Closing Shot: They could ... go ... all ... the ... way!
The first shot of the new “NFL Primetime” that started on ESPN+ on Sept. 15 showed hosts Chris Berman and Tom Jackson. Berman looked over at his longtime partner and just laughed.
“I said something like, ‘There’s no place like home.’ I forget what I said,” Berman said. “But it felt like it was supposed to. We didn’t know if it would be any good or how this thing would come off. You’re asking for a train to run on the tracks that it hasn’t run on for 14 years. A lot of weeds have grown on the tracks.”
Arguably the most popular nongame program in ESPN history, Berman and Jackson hosted “NFL Primetime” from 1987 to 2005, when ESPN lost the highlight rights to NBC. The two tinkered with other highlight shows, but they never matched the frenetic pace, with memorable background music, of “NFL Primetime.”
In June, Berman approached ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro with an idea to bring the show back as part of the ESPN+ streaming service. Part of Berman’s pitch was that the affinity people have for the show could help boost ESPN+ subscriptions, or — at worst — keep subscribers from churning.
“I said, this is one last chance that we can help the company, maybe, by helping out something that’s important to you in ESPN+,” Berman said. “This is something that could help put it on the map. I also said, ‘Look. It’s the 100th year of pro football. It’s the 40th year of ESPN. This is special for everybody. This is a win for everybody. The league. The fans. Our viewers. Us. All generations.’”
One question was whether ESPN had the streaming rights. Stephanie Druley and Seth Markman spent the next three months negotiating with the NFL for them.
Another question was whether Jackson, who like Berman is represented by Lou Oppenheim, was willing to return. Berman and Jackson speak regularly. Jackson signaled that he was interested.
A few weeks later, he texted Berman: “The band is back together again.”
The agreement with the NFL did not come in time for the season’s opening week — “our bye week,” Berman said. But Berman and Jackson were on set for Week 2.
Berman said he was inundated with text messages from longtime employees happy to have “NFL Primetime” back. Norby Williamson, executive vice president of event and studio production and executive editor, texted to say that he had cut a highlight for the first “NFL Primetime” show in 1987.
“A lot of the old-time ESPN people, I heard from all of them,” Berman said. “They felt it was theirs, too. Whether they were on that show or not, it was our era — the 1980s, the 1990s and the 2000s.”