From The PFW Archives – A Look at CBS’ 50th Anniversary of NFL Coverage

This column originally appeared in the October 27th, 2009 edition of Patriots Football Weekly. Some minor updates/additions are in this version.

CBS Also Golden This Season

By Bruce Allen

When a couple celebrates their 50th wedding anniversary there is often a natural tendency to look back at the “glory days” of the past. In the case of the New England Patriots and CBS sports, you can actually make the case that the glory days are right now. Both entities are celebrating 50 years this season – the Patriots 50 years in existence, while CBS is celebrating 50 years of broadcasting the NFL. Both have come a long way from their early roots.

CBS broadcast their first NFL game way back in 1946, (NBC had broadcast an NFL game as early as 1939 but only had two affiliates at the time.) but it wasn’t until 1956 that CBS did their first full season of games. With the exception of a five year period in the mid-1990′s when they were outbid by FOX for the broadcast rights, CBS has carried each NFL season since 1956. Back in the early days, only each team’s road games were broadcast back to the home market. Home games were all blacked out, every single one, to protect the ticket sales in the home stadium.

During this long run, they’ve introduced many of the aspects of NFL broadcasts that we take for granted now, but that were truly innovative at the time. Think about watching a black and white game with just one or two cameras, no on-screen graphics to show you the score,  no clock for time remaining, no down and distance graphic or how many yards the QB has thrown for in this game. If you went to the kitchen and missed a play, or even turned your head, you missed it for good. It wouldn’t be shown again. There was no yellow first-down line, no play-clock counting down, and no switching to see what was happening in other games around the league.

Can you even imagine a football telecast without highlights? How about instant replay? CBS was the first to use videotape highlights back in 1958, and they invented Instant Reply in 1964, using it for their Orange Bowl broadcast, and then used it for the first time in an NFL game in September, 1965. Two months later, on Thanksgiving day 1965, CBS had the first-ever color broadcast of an NFL game.

Monday Night Football is associated with ABC and ESPN, but CBS actually had the first TV telecast of an NFL game on a Monday night. In 1966, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle began an experiment where one game each season was played on Monday night and televised. On October 31st, 1966, the St Louis Cardinals and Chicago Bears played a Monday night game on CBS. The league continued this for the next three seasons, with CBS doing a game in 1967 and NBC in 1968 and 1969 before launching the full-season slate of games on ABC in 1970.

Having invented Instant Replay, they then refined it in 1966 by introducing slow-motion instant replay, allowing viewers to see exactly what happened on any given play. By 1969, CBS and XEROX had teamed up to bring up-to-the-minute team and player stats to graphics superimposed over the TV picture. The following year, the Telestrator made its debut, and though its use has somewhat slowed in recent years, its hard to imagine football broadcasts without it.

Have you ever sat and marveled at a perfectly thrown spiral as the camera follows it down the field? You didn’t see that prior to 1978, except on NFL Films. That year, CBS introduced the “Action Track System” which allowed multi-image display of paths of moving objects during the broadcasts. The Telestrator was taken a step forward in 1982 when the CBS Chalkboard, which was developed specifically for John Madden, was introduced. Using a view from a camera high above the 50-yard-line that showed all 22 players on the field, Madden could diagram plays directly into the view.

Since CBS had broadcast their first game in 1946, and also had the first-ever color broadcast of an NFL game in 1965, it only makes sense that they also had the first ever High Definition (HDTV) broadcast of an NFL game which took place in 1998. In 2004, CBS integrated “Gametrax” information with real time updates of scores and statistics from all games around the league into their broadcasts. “Stattrax” provides continuous in-game player stat updates after every play.

All of these innovations add to the NFL game viewing experience, to the benefit of the home viewer.

CBS News and Sports President Sean McManus is understandably proud of his network’s history with the NFL. “When you look at the names that have been involved with the coverage of THE NFL ON CBS…going back to Chris Schenkel and Ray Scott, Jack Buck, Lindsey Nelson, Frank Gifford, Curt Gowdy, Jack Whitaker, Al Michaels, Vin Scully and Verne Lundquist.” He continued “That doesn’t even include the lineup that we have today with such people as Dick Enberg, Dan Dierdorf, JB (James Brown), Greg Gumbel, etc.  I firmly believe, and I think it is really a given, that when they were doing the NFL together there has never been a better team than Pat Summerall and John Madden on NFL football.”

Summerall and Madden first worked together on a CBS NFL broadcast in 1979, and were paired permanently in 1981. They remained together on CBS until the network lost the broadcast rights in 1993. (FOX immediately hired the duo to be their top NFL broadcast team.) Summerall had been with CBS since 1962, and recalled a production seminar he attended during his first year on the job: “I think that everybody who was at that meeting that day in 1962 has passed away…The Cowboys had just come into the League so there were 13 (teams) then…As I remember each team had its own set of announcers.  It was unlike it is today.  Of all those announcers that were in that room that day, I think I might be the only one still alive.”

For his part, Madden, even though he moved on to broadcast for FOX, ABC and NBC, has always felt a tug of loyalty to CBS “I love tradition and I love history.  This is kind of what it’s all about – CBS, NFL – that just brings back so many great memories of the foundation of the game.  That was my first job in television and they gave me an opportunity.  The people that give you your first opportunity, your first chance in anything, you always have a certain loyalty to them.”

So as you watch the Patriots wearing their throwback uniforms, celebrating their golden anniversary as a franchise, and remembering how far they’ve come from those early days over at Nickerson Field and Fenway Park, think too about how far we’ve come in being able to enjoy the games at home, on television, in the comfort of our own living rooms.

I’m just glad CBS isn’t using throwback cameras to broadcast the games.

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