As a young boy in the 1970′s I loved the Pittsburgh Steelers. Because of NFL Films I fell in love with the NFL. NFL Films left an indelible imprint on my soul that will remain until the day I die. NFL Films signature was: a combination of concert symphony and big band music by the great Sam Spence, intertwined with slow motion film from field angles never seen before, blended with the poetic words of writers such as Bob Ryan and Phil Tuckett, narrated by some of NFL’s legendary voices like John Facenda and Harry Kalas, portraying the games, seasons, rivalries, stories and players in mythological fashion
NFL Films which started by Ed Sabol in 1962 as Blair Motion Pictures (named after his daughter), has won over 90 Emmy awards since its inception. The NFL Films shows were incredibly well written illustrating the NFL in a way that no sport had ever been before or since. NFL Films had the unique ability to make a 1974 week 2 game between New York Jets and Chicago Bears, two perennial losers at the time, theatrical, intense, dramatic and wishing that you had seen the game.
Throughout my life there have been things that I thought of, wished for or invented in my mind that years later became reality. Because of what NFL Films did for me as an NFLl fan, one such wish of mine was for a channel that would replay old NFL games and vintage NFL Films highlight shows.
In 1995 that wish came true with the “Classic Sports Network” which eventually became ESPN Classic. Classic Sports network featured sports themed movies, sports documentaries and reruns of famous sporting events including a 2 hour block per every day, usually in the morning, of classic NFL Films material including both NFL Films television shows from the 1970s “Game of the Week” and “This Week in Pro Football”. It was absolute football paradise for me and the many purist fans of the NFL and NFL Films.
In 2003 the NFL created their network and I was thinking my dream had become a reality. ESPN Classic focused on all sporting events not just the NFL. I thought the NFL Network would up the classic NFL Films programming to maybe 4, 6 or even 8 hours a day becoming a staple of their programming because the NFL Network is solely about the NFL.
What is better than already having 40 years of film in your vault that has won nearly a hundred Emmy’s? What network ever had that going for them when they started up? The vintage films are what made countless NFL fans fall in love with the NFL and helped turn the NFL into what it is today. Since the NFL Network’s only focus was football how could it create an entire day of original programming? It couldn’t. Hours of programming would have to be filled from the NFL Films vault, right? Wrong! Couldn’t be more wrong. This is where my dream which I thought had become a reality came to a sudden screeching foolish halt. Foolish.
The NFL Network which has hundreds of thousands of hours of NFL Films programming and footage dating all the way back into the 1940′s, has chosen to televise rubbish and repeated reruns of that rubbish throughout the day with meaningless drivel (See “Top 10 Diva’s” or “Top 10 End Zone Dances”) ignoring their fortune of masterpiece films rusting in their vault.
This article is part 1 of 2 of the evolution of NFL Films, what NFL Films used to be, what it meant to its fans and the NFL. Part 2 which will print next Saturday 07/13/13 will be about to what NFL Films has become and how the NFL and Roger Goodell have botched its network, wiped its feet on NFL Films fans, the history of the NFL, NFL Films company (which the NFL owns) and its employees who very may well be the people most responsible for turning the NFL into the conglomerate machine it is today.
For much of the 1970′s The NFL Films highlight shows such as “This Week In Pro Football” and “NFL Game of the Week” (which both debuted in 1965) were the main two of only four ways that I was able to see highlights of the NFL games that were played the week before. The only others were halftime of the 4 pm game on Sunday which might only highlight a couple plays from a few of the earlier games and the most popular of all: Monday Night Football “Halftime Highlights” narrated by Howard Cosell. However there were two downsides to the MNF highlights:
- They would only show highlights of a select few games and maybe 4 or 5 plays of each game, if that.
- If you were younger your parents might not let you stay up until 10:30 on a school night to watch the highlights.
I was fortunate as my parents gave me a one day a week exemption to stay up to see the highlights. ABC would get complaints every week from upset fans across the country if MNF didn’t show highlights of their team. If you didn’t get to see your team’s highlights on ABC most likely you just had to read about your team’s game from the newspaper.
However there was still another chance to catch the highlights of not only your team, but all 12 games that were played the Sunday before (NFL had only 26 teams through 1975). When the TV guide arrived in the mail early in the week the very first thing I would look for was when NFL Films “Game of the Week” was on. “Game of the Week” was a half hour highlight show to the legendary music of Sam Spence narrated by the likes of Jack Whitaker, Ray Scott and then the great Harry Kalas. Game of the Week was dedicated to only 1 (occasionally 2) of Sunday’s best game.
