LESS SIDE STORY

Times Staff Writer

CBS has been doing something different this season on its Sunday NFL telecasts.

Or, rather, not doing something the same: no sideline reporters.

No more switching to Armen Keteyian or Bonnie Bernstein to deliver 20-second reports.

And after 12 weeks, the national ratings were up 4% from a year ago, from 9.5 to 9.9, with no viewer outrage.

What CBS did might signal a trend. NFL Network, which began televising its eight-game package on Thanksgiving, is also going without sideline reporters.

Tony Petitti, CBS Sports executive vice president, said the announcers in the booth can handle any news and he wanted to use the time differently.

"Our priority is getting in highlights and updates from other games," he said.

NFL Network producer Mark Loomis went further. "The sideline reporter at times gets in the way," he said.

Keteyian, now with CBS News, has been watching closely. "I've been looking for the big miss and haven't seen it," he said. "There may come a time when a major injury or something is missed and there is a big vacuum, but it hasn't happened."

Few broadcasting jobs have ignited more debate than sideline reporters, perhaps most memorably incurring the wrath of Andy Rooney in 2002 -- "The only thing that really bugs me is those damn women they have down on the sidelines."

But Fox, whose NFL ratings were up 4% (from a 10.1 to 10.5) after 12 weeks, won't be giving them up any time soon.

"Our four regular sideline reporters -- Pam Oliver, Tony Siragusa, Chris Myers and Jay Glazer -- are all assets to our NFL game productions," said Ed Goren, Fox Sports president. "They can see things and hear things of value that they either report themselves or relay to the broadcast booth."

Goren recalled how Siragusa earlier this season noticed a center was consistently looking left, right, straight ahead and then immediately snapping the ball. Siragusa told viewers that if the center kept doing that, the defense would soon notice. A sack followed shortly thereafter.

That kind of insight, however, is not always on display.

At the Ohio State-Texas game on ABC in September, Lisa Salters interviewed former Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith while play was going on. The point of the chat turned out to be promotional -- Smith's appearance on ABC's "Dancing With the Stars."

As a coach, Dick Vermeil said he never found sideline reporters intrusive but sees both sides of the debate. "Having been in television, I appreciate what they are trying to do," he said. "When I'm sitting at home and intensely watching a game, I sometimes wonder why we need it."

NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol has no such reservations. He hired Andrea Kremer away from ESPN to work the sidelines for "Sunday Night Football" and said, "The NFL is TV's best unscripted drama. Why wouldn't you want a driven, informed, experienced reporter like Andrea right in the midst of all the action? In fact, one would be crazy to consider the alternative."

On the surface, being a sideline reporter looks easy and pays well -- as much as $300,000 a year. It involves walking the sideline, making extensive notes on a clipboard, and being prepared to be called on at any moment. But there is more to it.

On Oct. 8, the San Diego Chargers played host to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Kremer was hard at work more than four hours before kickoff. At one point, she met with producer Fred Gaudelli in the television complex at Qualcomm Stadium to go over the stories she had been working.

One was about Chargers linebacker Steve Foley, who had been shot by police a month earlier. Kremer read her summation to Gaudelli. He nodded approval but offered suggestions to make it even briefer: "You don't need to call him an outside linebacker. You can lose the word outside."

Every second counts.

Out on the field, notebook in hand, Kremer darted here and there, talking with players as they warmed up. She never stopped moving, not even when makeup artist Audrey Mansfield wanted to do a touch-up. While Mansfield worked, Kremer pored over her notes.

"I don't stop," she said as Mansfield begged her to hold still. "I'm a moving target.

"I don't care about any of this," Kremer added, referring to the makeup. "All I care about is the content."

So does her boss, she said. A case in point was when the Patriots played the Indianapolis Colts at New England.

"It was our first cold-weather game, and I was going to wear a hat for warmth," Kremer said, thinking it wouldn't be a distraction. "But Dick [Ebersol] told me he didn't want me wearing a hat. He said, 'I don't want anything to take away from what you are saying. What you are saying is the most important thing.' "

Content is not always a priority for everyone who watches. In 2001, Playboy.com held a "Sexiest Sportscaster in America" poll and sideline reporters were at the top.

Neal Pilson was president of CBS Sports in 1984 when the network made Lesley Visser the first full-time female NFL sideline reporter. "As is the case in all forms of entertainment, appearance is a factor, whether it's a man or a woman," he said.

Visser, who worked the sidelines for ABC's "Monday Night Football" for seven seasons, said things have changed.

"The women who now have those jobs are very capable," she said, citing Kremer, ESPN's Michele Tafoya and Suzy Kolber, and Fox's Oliver in particular. "For a while, we had women who just wanted to be on TV."

Added Kremer: "I think that was the case, but those people are no longer on the air."

Kolber said her network pushed sideline reporters to take a bigger role.

"One thing Michele and I try to do is help the people watching learn more about the people they are watching," she said.

Like Keteyian, Kolber has watched games that have no sideline reporting, most recently last Thursday on NFL Network. "I really missed it," she said.

Tafoya, who also has done college basketball play-by-play, said of sideline reporting: "I love it and the adrenaline rush that comes with it. It's a challenge to be accurate, fast and balanced. And I love football."

And she has fun with it.

For example, she plays a game with Los Angeles sports talk hosts John Ireland and Steve Mason of KSPN 710, who give her words every Monday to use during that night's telecast. If she succeeds, KSPN donates $100 to the Humane Society.

When Green Bay played in the snow at Seattle two weeks ago, the talk show hosts asked her to use the word rain as it appeared in a song.

Talking about the Packers' Kabeer Gbaia-Biamila, Tafoya said: "He was chomping at the bit on the sidelines just a moment ago after he came out of the locker room from receiving an IV. He was dehydrated and cramped up. You can get dehydrated in the snow. I've seen fire, and I've seen rain, and now I've seen cramping in the snow."

Most of the time, though, the job is seriously demanding. And showing up early can help.

"You just never know what you might see," said Jack Arute, who worked this season's Washington State-UCLA matchup for ABC. Before the game, he noticed that Cougars punter Darryl Blunt was ill. Blunt, whose heartbeat had begun racing, was taken to a hospital as a precaution. By the third quarter he was back, but in street clothes. Arute had a report no one else had.

Don Tollefson and Jim Lampley were the first sideline reporters, hired by ABC's Roone Arledge in 1974. Tollefson, who on occasion still works the NFL sideline, said the job "has evolved" but is still "all about preparation."

ESPN's Kolber, however, proved preparation has its limits. At a New York Jets game in 2003 she interviewed Joe Namath. During the now-famous chat, he told her twice, "I want to kiss you."

Kolber, by then shouting over the babbling Namath, said, "Thanks Joe. I'll take that as a huge compliment," and quickly sent it back to the booth.

larry.stewart@latimes.com

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