Friday, December 26, 2008
30 Years At ESPN For Nice Guy Chris Berman
There was a time when it was very lonely in the studios of ESPN. Back in the 1980's I worked the overnight shift in SportsCenter with the late Adrian Karsten as my fellow Production Assistant.
What made the nights bearable was the presence of a dynamic personality who brought the kind of enthusiasm and pure fun to TV sports that was hard to describe. He was a part-time local TV sports anchor. His name was Chris Berman.
He introduced the concept of having fun on TV at a time when cable television was still struggling to define what it would be in the future. His unique approach of giving sports personalities nicknames would help to put ESPN on the map.
There were only a handful of people working at ESPN at 2:30AM and even less watching the late night edition of SportsCenter. We used to joke that it was primetime in Guam so we had to be on our best behavior. Seven days a week, regardless of the time of year, we created an hour of live TV that ended at 3:30AM.
Needless to say, that kind of experience bonds a group of people for life. This week, ESPN has put a good deal of effort into reminding sports fans that Berman has been a fixture on their TV screens for 30 years. Here is the full story:
BRISTOL, Conn. (AP) — The highlights this time accompany what's known as "The Greatest Game Ever Played" — the 1958 NFL championship between the Colts and the Giants.
The narration for the ESPN special on the 50th anniversary is typical Chris Berman, enthusiastic but not reverential, full of the shtick that has made him famous, complete with "rumbles, stumbles, bumbles and in this case, fumbles!"
He's made his career this way — being respectful of the sports he covers but having fun with them, too.
Hired by ESPN nearly 30 years ago from his job anchoring weekend sports on local television, Berman has helped change how sports fans get their news and how sportscasters approach their work.
"He created an overall perspective that many others covering sports at that time did not, of keeping it light," said Malcolm Moran, director of the Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State. "It's not war, it's a game. He maintains a tricky balance of keeping his shows informative, without taking himself too seriously, and that can't be easy to do."
Berman was hired in 1979, just weeks after ESPN went on the air, to anchor the 2 a.m. "SportsCenter" program. But he made his mark handling the NFL, where he's covered the draft since 1981 and started hosting "NFL Gameday," ESPN's pregame show, in 1985. At 23 consecutive years, Berman is television's most tenured pregame football show host, besting Brent Musburger's streak of 15 years from 1975 to 1989.
Berman got his biggest break in 1987, when ESPN won rights to broadcast a Sunday night football game and exclusive extended highlights of the afternoon contests. Berman and former Denver Broncos linebacker Tom Jackson were named to host the 60-minute "NFL Primetime," which quickly became the crown jewel of ESPN's football coverage.
Viewers tuned in for Berman's humor and antics as much as for Jackson's analysis.
Berman calls players by wacky nicknames (Curtis "My Favorite" Martin), wears a genie headdress to predict games as "the Swami" and famously imitates Howard Cosell's exaggerated touchdown call ("He could .. go ... all ... the ... waaaaay!"). He readily acknowledges that he's part sportscaster, part entertainer.
"Just don't call me a personality," he said. "What is that? That's a morning disc jockey. I entertain, but I take what I do, the journalism part, seriously. Sportscaster, that's fine. That encompasses all of that."
ESPN considers him to be more than that.
"He is our most important person," said Norby Williamson, ESPN's vice president of production. "He is the face of ESPN."
Berman's career coincides with an unprecedented growth in the NFL's popularity, and some credit Berman with at least part of that success. Others accuse him of being more style than substance; a master of self-promotion.
"He could have become the sage voice at ESPN by now, a voice of maturity, credibility and wisdom," New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick said. "Instead, he's the voice that does the imitation of Chris Berman. He's the head clown in the circus over there."
Former ESPN ombudsman George Solomon said it's not that simple.
"When you are that big, and you're that important, it's difficult," said Solomon, former sports editor at the Washington Post and now a faculty member at the University of Maryland. "You tend to lose your role. He wants to be a journalist. He could be a journalist, but at this stage of his career, its not as easy. But he's certainly a major force in television sports."
ESPN dropped "NFL Primetime" in 2005 when it won rights to Monday Night Football. NBC, which now airs the league's Sunday night name, carries the NFL's extended highlights on its "Football Night in America" program hosted by an all-star team of Bob Costas, Chris Collinsworth and former ESPN "SportsCenter" anchors Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann.
Berman and Jackson still work ESPN's Sunday afternoon preview show, and Berman hosts a short highlight package that runs during "SportsCenter" on Sunday nights.
"We miss that ("NFL Primetime") more than anything we've ever done," said Jackson. "That was his baby, and mine as well, and we miss it."
During football season, Berman says he works the phones like any journalist, calling coaches and team sources to get tips on who's playing and what viewers should expect at kickoff.
"He's one of those guys who can talk to anybody," said Eagles coach Andy Reid. "He can talk to the president of the United States, he can talk to a football coach."
"He'll ask how (quarterback) Donovan (McNabb)'s feeling. He's been around me and Mike (Holmgren) long enough to know what plays you have in, he's seen it enough."
Though he still covers some other big events — opening day of the baseball season, the Home Run Derby, the World Series, and golf's U.S. Open — Berman said he is happy to be known as the face of the network's NFL coverage.
Berman's children are now grown, and he says he doesn't see himself still at the network when he's 65 years old, or even 60. His contract expires on his 55th birthday. He won't say how much he makes, or whether he wants a new deal.
But at 53, describing action as "rumbling, stumbling, bumbling" still feels right.
"It's kind of fun having been one of 80 (ESPN employees) in the beginning and now there are what, 5,000 or whatever the number is," Berman said. "We all have our little hand in the cornerstone, and I kind of like that."
It seems like only yesterday that ESPN had a couple hundred employees and the NFL Draft was a big event. Now, ESPN.com leads the way down the sports information highway as the tail wags the media dog. The global reach of the company is second to none.
Congratulations to Chris Berman on a continuing legacy in the sports TV world and for leaving a generation of sports fans with fond memories of the original ground-breaking SportsCenter. It seems like only yesterday.
Thanks to Pat Eaton-Robb from the AP for the story content.
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