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Under the Influence at NBC
Paul Corrigan

I confess to a life-long interest in professional football. I do not actually follow the NFL; I follow my hometown team, the New England Patriots. The never-ending seasons of the Boston Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins allowed me to kick my addictions to those professional sports not long after graduating college. The minimalism of the NFL's 16-game schedule has made it all too easy for me to maintain my football addiction.

If Karl Marx were alive today, he would surely understand that football is the real opiate of the American male, not religion. Football is not only an addiction in itself, but it is also an enabler for two of America's other national addictions, alcohol abuse and gambling.

Those of you who do not care about American tradition may believe that combining three addictions in a stadium filled with 70,000 people is irresponsible. I would advise you to keep your opinion to yourself. Uttering such heresy risks being labeled as un-American, no better than the John Walker, the American Taliban. Walker is the new whipping boy on sports radio in my hometown. My cohort, Tim Francis-Wright, calls me masochistic for occasionally listening to sports radio during my five-minute commute to the train in the morning. Tim does not share my appreciation for mass culture. Sports, politics, and a solitary man in his car on the way to work epitomize American culture.

Don Imus mixes mostly politics and some sports on his drive-time radio show. The team that replaced Imus on the dial in Boston is a sports talk show but the hosts constantly opine on politics. One host, Gerry Callahan, who also writes for the Boston Herald and is further to the right than Father Coughlin, is obsessed with Walker. Callahan demands that virtually all guests on the show call for Walker's execution for treason. When I am bored with NPR, I get to hear Irving Fryar's view on capital punishment. Tim does not know what he is missing.

This past weekend, football fans in Cleveland made their owner proud by throwing beer bottles and other debris onto the field. The officials made a correct ruling, taking possession away from the Browns and giving the ball to the Jacksonville Jaguars. The call came late in a close game. In response, fans sitting in the "Dawg Pound" section of a stadium built with a boatload of government subsidy rained bottles onto the heads of the officials and forced them to end the game early and literally run for cover. Browns owner Al Lerner and General Manager Carmen Policy stated after the game that they appreciated the fact that their fans care about winning.

The sale of beer at the stadiums is a major source of revenue to the teams. It would be naïve to expect an owner to curb fan enthusiasm just because a few hundred isolated individuals are turning full bottles into missiles. Beer advertising is also the lifeblood of the networks that televise the NFL games. In 1998, NBC lost its right to broadcast the American Football Conference of the NFL, a right that it had held for 30 years. NBC was so lost without football that it started the XFL last year. The XFL combined the class of professional wrestling with the violence of football. It failed. NBC executives never imagined that the public might be too sophisticated for the product.

It should not be a surprise to anyone that after being cut off from beer revenue, NBC is now planning to open its airways to hard liquor ads. A network cannot live on only one addiction, especially now that cable and the Internet are grabbing O.J. and Condit market share. NBC has promised only to show the ads during adult viewing hours. My sense is that some programming genius will soon find a way to combine a national lottery sponsored by the liquor companies that will fill NBC's coffers. As long as local governments get their share of the pie, where is the constituency to stop the idea? NBC needs to find some way to pay Katie Couric and Tim Russett.

NBC will need a host for the new venture who can portray maturity, wealth, prestige, success, athletic ability, and sexuality. Liquor companies identify their products with these qualities, no matter that the actual use of alcohol diminishes and destroys these traits. This new media figure should become the highest-paid personality on television and make prime-time viewers forget Regis Philbin. Given that the most favorable advertising demographic is 18- to 34-year-old men, the show will need some scantily clad young women to flirt with the host, who should have a well-known eye for the ladies.

Sounds like a job for Bill Clinton. I might even watch.

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