The other show I looked for was “This Week in Pro Football” which was an hour highlight show which was both hosted and narrated by the legendary broadcast team of Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshier also to the music of Sam Spence highlighting all the games played the previous Sunday (The Monday night game was never included in either of these shows.) Summerall would narrate one game highlight and Brookshier would do the next. In between highlights the two would discuss the teams, the games, and players and make predictions for the next weeks games.
The show was exceptionally well done with no schtick and Summerall and Brookshier who hosted the show from 1970-1975, never made it about themselves. Together they were the perfect duo. It is a wonder why CBS took so long to pair the two up in the broadcast booth which CBS finally did midway through the 1974 season. Brookshier and Summerall eventually became one of the NFL best broadcasting teams of all time. This Week in Pro Football was the godfather of all NFL shows that you now see on television as it was the first of its kind in the format that is still in use today.
Unfortunately back then with no cable television available these 2 shows did not have consistent time slots or channels. Often times I would have to use the antenna to watch it from a Pittsburgh station one week on Saturday morning and the next week on a Cleveland Channel Friday night. The next week one or both might be on Saturday afternoon or sometimes not at all which was always a major let down. Regardless, when it was on it was must watch television for me as it gave me another opportunity to listen to the inspiring NFL Films music, watch the Steelers and learn about the NFL as a whole.
In 1976 NFL Films changed the name and the format of This Week in Pro Football removing Brookshier and Summerall. “Pro Football Playback” was a highlight show to NFL Films music narrated but not hosted by Ted Jackson.
In 1977 NFL Films partnered with HBO a relatively new cable network to take over the “This Week in Pro Football” concept. However not many people had access to HBO as cable television was also in its infancy so it wasn’t as popular and seen by far less NFL fans than MNF highlights, “Game of the Week” and “This Week in Pro Football”. My parents did not have HBO but my best friend did so I watched it as his house every week. HBO titled it “Inside the NFL” copying the Brookshier/Summerall format.
HBO’s “Inside the NFL” was hosted by Al Meltzer (former substitute host for Brookshier or Summerall on “This Week in Pro Football”) and Chuck Bednarik former Philadelphia Eagle legend. Inside the NFL included the legendary NFL Films music and the highlights were narrated by Harry Kalas until his death in 2009. In 1978 former Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson replaced Bednarik and Merle Harmon replaced Al Meltzer. In 1980 Dolphins linebacker Nick Buoniconti replaced Merle Harmon and the show as we remember it today was born. Dawson and Bouniconti would both host “Inside the NFL” for 22 years through 2001.
NFL Films continued to televise a separate show from HBO for the regular network channels but had removed the title: “Pro Football Playback” . In 1977 the show was re-named: ”This is the NFL” replacing Jackson
with Harry Kalas to narrate. Kalas was still the voice of NFL Films “Game of the Week” until that show in that format came to its end after the 1986 season. In 1986 “This is the NFL” then moved away from game highlights changing its name to “NFL Films Presents” and its format to general stories about the NFL and its players. Kalas remained as narrator until his death. “NFL Presents” still airs today during the season.
Monday Night Football halftime highlights had died when Cosell left the show after the 1983 season. In 1987 came the arrival of “NFL Primetime” when ESPN began showing game highlights with Chris Berman and Tom Jackson to their own creation of music. The show is: uninspiring, old, worn and tired. HBO continued on with “Inside the NFL” which is cable’s longest running show ever. In February 2008 HBO gave up “Inside the NFL” but it was picked up by CBS’s Showtime and currently airs on Wednesdays throughout the season.
There are many NFL shows today that review the past weeks games through NFL Films on ESPN, Showtime and the NFL Network. I find myself not wanting to watch any of these shows anymore. I currently only watch Showtime’s “Inside the NFL” and I fast forward through the highlights. Why is that? I have gone from NFL meaning so much to me to barely watching any of the current work. With the NFL now bigger, better and more technologically advanced than it ever was, why is it that the NFL produces a product so much worse than it did 40 years ago? Why is it not even close? Next weeks article will focus on the downfall of NFL Films and the reasons why.