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‘Sports Machine’ Shutting Down

Feb 5, 2007  •  Post A Comment

For nearly three decades, legendary sports broadcaster George Michael has been a mainstay of football’s biggest showcase, the Super Bowl.

Last week, the host of NBC Universal’s “The George Michael Sports Machine” found himself wading through crowds in Miami during media week of television’s ratings behemoth, preparing to interview Philadelphia Eagles player Donovan McNabb about the quarterback controversy on his club. For Mr. Michael, it was business as usual.

“The key to our success over the years has been our ability to find stories and present stories that you would only be able to find in magazines or as a long newspaper feature somewhere,” said Mr. Michael, whose “Sports Machine” will end its run at the end of the current television season. “We really take the time to get to know an athlete and get them to trust us enough to know that we will be fair in our story on them, even if we don’t agree with everything about them.”

What makes this Super Bowl different, of course, is that this will be the last for Mr. Michael as host of “Sports Machine” as well as his last as sports director and lead sportscaster for NBC-owned WRC-TV in Washington D.C.

After 27 years on the air and 23 in national syndication, “The George Michael Sports Machine” will be unplugged. The final episode is slated to air March 25 and marks an end to the longest-running sports program in national first-run syndication. The show is currently seen worldwide in more than 120 countries.

“When we started, it was us and the three networks and no one else had what we had as far as highlights,” Mr. Michael told TelevisionWeek in an interview last week. “But as the years passed, ESPN and CNN and cable sports programs emerged, so we decided to focus more on the story behind the scenes, the story behind the plays, the story behind the athletes. We had to change with the times.”

The weekly half-hour highlight show quickly became a success following its launch in 1980, providing fans around the country with their sports fix. It also helped establish a working model that combined news, clips and behind-the-scenes interviews that were quickly adopted by networks such as ESPN and helped make those outlets successes.

Mr. Michael said that while the growth of ESPN has helped sports as an industry, the one business that suffered as a result was local stations.

“It costs a lot of money to compete with ESPN, to the detriment of local stations,” Mr. Michael said. “ESPN is so far ahead of everybody that many stations said that it simply costs too much to continue to cover sports in a way that could compete with them.”

Taped out of WRCTV, “Sports Machine” was one of the first shows to spotlight series such as NASCAR before it burst onto the national scene. That recognition helped the one-time regional sport cultivate loyal audiences on its way to becoming what published reports say is now a $5 billion-a-year industry in direct revenue and has the most audience growth of any sport in the world.

In November 2005, Mr. Michael was seriously injured in a horseback riding accident, breaking several ribs and injuring his wrists during the equine mishap at his farm in upper Montgomery County, Md. The accident forced him off the air until that December. He noted that the scare never changed his perspective toward life.

“I’ve never taken anything for granted,” he said. “Once you’ve almost died, you thank God everyday for everything you do, but I’ve always done that anyway, especially since I was born on the wrong side of the tracks. Right now, my health is good and I feel great.”

The end of “Sports Machine” won’t mean the end of seeing Mr. Michael on television. He will continue to host WRC’s football series “The Redskins Report” as well as some local weekend sports-panel shows.

“When people heard that we were going off the air, I immediately received calls from other companies saying that they wanted to distribute us themselves,” Mr. Michael said. “But at this point in my life, it’s not about the money; it’s about whether or not I enjoy doing a project and whether or not I think it can be good.”

He noted that almost everyone on the staff and crew of “Sports Machine,” including co-host Lindsay Czarniack, were all heading to “terrific” positions elsewhere, with Ms. Czarniack continuing on as sports anchor/reporter for the station as well as covering the NASCAR Busch series for NBC and TNT.

As for Mr. Michael, he is already mulling other projects, including a one-on-one chat at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., called “An Evening With…” in which Mr. Michael will sit down with a sports Hall of Fame player for an in-depth discussion on the athlete’s thoughts and memories. The first of the series, which wasn’t broadcast, featured Major League Baseball legend Cal Ripkin Jr. Mr. Michael said that it’s a project that is worthy of being aired in the future on national television.

“Being able to sit down with someone like Cal is something I truly enjoy,” Mr. Michael said. “I won’t get rich doing it but I’ve already made my money. It is time for something different.”