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The Last (News)Men on Earth

How play-by-play announcers became the new anchors

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Before calling his 10th Super Bowl, Al Michaels answered questions from the press like a grand old man of television. He cast an envious eye at Joe Buck for getting the first overtime Super Bowl. (“I was sitting on my couch at home going, ‘Wait a second. This should be our game, not theirs!’”) He re-lived his big moments (Malcolm Butler, Kevin Dyson), and pledged to call Sunday’s game right down the middle. As Newsday noted, “He has no rooting interest in the outcome.” The aura around Michaels—the glow of a veteran broadcaster entrusted with a great moment of civic life—made me think of another kind of broadcaster.

Back in the ’80s, three men stood above the rabble of network TV. They parted their hair a certain way and spoke in tones of soothing impartiality. They were called voices of God, “faces of the network.” They were the national news anchors: Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, Peter Jennings.

Today, if I went looking for a TV guy who fit those descriptors, I probably wouldn’t pick a newsman. I’d pick an NFL play-by-play announcer: Michaels, Buck, Jim Nantz. They don’t do the same job, but in a strange way, they have come to inhabit the same cultural niche. In our hyperpartisan age, national play-by-play men may be the last stars of TV who say they have no rooting interest in the outcome.

Newscaster and play-by-play announcer have always been similar jobs. The odes in Jennings’s 2005 obituaries—“his practiced ability to calmly describe events as they unfolded live … the magnitude of a news event could be measured, at least in part, by whether Mr. Jennings and his counterparts on the other two networks showed up on the scene”—were the same odes heaped on Dick Enberg and Keith Jackson, a pair of admired sportscasters who died recently.

The job requirements are nearly identical. You do a lot of workmanlike description and are occasionally asked to turn a phrase. When Michaels was calling Monday Night Football, he was more than capable of pulling double-duty on the ABC news desk during the O.J. chase or the World Series earthquake.

Both newsmen and play-by-play men work well past the usual TV retirement age. In fact, they seem to grow in office. Viewers winced at 27-year-old Buck calling his first World Series in 1996 for the same reason they winced at 26-year-old Jennings getting his first shot at the ABC anchor chair in 1965. It wasn’t that they weren’t good enough. It was that they didn’t seem old enough.

And both newscasters and sportscasters fattened their wallets thanks to the network “star system” of the ’80s. It was a sign of Rather’s power within CBS that he wasn’t just the Evening News’ prompter-reader but its “managing editor.” Brent Musburger demanded and got the same dual role on CBS’s The NFL Today.

It may seem like there’s a gravitas gap between the news guy and the sports guy. But only someone too young or with too lousy a memory wouldn’t know that the big three anchors were relentlessly mocked during their primes. Jennings was a high-school dropout. Brokaw had a speech impediment. Rather was “Gunga Dan.” In 1987, the Times of London wondered, “Is Dan Rather, bishop of the nation’s news business, losing his marbles?” Today, Deadspin could run a less British version of that headline over a picture of Buck or Nantz or Michaels. My guess is the play-by-play man wouldn’t have done something particularly evil to warrant such a story, so much as violated the perceived gravitas of the job.

Thirty years later, both anchor and announcer still seem to be in their boxes. NBC’s Lester Holt—fresh from a tour of North Koreahuddled with the president on Monday and hosted the network’s coverage of the State of the Union on Tuesday. Michaels is getting ready to call another big game. But the fortunes of the two men have gone in opposite directions.

Nightly news viewership has plunged since the ’70s, with the three newscasts seeing their combined ratings cut in half. Moreover, network news has been resistant to the ratings-lifting qualities of Donald Trump. During the 2016-17 TV season, the nightly newscasts lost 4 percent of their average nightly audience from the previous year, according to the Los Angeles Times’ Stephen Battaglio. Cable news shows that ran against the network newscasts in the 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. hour were up 16 percent. Shows like Morning Joe and Fox & Friends are up 46 percent.

Network news has been pecked to death by cable and the internet. But NFL announcers still enjoy a world where they have almost no competition. Despite the freak-out about the NFL’s falling ratings, through December, Michaels spoke to the largest audience in prime-time television on Sunday Night Football. (CBS and NBC’s Thursday Night games had the second- and fourth-largest audiences.) The two NFL conference championship games drew a combined 86.4 million viewers this month. The Drew Brees vs. Brett Favre title game that Buck called in 2010 retained nearly 84 percent of the viewers of the all-time viewership champ, 1982’s “Catch” game between the Cowboys and 49ers.

Network newscasts also look chintzy now, with only an exotic dateline or two separating them from the oatmeal of local news. Football games look like—and cost—a million bucks. It reflects a reality of TV: One show is a loss leader and the other can still make the network a fortune.

If the newsman’s decline seems particularly steep, it’s because of an incredible talent drain. After Brian Williams’s fabulism, Scott Pelley’s contract dispute, and a raft of retirements, the men in the anchor chairs are almost unrecognizable. (Jeff Glor, anybody?) Holt is the dean of the anchors. He got the job on an interim basis three years ago. Buck is the “young guy” of the NFL play-by-play men. In October, he called his twentieth World Series.

Michaels is 73. Nantz is 58. Buck is 48. (They are all, it should be noted, white and male.) They derive part of their gravitas from the fact they’ve been in the chairs for so long. That makes them feel like the anchors of the ’80s, too. Love ’em or hate ’em, you know exactly who’s calling the action.

The biggest reason play-by-play men have replaced newscasters in the national consciousness is stylistic. Much of a newsman’s power came from his impartiality—the idea that no matter what calamity or scandal befell the nation, he would call it down the middle.

We don’t believe that newsmen can, or should, be impartial anymore. The model of a modern TV newsman is less Holt showing off his baritone than Jake Tapper slapping around a Trump adviser or Shep Smith detonating a conspiracy theory peddled by his Fox News colleagues. We don’t want someone who aspires to be the “most trusted man in America.” We want someone who aspires to cut through the bullshit: to troll Trump or (your mileage may vary) own the libs.

Yet voice-of-God nonpartisanship is still alive and well in play-by-play. Just as viewers scrutinized newscasts for signs of bias, play-by-play men will tell you they haven’t called a single game in which they weren’t accused of favoring one team over the other. Play-by-play announcers aren’t even supposed to have ideas about the sports they cover. In November, Bob Costas made some sensible comments about brain injuries in the NFL. The remarks were treated as if Walter Cronkite had denounced organized religion—one report speculated the remarks got Costas kicked off NBC’s Super Bowl broadcast. (Costas said he vacated the broadcast on his own.)

Like the old model of the newsman, a play-by-play man is praised for the ability to smother most of his personality. To “let the big moments speak for themselves,” as the generic compliment goes. Michaels has been the best football announcer for about three decades, but our portrait of him is cobbled together from his sly references to the betting line, his occasional political jabs from the right, or October’s bad joke about Harvey Weinstein. Like Buck’s hair plugs or Nantz’s jones for burnt toast, these are only revealing character traits if you expect the person to have no character at all.

In early January, when the Rams played the Falcons in the wild-card round, Michaels made a mild crack about the refs. Only in a play-by-play booth would that count as transgressive. But Twitter went nuts. Uncle Al isn’t taking it anymore! If play-by-play man is the new newsman, it’s because he’s the last practitioner of impartiality on TV. He has inherited the newscaster’s gravitas and also the awful constraints of the job. When Michaels signs off after the Super Bowl, he might as well say, “Good night and good luck.”