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Tune In, Turn On, Square Out

NFL football has been at the forefront of television research and development


Monday Night Football games, such as the Bucs-Rams contest last fall, has consistently proven worthy of prime time entertainment

By Brian Brown, Special to

Since TV's invention, sports has served as its primary laboratory. Our games have often been the venue to try out the new and the unusual: the latest toys and the newest faces and formats.

Live, unscripted and therefore unpredictable, our games have always offered a dangerous and yet welcome challenge to the medium's cowboys and cowgirls -- the daring souls who didn't mind the threat of failing famously before huge audiences. And among our games, football has always seemed to be the leading object of TV research and development.

You can track the beginnings of our sports revolution -- this epoch where sneakers became more expensive than shoes -- to the invention of the instant replay, first attempted on football telecasts in the early '60s. The first famous instant replay arguably occurred during the broadcast of the "Ice Bowl" in 1967, that all-too-frosty NFL Championship between Landry's Cowboys and Lombardi's Packers, won on a quarterback sneak by Bart Starr.

The replay of Starr's touchdown, caught by a new angle, a camera stationed behind the end zone, showed something not quite seen in real time -- that Starr had been sprung by a critical block from Jerry Kramer. The replay brought enlightenment, and enlightenment gave us more to talk about. And it spurred TV to find ever more illuminating hardware and talking heads.

The instant replay is the first major example of the fan at home getting something not available to the fan at the game. It made the presentation that much more compelling. And as more Americans bought TVs, more Americans than ever watched sports. The competition was often as good as any Hollywood-produced drama, and the broadcasts were being done with inviting cutting-edge technology. As more Americans watched sports, and the TV networks were able to charge more for advertising, the NFL and other leagues were able to charge the TV networks more to broadcast their games. Ultimately, this meant everyone prospered: the leagues and the networks, and, eventually, the players, and as the money flowed, so too did the urge to watch the telecasts -- and to upgrade them.

Not long after the instant replay, sports TV would be fundamentally changed by the debut of Monday Night Football in 1970. The broadcast was an attempt to make football worthy of prime time, using a blanket of camera coverage -- with an emphasis on close-ups and multiple isolated angles -- and a three-man booth (a first), with a new style of analysis: comedy and commentary. We saw stars born on the field, as handheld cameras and powerful lenses fully documented the skill of these modern gladiators, while up in the booth, Frank Gifford and Don Meredith and Howard Cosell generated their own kind of charisma, stars of their own show, like any other in primetime.

As Monday Night Football presented TV at its most lavish, NBC would try an experiment with a football game in 1980 that was the epitome of minimalism: an announcerless broadcast. Though America has long professed a level of distress with too much talk in the booth, announcerless sports remained a one-time experiment.

After the Age of Cosell came the Mirth of John Madden, who has managed insight without sacrificing entertainment and has boldly taken the telestrator (another TV first created for football) where no telestrator has gone before. Madden has spawned imitators, in every sport, but Dennis Miller is not one of them. Adding Miller, this pure comedian, to the Monday Night Football booth is one more example of TV sports being ever willing to try something entirely new and a just a bit dangerous.

Given the rectangular shape of the field, its generous size and relatively predictable nature of movement, football in a way has been an ideal sort of sound stage, an ideal TV lab. And through the decades, sports viewers have come to tolerate, and even expect, the constant innovating that occurs in football telecasts. On any given Sunday, you can see how the game has spurred the imagination of TV's best and brightest, or at least its most, ah, expressive.

In the mornings, you have the pregame shows, a concept first done for football, introduced by CBS back in the '70s with a trio that included a former Miss America, Phyllis George. Then in the afternoons, you'll watch action using technology often tried first on the gridiron: blimp shots and instant replays and slow-motion replays, and super slow-motion replays, and handheld cameras and point-of-view cameras, and cameras able to zoom in on a shoelace. And your pictures will be enhanced by parabolic microphones amplifying every grunt, and by an array of extravagant graphics: two-dimensional and three-dimensional and, lately, magical -- that being the so-called First-and-Ten line.

It's the latest in a chain of experimentation, a spirit of innovation that began with the instant replay and to this day still seems to be a win-win-win proposition for the fans, the broadcasters and the league.

Brian Brown is the author of TV: A Novel (Crown), which is based very loosely on some of TV's top sports directors

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