Remembering “NFL Today” the Groundbreaking Show That Made Football America’s Pastime
Writer and reporter Rich Podolsky discusses his book "You Are Looking Live!" about CBS’s groundbreaking show
As certain as the sun rising, an hour before kickoff on Sunday afternoons during football season, networks including ESPN, Fox and CBS all begin airing their daily live studio coverage of America’s favorite sport.
Noon on a Sunday without real-time pregame coverage would seem empty, strange and maybe even un-American. But while the live Sunday pregame show is now commonplace, even taken for granted, it’s actually a relatively new phenomenon that only dates back to the mid-1970s.
Introduced with the opening line “You are looking live” from host Brent Musburger, the rebooted version of CBS’s previously pre-taped pregame show The NFL Today debuted live in September of 1975 to kick off the season. Starring on the show alongside Musburger were Black ex-NFL player Irv Cross and former Miss America Phyllis George. (They’d be joined by sports bookie Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder the following season.) After winning 13 Emmy Awards in its first year, the rebooted live version of The NFL Today began an 18-year run as the highest-rated program in its time slot.
Featuring highlights, interviews and up-to-date information about injuries and weather conditions that was previously unavailable to most fans (and gamblers), the show was the template for today’s pregame shows, ushering in what writer and reporter Rich Podolsky, the author of the just-released You Are Looking Live!, describes as “sports personality broadcasting.”
“Before 1975, personalities were never emphasized. The addition of Phyllis George, Brent Musburger and Jimmy the Greek and Irv Cross was the beginning of that,” Podolsky tells InsideHook. “The look and the feel of sports personality broadcasting was so much more exciting than having a guy like Joe Buck or Jack Whitaker sitting there telling you who was going to play that day. It had a tremendous influence on broadening the audience and helping the NFL broaden its scope.”
Though the live aspect of the show was certainly one of the reasons for its appeal, putting George and Cross — the first woman and the first Black man on a live sports studio show — on the air in ’75 were strokes of genius from then-head of CBS Sports Bob Wussler.
“Phyllis had great features with George and quarterbacks like Joe Namath and Roger Staubach. She got stuff out of them, personal stuff, that a sportswriter could never get. One reason Wussler had her on was he thought sports on television had become a male ghetto of wall-to-wall men. He thought having a woman on the show would make for better chemistry and that better chemistry would attract more people. Obviously he was right. You had Phyllis and then the Greek would come on with his insider stuff talking about who to bet on. Wussler knew bringing him on would piss off the NFL and he didn’t care. The NFL was dead-set against any talk of point spreads. They got around that by having the Greek predict what he thought the final score would be. If he said 24-17, he thought a team would win by seven. If you happened to read in the paper the line was four-and-a-half, then the Greek was saying to give the points. Whether he was right or he was wrong, the public loved him. The show was tremendously exciting. It doubled and tripled the ratings for CBS and helped the NFL build a much bigger audience for its games. It helped the NFL overtake baseball as America’s number-one sport.”
It sounds like hyperbole, but The NFL Today fundamentally changed the way America watched the NFL and raised expectations about what fans could expect from networks covering the league.
“Before The NFL Today, there was basically just a scorereader introducing the broadcasters at the game. There were no halftime highlights to speak of,” Podolsky says. “Wussler and his producer figured out how to do highlights of eight different games at halftime without Musburger ever having seen them before they went up on the screen. It was incredible magic at that time. There were only three channels in those days. There was no cable, no ESPN and the newspapers were usually two days behind on the news. If you didn’t have an Associated Press ticker in your living room, you couldn’t get news on your team. The NFL Today had a tremendous influence on broadening the audience and helping the NFL broaden its scope.”
And it’s still on, every Sunday, live.
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