Once upon a time, I was a production assistant at ESPN, cutting highlight packages for SportsCenter and other studio shows. It was easy enough to simply cut together the scoring plays. But what separated a good highlight reel from a generic one was finding a turning point or trend that went a little deeper. If that could be shoehorned into the time allotted by the producer with any measure of coherence, you might get a "nice job" from the highlights supervisor. Then you'd go cut the UNLV-San Diego State game.
The biggest difficulty with editing highlight packages is that there are so many games and so little time. In 1987, ESPN bought itself a few extra minutes. In a historical footnote to the deal that brought the NFL to the channel, Bristol negotiated an exemption to the traditional two-minute limit on highlights. The network got permission to show three- to five-minute packages of NFL games in the 7 p.m. window immediately before the Sunday night game. And thus was the greatness of NFL Primetime concocted.
With all this breathing space, ESPN could show fans huge chunks of important drives, concentrate on key matchups, and splice in video from previous games. The other networks would show a couple of 1-yard touchdown runs and a few shots of the head coaches grimacing meaningfully. Primetime would show how they got to the 1-yard line—six straight runs behind the left tackle, or a balanced attack that kept the defense on its heels. I remember editing a Los Angeles Rams highlight—that gives some idea of how far back we're talking—that consisted of several shots of the Rams using motion to create wide-open passing lanes. In the pre-NFL Sunday Ticket, pre-ESPN2, pre-NFL Network era, thiswas innovative, appointment television, especially if (like me) you rooted for an out-of-market team.
Sunday Night Football has now departed for NBC, and as a consequence ESPN has lost its rights to those long 7 p.m. highlight packages. Primetime's spot has been filled by NBC's studio show, Football Night in America, aka America's Night of American Football in America. Regardless of my sentimental attachment as a former ESPNer, I loved NFL Primetime in spite of Chris Berman's god-awful shtick. I welcomed the idea that Bob Costas would bring some medium-cool gravitas to my highlights. Well, consider me disappointed. After two weeks of Football Night in America, I'm ready to head for Canada.
Costas, alas, may be too cool for his own good. He's technically fine, but he seems above the fray, describing the day's action with a wink—yes, the Giants won in overtime, but it's only football, folks. Costas is hardly the show's main problem. More worrisome are the highlights themselves and the philosophy behind them.
Case in point—Sunday's Patriots-Jets game. After falling far behind, the Jets cut the deficit to 24-17. The Pats then ate eight of the last nine minutes off the clock in a remarkable display of offensive efficiency. It was a rerun of the week before, when they protected a smaller lead (two points) against a better defense (Buffalo) by holding the ball for the final 6:15. This was the story of the game, and of New England's season thus far—no wideouts, no problem, so long as they pile-drive the opposition in crunch time.
I have no doubt that Primetime would have spotlighted the Pats' clock-killing ways. From FNIA—not a word. We saw the Jets' comeback, followed by New York blocking the field-goal attempt that came at the end of New England's killer drive. But by that time the game was over—the Jets had used all their timeouts and needed to go 90 yards in one minute. To compound this oversight, Jerome Bettis delivered a garbled warning about how the Pats should be worried about their 2-0 start, as they aren't the same team that won back-to-back Super Bowls. Those teams rarely blew out anybody either, Bus. They won games in the fourth quarter by making clutch plays.
Compared to Primetime, NBC's highlights are skimpy. On Sunday, only the topsy-turvy Giants-Eagles game had even a three-minute highlight package. Rather than pile on game footage, NBC fills its 75-minute show with bells and whistles. Some of this is good stuff: Peter King's "Insider Info" is tops, especially his tidbit that Al Jazeera requested media credentials for next week's Saints-Falcons game. And you have to appreciate the "money is no object" attitude of sending a reporter and camera crew to a half-dozen games just for a 20-second interview on the field afterward. Still, most of the stuff here seems like trimmable fat: several scene-setters from the upcoming Sunday night game, and sponsored call-in votes for Player of the Day, Turning Point of the Day, etc.
What's become of Chris Berman and his running mate Tom Jackson? Their postgame highlights rundown now begins just after midnight Sunday. What was once a seamless hour has been shattered into a half-dozen segments within SportsCenter and retitled The Blitz. While the highlights packages are still strong, The Blitz is indistinguishable from the NFL analysis and debates that crop up every 90 seconds on your average SportsCenter. Even worse, the guys appear after Sean "I never spouted an opinion I couldn't contradict" Salisbury has punditized the game into submission, making Berman and Jackson feel secondary.
ESPN still has a show called Primetime, which airs on Monday nights after the net has bludgeoned viewers with nonstop NFL programming from 3 p.m. on. By that point, even casual fans have seen the same highlights so often they can reconstruct them from memory—"Manning drops back, and to the left; back, and to the left …"
So, where should fans go to find decent, timely highlights? The NFL Network has total access and endless airtime, and they have a decent show called NFL Scoreboard that runs opposite NBC's Football Night, and on (and on) through the Sunday night game. Jamie Dukes, a former player who seems to have grasped that there is more to his new gig than guffawing loudly when players get knocked unconscious, is a good reason to tune in.
Even better, the NFL Network fully engages in the highlights, breaking down rushing yards by direction and highlighting defensive backs outfoxing QBs by switching from man-to-man to zone at the snap. This old highlight man can tell that these packages have been assembled by careful watchers of the game. It's much appreciated. Nice job, NFL Network. Now go cut that Steelers-Jaguars game.