough; you have to communicate it at a volume that sets off car alarms.
Glutton for semi-participatory story ideas that I am, I decided to view a full day's worth of pre-game shows a few Sundays back. I watched the Fox offering, which ushered in the vocal-moron era when it paired Terry Bradshaw with Jimmy Johnson and Howie Long. I watched the CBS one, most notable for Shannon Sharpe's ... what's an antonym for "eloquence"? I watched the ESPN yukfest, basking in the hardscrabble moxie of the net's 10-year-old pundit and a thoughtful essay likening Tony Romo to Snoop Dogg. I watched NBC's highly rated evening gabfest, which attempts to answer the question "If six guys who enjoy the mellifluous tones of their own voices speak simultaneously on a futuristic set featuring 11 desks and what appears to be an armored-glass divider, would anybody hear it?" (The answer: Yes. God, yes.)
What I learned was this: To ingest a salvo of NFL pre-game coverage between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET, and another full hour before the Sunday-night contest, is to tell your cerebral cortex who's boss in a way that could well affect your ability to experience joy, pain and other sensations later in life.
I can't stomach the manufactured arguments or the force-fed camaraderie. I believe that a superflu epidemic wouldn't be all that terrible if it happened to reduce the shows' on-camera population by 60%. All four are failing NFL fans spectacularly.
I'm not as sure that they're failing marketers, though. Maybe it's the time of day or maybe it's my own unhealthy and possibly illegal consumptive habits, but I find myself paying attention to the food and beverage ads that air during them. Subway, in particular, has done a snappy job of aligning itself with sponsored segments on the pre-game shows and buying just the right amount of airtime. Upcoming movie and DVD releases also feel right at home here, for whatever reason.
I'm perfectly OK, in fact, with the collision of commerce and combat that televised sports has become. We're free to ignore it, right? If Best Buy thinks it'll sell more noise-reduction headphones by plastering its logo atop ESPN's beloved Talking Extremely Loud segment, all the power to 'em. One exception: Coors Light, a brand whose marketing staff can't seem to comprehend that it is loathed by people with male-type plumbing. Go see if there's unbought ad inventory during "Men in Trees." Your money's no good here.
Ads targeting an older audience on the pre-game shows aren't as good a fit, especially "Viva Viagra!," the funniest commercial in the history of mankind. Here's a random question: What would be a more effective way to sell boner pills, by depicting a bunch of silver-haired dudes going all unplugged and sing-songy on our asses or by merely displaying a photo of Eliza Dushku for 30 seconds? The pre-game shows are geared to younger viewers who dig all the feudin' and fussin'; the games are presented in a manner better tailored for the older, football-first set, which pharmaceutical marketers seem to have picked up on.
I don't know anything about TV, other than that countless hours in front of its radiative glow have probably diminished my reproductive capabilities. But I think I can do better here. Hence my plan for the "Uncle Larry's 30-Minute NFL Happy-Time Pregame Extravaganza Sponsored by Liz Claiborne." (Weekly possible conflict-of-interest alert: I write about sports and stuff for CBS Sports.com.)
1) A segment I like to call "What Happened This Week," in which my trio of pundits (a host, an info guy, and a personality named either Ron Jaworski, Ron Jaworski or Ron Jaworski) discuss, in the measured tones befitting a mannered society, what happened this week. I'd say this is hard to screw up, but the existing slate of bickering "Headlines" segments suggest otherwise.
2) From each of the game locations, a quick-hit report on the things that can't be picked up by viewers at home, whether a weather-related concern or the positioning of a gaggle of thick-sweatered cheerleaders within Tom Brady's immediate sightline. More people on the scene equals more potential for unearthing something interesting.
3) A segment with the info guy. This is one thing the existing pre-game shows do exceedingly well, as Charley Casserly (CBS), Jay Glazer (Fox), Peter King (NBC) and Chris Mortensen (ESPN) have plenty to say and say it without forgetting that they're reporters first and entertainers second.
Other considerations: There will be no polls or viewer participation of any sort. Why? Because viewers are stupid and their opinions are worthless. No offense. Second, anybody on the show who raises his voice above conversational volume will be tasered. Still, I'm hoping that my show's three personalities develop a healthy distaste for one another. What's more interesting, eight jocks spread across four sets giggling and totally non-homoerotically punching each other on the shoulder, or the completely undisguised contempt that characterized the Joe Theismann/Tony Kornheiser broadcast booth?
Finally, no ex-coaches will be allowed on set without first signing and notarizing an affidavit that they will never return to the sidelines. If you hope to work in the game again, you're not going to say anything that might piss off a potential employer or superstar. Sure, it's within the realm of possibility that Bill Cowher might vent an opinion more controversial than "It's that time of year -- somebody's going to make a push." Then again, it's within the realm of possibility that humankind will develop functional gills.
Listen, I realize that putting together one of these pre-game shows is a hell of a lot harder than it looks and that there's no conceivable way to make everybody happy. But what the networks have offered over the last few seasons -- shouting for the sake of shouting, the celebration of irreversible brain injuries via montages of monstrous hits, etc. -- serves neither to entertain nor inform. Calm down, or get ready to start explaining the demographic exodus.
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For what it's worth: Patriots 42, Giants 17. I say this as a rabid, snarling Giants fan and season-ticket holder. Giving Bill Belichick 13 days to dissect the, uh, "inconsistent" Giants pass defense is like giving Amy Winehouse two hours alone in a fully stocked pharmacy. Nothing good can come of it.