Veteran sportscaster Al Michaels has a 20-year-old answering machine in his Brentwood home, and it’s unlikely he’ll ever throw it out. The device contains several messages from the late Dodgers announcer Vin Scully, who died August 2.
Michaels, 77, spent his early years in Brooklyn, where he first listened to radio broadcasts of Dodgers games with Scully in the booth. The team, its veteran announcer and a talented young broadcaster moved to Los Angeles in 1958. Michaels never stopped listening.
“I learned a lot from Vin – he was the voice in my ear,” Michaels said during a recent conversation over breakfast in his backyard. “It was never heard that he wanted to be there. He could take a run of the mill game and make a great listen. And it could make a great game and make it an iconic listen.”
Michaels aims to apply the lessons he learned from Scully to the next phase of his enduring historical career. This week, he joins Kirk Herbstreit in the broadcast booth for “Thursday Night Football,” on Amazon Prime Video, the first contest in the first NFL television package shown exclusively on a streaming video service.
Since the 2017 season, Prime Video has simulcast games with a broadcast network and the NFL Network on cable. But this season through 2032, Prime Video will be the only way to watch 15 Thursday contests in most of the country. The games – which Amazon will pay $ 1 billion per season – will be available on broadcast television only in the two local markets of the teams to play.
While the younger viewers who want to catch the NFL have moved on to streaming platforms, football remains a powerhouse on traditional television. Last year NFL games accounted for 75 of the 100 most watched programs, according to Nielsen.
For Amazon, whose Culver City studio recently produced its landmark TV series “The Lord of the Rings,” and “a once-in-a-decade opportunity to acquire the rights to “Thursday Night Football” to create a new destination for Prime Video users. ,” said Marie Donoghue, vice president of global sports video for Amazon.
“We also have so many Prime members in the US who have never used Prime Video,” Donoghue added. “Some don’t know they have it.”
Many fans, especially older ones, will be streaming NFL games for the first time. Amazon is counting on Michaels presence — having aired “Monday Night Football” for 20 seasons on ABC and the past 16 years on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” — to provide immediate familiarity to those who get used to the technology.
“I think Amazon wanted to prove that we’re playing with the big boys,” Michaels said. “They want to make it classy. We have to have a comfort level for the fans who want to watch the game and not get lost.”
A big appeal of video streaming is the expansion of consumer choice. Amazon is also providing that on “Thursday Night Football,” as Prime Video will offer other streams of the game during the season. YouTube stars Dude Perfect, a sports comedy group, in four of the games. (“My teenage grandchildren know about them,” Michaels said.)
The team of Andrea Kremer and Hannah Storm who have used Prime Video in the past will also return for two games, presenting the contests in a more informal style similar to the Manning brothers’ simulcast of “Monday Night Football.”
Alternative streams, more of which will be announced during the season, are a way to attract new and younger fans. But for those who have watched football for years and want to be connected to the game they already know and love, Michaels will be there.
“There may be people coming to Amazon who are skeptical about the experience,” said Patrick Rishe, director of the Olin Sports Business Program at Washington University in St. Louis. Louis. “Michaels adds an extra level of gravitas. It’s a name people trust.”
The story is similar to 1994, when Fox, still at the forefront of the television business, shocked the sports world by poaching the rights to the NFL’s National Football Conference games from CBS. Sports TV purists sniffed, assuming Bart Simpson would be reporting from the sidelines. Fox responded by hiring the longtime announcing team of John Madden and Pat Summerall, which gave their new sports division instant credibility.
Michaels is very happy that Amazon recognized the equity he created with the audience over 36 seasons. He didn’t leave “Sunday Night Football” as an option, as the network indicated that Mike Tirico is the future of broadcasting.
“I wasn’t happy, but I knew it well beforehand,” Michaels said. “I didn’t want to retire. I would still love to do it. I felt as energetic as ever.”
Amazon approached Michaels after the end of the 2020-21 season about joining its new team and signed him earlier this year, part of a major shuffle of major NFL advertisers in the offseason. (Michaels signed an emeritus deal with NBC in May and is expected to be featured on its NFL postseason coverage).
