Imagine starting a TV show and making up the rules on the fly. That’s what The NFL Today on CBS did when it began in 1975. It was a live 30-minute pregame show setting up Sunday’s games as well as doing highlights for halftime and then a live postgame show. While it’s old hat now, it was The NFL Today that set the standard for the many studio programs that adorn sports television these days.
On Sunday, CBS will look back at the start of The NFL Today in the documentary You Are Looking Live: The Show That Changed Sports Television. The documentary specifically focuses at the era from 1975 through 1990.
That’s the version that premiered in 1975 with host Brent Musburger, analyst Irv Cross, and Phyllis George. In a universe that had five or six channels and CBS having the NFC package, the show had ratings that the network would absolutely pine for today.
The show came together when CBS Sports President Robert Wussler wanted a live show that would set the table for Sunday’s NFL games as well as keep viewers updated on games with highlights at halftime and then after the game with a complete postgame show.
NBC quickly imitated with its own 30-minute pregame show hosted by Bryant Gumbel, but CBS had the bigger markets thanks to its NFC package and the bigger audience.
The NFL Today had personalities who were larger than life. Those included Musburger, Phyllis, Irv, and then prognosticator Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, who joined in 1976, and Jayne Kennedy, who replaced George for two years in 1978-1980. All became well-known to NFL fans, and the show itself took off in incredible fashion.
Not only was The NFL Today the first live sports pregame show, it innovated with live shots of the stadiums, having the first black host in Irv Cross, the first female host in Phyllis George, the first black female host in Jayne Kennedy, the first gambling analyst in Jimmy “The Greek” and they were all brought together by the traffic cop, Brent Musburger.
On Phyllis George, who was a Miss America winner in 1971 and wasn’t known for her sports knowledge, current NFL on CBS sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson said, “The transition from the pageant world to sports world, she did it seamlessly. I’m sure it was not easy, especially for someone who wasn’t in sports television.”
Gayle King, co-host of CBS Mornings, said about Jayne Kennedy, “I had never seen anybody like her doing what she did on television during that time and it made me so proud.” Musburger added that Kennedy never got the credit she deserved during her time on the show.
About Irv Cross, Nate Burleson, current NFL Today analyst and a CBS Mornings co-host, said “Irv Cross set footprints so big that individuals like me could walk in… There were people putting their careers at risk and said yes, ‘I do believe that a Black athlete can speak about this game as intelligently as anyone else… so maybe we need a Black voice in these rooms.'”
Former WFAN talk show host and current podcaster Mike Francesa had a big part in this documentary. He was a producer at The NFL Today, “This was a program that set the day for America,” Francesa said.
On Jimmy “The Greek” and how The NFL Today got around the gambling aspect which made the league nervous, Francesa noted, “They didn’t discuss point spreads, they weren’t allowed so (The Greek) had to give his picks and couch it, but everyone knew what he was talking about.”
To get the spreads in, Snyder would coyly say “I don’t know” while holding up a number of fingers when asked about it or say, “What does a golfer say before he hits a golf ball,” and Musburger would respond, “Fore?” It was those aspects that made the show fun.
The documentary title refers to how Musburger opened each edition of The NFL Today, “You are looking live…” with shots from CBS’ games. Musburger said the idea began with the father of the show’s director, Bob Fishman. Brent said Fishman’s father liked to gamble on the over/under and wanted to see the weather conditions from each game.
In a conference call promoting Sunday’s documentary, Musburger said, “So (Fishman) and I got together and I asked him, I said ‘Fish, can you give me live shots of the stadiums, I know we go to the different talent and we tape certain things, but could we go live?’
“And I think it was in November, the first one was probably Soldier Field with the Bears. And it was not a good day and, so we shot it. We just have the one stadium and then it went from there. And the only thing that we insisted on is that they had to be live shots and that’s how we came up with ‘You are looking live.’ It’s all because somebody wanted to bet the over/under back in the day.”
With four Type “A” personalities on the show, there would be conflicts. The show refers to a 1980 incident where Jimmy “The Greek” and Musburger got into a fight in a New York bar following the show. Snyder felt Musburger was cutting his air time at the expense of Phyllis George.
“Brent then was the boss,” Francesa said. “Brent was gonna decide who got what. That was it…. Musburger decided whether you were going to be good that day or great that day or terrible that day …”
It finally came to a head when Musburger said Snyder confronted him and “The Greek” hit him. The fight became front page news because as Musburger noted, a city editor for The New York Post was also there and wrote about it.
The show also reviews the incident where “The Greek” was fired after he made remarks to a Washington, D.C. TV station in 1988 stating that black men were “bred” to be athletes.
And it also broaches the firing of Musburger from CBS in 199o.
You Are Looking Live not only provided an inside look at The NFL Today, but also some never-before-seen footage of the show. That includes one of the show staffers paying off a bet to “The Greek” and various rehearsal scenes.
There are interviews with Jim Nantz, who hosted The NFL Today from 1998 to 2003, Mike Tirico, Kennedy, Wolfson, Burleson, and King, all of whom give their impressions of the program. Musburger and Francesa are sprinkled throughout the documentary. And while Cross, George and Snyder are no longer with us, we do see previous interviews with them as well.
Overall, You Are Looking Live provides viewers with an era of sports television that no longer exists, a time where network television was most-viewed and wielded a lot of influence. For those who remember that period, this will bring back a lot of memories. For those who not alive during this period, it’s a great opportunity to see what sports media was like in the 1970s and 1980s.
You Are Looking Live: The Show That Changed Sports Television Forever will air at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday, just before a special four-hour pregame version of The NFL Today.