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Enough With the Stand-Up Sportscasting

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Assuming those expecting Armageddon are not correct, and Y2K glitches don’t cast a blanket of darkness over the West Coast, the biggest threat many will face during the next few days is absorbing unhealthy dosages of televised football.

Once an all-American form of relaxation, right up there with sipping lemonade while lying in a hammock, watching TV sports has become an exhausting affair due to the current generation of sportscasters.

Granted, there are seasoned pros still plying their trade, such as Dick Enberg, Al Michaels, Keith Jackson, Bob Costas and Marv Albert (his personal quirks notwithstanding), not to mention Los Angeles’ dynamic duo of Chick Hearn and Vin Scully. Of course, these folks are inevitably paired with former players and coaches who occasionally butcher the English language, but that was a TV tradition even before Don Meredith took off his helmet and entered the broadcast booth.

It’s only been in the last decade or so, however, that local sports guys, studio hosts and color commentators invariably began to sound like they were auditioning for amateur night at the Comedy Store or to supplant the late Mel Blanc as the voice of Looney Tunes.

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Part of the blame goes to Craig Kilborn--who jumped from ESPN to Comedy Central to his own CBS late-night show--and before that Keith Olbermann, who graduated from local TV to ESPN and then his own MSNBC show, before he decided reporting on NBA trade rumors was preferable to Monica Lewinsky. Other culprits include ESPN’s Chris Berman--master of the tortured pun--and basketball commentator Dick Vitale, whose bellowing frequently undermines the otherwise knowledgeable bent he brings to games.

Whatever the impetus, the airwaves are now full of carnival acts such as Fox Sports West’s Van Earl Wright--who seems to be doing a bad Walter Winchell impersonation--and KABC-TV’s Bill Weir, who periodically interrupts his nightly stand-up routine to toss in a few scores and highlights.

Some television executives say such distinctive approaches are necessary to differentiate coverage. Everyone, they say, shows the same clips, so talent stands out by bringing its own personality into the process.

Still, you would think there is room somewhere for straightforward recaps or analysis that informs viewers without compelling them to keep a finger poised over the mute button.

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To be fair, both games and the way they are covered have obviously changed. Technology provides every conceivable angle, with splashy graphics contributing to the visual barrage. The number of channels has exploded, creating venues that live for nothing but sports.

In this environment, even the best of the bunch struggle with the absurd load of promotional material they must squeeze in between plays. While true broadcasters understand the benefits of breathing room, there’s little of that as announcers like Costas and Michaels plug “Just Shoot Me” or “Spin City” after each free throw or before every third-down situation--assuming the sideline reporter isn’t sharing some story about the black patches on the home team’s shoes.

It’s also worth noting that radio has paralleled television’s orbit into lunacy. The best news about this bowl-saturated weekend, in fact, is that UCLA and USC won’t be in action, sparing fans from the rantings of their two local radio voices: the Trojans’ blustering Lee Hamilton, who treats the trade of a third-round NFL draft choice like the signing of the Magna Carta; and UCLA’s Chris Roberts, who gushes inanely on the home team’s behalf whether they are losing to Sisters of Mercy or ahead by 20 points with a few seconds left.

Perhaps there is no better symbol of where sports broadcasting has gone than Jim Rome, who was thrust into the national spotlight five years ago after baiting quarterback Jim Everett by repeatedly calling him “Chris"--implying Everett was less than manly in the way he operated on the field. Everett finally pounced on Rome, a maneuver that landed him on “The Tonight Show,” where raucous applause suggested much of the audience empathized with that particular call.

By today’s standards, Rome is a moderate voice, his syndicated radio show augmented by a Fox TV program. The pathetic aspect of his show involves the callers, who seemingly spend hours rehearsing before phoning in with their “takes"--essentially uninterrupted rants about such pressing issues as whether San Antonio is getting enough “props” (i.e., respect) from the media.

It’s a classic demonstration of how the audience--if fed such a diet long enough--can grow acclimated to pablum.

Despite these excesses among relative newcomers to sports broadcasting, the granddaddy of annoying announcers remains Brent Musburger, who--after being unceremoniously canned by CBS on the eve of the 1990 NCAA basketball tournament--soon resurfaced at ABC, where he has continued to nettle sports aficionados for the remainder of the decade.

Musburger will be on display twice in the next few days, ringing in 2000 at the Florida Citrus Bowl before winging to New Orleans for Tuesday’s national championship showdown pitting Florida State against Virginia Tech. The latter will feature two sideline reporters--ensuring not a single moment of silence intrudes even during lapses in the action--and no doubt be followed by lots of zaniness presided over by Wright, Weir, Berman, et al.

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You know, all of a sudden that blanket of darkness, at least, doesn’t sound so bad.


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