- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2004

Rich Eisen, host of the NFL Network’s “Total Access” show, has interviewed hundreds of big-name athletes, most during his stint at ESPN. After 14 years in the news business, he has ceased to be even remotely awestruck.

But in the span of two hours Wednesday while previewing Super Bowl XXXVIII, Eisen conducted on-air chats with former President George H.W. Bush, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, Houston Texans owner Bob McNair and such NFL stars as Brett Favre, Peyton Manning and Steve McNair. Afterward, Eisen was as giddy as a child on Christmas morning.

“It was unbelievable, without question one of my best days on the job ever,” Eisen said. “To be here in the middle of something of this magnitude, it’s been pretty amazing.”

Less than three months after a high-profile launch, the NFL’s own TV channel is seeking to use the Super Bowl and a high-energy week in Houston to make another definitive statement to fans and cable operators alike.

With many skeptical eyes still cast toward league-owned TV ventures, the NFL Network is trying to prove to doubters that a deep level of content, journalistic integrity and something unseen on the plethora of competing cable sports outlets are in place and will continue to improve.

“It’s been pretty special this week. We’ve been able to get a ton of great guests on and really blanket Houston, not only from the football side, but also the entertainment and showing how a Super Bowl gets put together,” said Eric Weinberger, coordinating producer for the NFL Network. “But we really feel like we’re re-launching all the time. It’s been a quick evolvement since November.”

Currently, the NFL Network is seen only by subscribers of DirecTV and Charter Communications cable. That amounts to 18million subscribers, or about one of every six U.S. households with TV. The league received a boost by arranging to air the network into 17,000 Houston area hotel rooms during Super Bowl week, giving many people their first look at it.

It’s an important chance to win more converts to the channel. Already, several featured pieces of the network’s regular programming have gotten strong reviews. Most notable among the shows are the weekly review of disputed calls led by Mike Pereira, the NFL’s director of officiating, and a “Game of the Week.” The featured contest combines the feel of ESPN’s Instant Classic rebroadcasts and Ron Jaworski’s deep analysis and adds NFL Films’ award-winning production techniques and a high-definition broadcast signal.

Eisen’s “Total Access,” the network’s news and analysis show, also breaks away from much of its cable competition. Interviews routinely exceed five minutes and sometimes 10 minutes, a near eternity in the quick-hit world of sports TV.

“Since all we do is football, we really have the flexibility to allow players to take their time, talk about things, and let the show breathe,” Weinberger said. “It’s really a refreshing change from just being bombarded by sound bites.”

Tonight the network will, of course, take a back seat to CBS as that network broadcasts the Super Bowl. But at 11 p.m.,, the NFL Network will re-play all the commercials seen during the Super Bowl, giving viewers another chance to catch the gags, explosions and animal tricks.

Criticisms, however, remain steady that the NFL Network is not providing a truly realistic depiction of the league. To be certain, the channel never came very close to the NFL’s battle with ESPN over the much-debated “Playmakers.” It also took a much less extensive view than the mainstream media on minority hiring or the recent negotiations between the league and players union on retroactive drug testing following the discovery of new designer steroids. And chronically underachieving franchises such as Arizona never receive a full rebuke.

But the network was not designed to replicate ESPN, Fox Sports or any regional sports channel. And in all fairness, Eisen’s interview Thursday with union chief Gene Upshaw did not shy away from hot button issues like President Bush’s statements on steroids in his State of the Union address and Maurice Clarett’s battle to gain early entry into the league.

“On the creative end, we feel like we’re operating as if we’re hitting 80million households,” Eisen said. “Now the task at hand is to keep working and get to that number. In this day and age, I understand this is a business. But we feel we’re putting together some terrific television.”

More immediately, the next challenge for the NFL Network is programming during the six-month offseason before training camp. Plans are developing for extensive coverage of the scouting combine, NFL Europe, April’s entry draft and free-agent signings. A new slogan — “Football season never ends” — is being aired on promotional spots.

“That’s coming together. We know what we have to do,” Weinberger said. “There is no offseason for us.”

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