Sunday, September 7, 2003

Back in the 1970s and early ‘80s, the major TV networks settled some of their differences on the goofy “Battle of the Network Stars.” The made-for-TV sports competition, with Howard Cosell as host, pitted the likes of Gabe Kaplan, Robert Conrad and Telly Savalas in tug-of-war competitions, swimming races and obstacle course chases. The whole affair essentially lampooned the bitter feuds which ran between the networks for years.

In today’s high-octane, multi-billion dollar TV universe, there is little time for such frivolity. Instead, the networks are resorting to old-fashioned verbal sparring and cutthroat competitions for the best shows, stories, guests and production elements. And these rivalries are on perhaps their best and boldest display with the trio of NFL pregame shows: “The NFL Today” (CBS), “Fox NFL Sunday” and “NFL Countdown” (ESPN).

It has been well established that the NFL is the most revered and coveted programming in television. So it comes as no surprise each network wants to do everything possible to piggyback on the massive viewing audiences in the noon hour.

That means constant tweaking. ESPN this season adds conservative political commentator Rush Limbaugh to “Countdown,” as well as former Dallas Cowboy and Fox Sports Net analyst Michael Irvin. It jettisoned Sterling Sharpe and replaced new Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells. The revamped show made its debut Thursday in a parking lot at FedEx Field before the Washington Redskins-New York Jets game, the first of potentially several live remotes for the show this season.

Early reviews of Limbaugh, whom even ESPN described as a “lightning rod,” have been muted in their praise. Denver tight end Shannon Sharpe, no doubt upset with the dismissal of his brother, said he wasn’t aware if Limbaugh “knows the difference between a screen porch and screen play.” But ESPN executives intend for the longtime radio talk show host to serve as a voice of the ordinary fan and will be expanding his role in coming weeks.

CBS is sticking with its lineup of Jim Nantz, Boomer Esiason, Dan Marino and Deion Sanders for a second straight year on “The NFL Today” after several years of constant and unsuccessful talent shuffling. But the network is adding an extensive series of new music themes, animation and graphic elements to its production, partly because CBS Sports President Sean McManus fears the kind of overkill he believes exists with the 9-year-old Fox football theme song.

Fox, which has long thumbed its nose at CBS for its efforts to keep up with “Fox NFL Sunday,” today introduces a new studio set for the pregame show, revised graphics and a slightly altered format in which entertainment personalities will make guest appearances. Actor Kiefer Sutherland, also working for Fox on the thriller series “24,” makes the first such appearance this afternoon. Fox also replaced Jimmy Kimmel with another comedian, Frank Caliendo, best known for his dead-on impersonations of John Madden on “Mad TV.”

Predictably, each network believes it has concocted the proper formula.

“We’re going to catch [Fox] and kick their butt,” Marino said.

Said Fox’s Terry Bradshaw: “I’m proud of the fact that most of the other networks and cable teams have watched us and have tried to copy everything we do. I think that says a lot for us and not a lot for them.”

Added ESPN senior coordinating producer Bob Rauscher: “We’re in direct competition for the football audience, and we’re at a disadvantage because we don’t go into games after our show like the other guys. So we’ve tried to keep the show faster paced, we’ve obviously brought in new talent with Rush and Michael, and you’ll see a little bit of everything on our show.”

For years, Fox easily won the pregame show ratings wars, often nearly doubling CBS’ audiences among key younger demographics and nearly tripling ESPN’s. In fact, CBS never has beaten Fox head-to-head on pregame show ratings since it regained NFL broadcast rights in 1998.

But the average audience for “Fox NFL Sunday” shrunk 13percent to 3.7million U.S. homes last year, and CBS’ draw for “The NFL Today” fell 4percent to an average of 2.6million homes. ESPN, meanwhile, soared 20percent to 1.7million homes.

As a result, the pregame show ratings race is closer than ever.

“It’s really a competition,” CBS’ Sanders said. “I challenge our guys each week to pick out a [rival network] guy and see if we can [beat] him. This is like playing football for me.”

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