On the surface, Michaels doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who welcomes change. He has been married to his wife Linda since Lyndon Johnson was in the White House. They have lived in the same house since 1986. He claims he has never eaten a vegetable and has no plans to start.
But throughout his career, Michaels learned to swim with the tide. He called a total of 60 minutes of hockey before being assigned to the sport during ABC’s coverage of the 1980 Winter Olympics. He went on to deliver the play-by-play for the USA hockey team’s gold medal win over the Soviet Union – in an upset unfathomable – and sealed it with the line “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” The episode achieved a place in television sports history.
Bob Iger, former chairman of the Walt Disney Co., worked alongside Michaels at ABC Sports in the 1970s.
“I carried his bags to events from time to time,” Iger said in a recent interview. Iger remembers the network staff celebrating at the Lake Placid, N.Y., hotel restaurant after the hockey telecast aired when everyone realized they had been watching an event for years.
“Al walked into the restaurant and the whole place stood up – a standing ovation,” Iger said. “That’s when I knew it had gone to a whole different level.”
There were times when Michaels was called upon to deal with breaking news stories. He became a natural disaster reporter, sending on-site data from San Francisco’s Candlestick Park when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck before the third game of the 1989 World Series.
In June 1994, he clashed with ABC News journalists when OJ Simpson and his friend Al Cowlings were being chased by police in Simpson’s white Bronco (the two men were Michaels’ tennis partners).
Flagging ratings at “Monday Night Football” in the late 1990s drew Michaels into network television experiments. He worked the 2000 and 2001 seasons in the booth with comedian and former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Dennis Miller. They became good friends, but Michaels said Miller’s rare references to Sylvia Plath and Cristo tested him. “I had an Excedrin number 306 headache after every game,” he said.
But Michaels’ willingness to dive in whenever bosses threw something new at him probably contributed to his longevity.
“He’s not risk averse,” Iger said. “And he manages through the change because he works hard.”
For Michaels, adapting is part of the job. “When you sign up for something, you do it,” he said. “You can fight it, but that’s just a waste of energy. You have to find a way to make it work.”
Michaels’ career span and the array of larger-than-life colleagues he’s worked with, including Madden, Simpson, Howard Cosell and Caitlyn Jenner, provide him with an endless supply of stories. He’s like a human search engine, able to recount previous events and games with complete details every time – a valuable skill to have during a blowout game.
“A lot of people are interested in personality and other things than rotating belts,” he said.
When Scully died, Michaels joined the collective embrace of Dodgers fans who grew up with their idol. A network sportscaster since the mid-1970s, when Michaels first donned a canary yellow blazer for ABC Sports, he’s never experienced the deep connection fans have with their longtime local broadcasters. His relationship with the audience is more complex.
Michaels knows that Seattle Seahawk fans associate his voice with the Super Bowl XLIX victory over New England Patriots Malcolm Butler’s goal-line interception. His call to Buffalo Bills kicker Scott Norwood’s missed field goal in Super Bowl XXV will never get him down in western New York.
That’s why he appreciates his cheering at the 1980 Winter Olympics. “That’s the only time in my career that 99.9% of the audience is going the same way I’m going,” he said.
But Michaels knows he is lucky to be the voice of a sport whose standing in the American public has only strengthened even with the problems it has had in recent years. He does not buy the idea that fans turned away because of social protests on the field from NFL players, a theory behind the ratings that the league suffered in 2017 and 2018.
“We went from number one down to number one,” he said. “The margin between one and two was even greater. A lot of people were saying, ‘I’m not going to watch again.’ That was a lot of noise. Those same people are probably watching.”
Michaels believes the key to NFL leadership is to transform it into a “365-day-a-year conversation.” The NFL draft – once the domain of football junkies – is a television ratings hit across several networks and streaming platforms. The NFL Scouting Combine for college talent, free agency machinations and stars like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers provide the league’s celebrity gossip fodder even in the offseason.
Michaels believes the NFL is the best unscripted drama on television. By spending many years telling those stories, he has tackled the unknown, even a pioneering role at Prime Video.
“I see this as exciting and mysterious,” he said. “It’s good to have a little uncertainty.”