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NFL's strong-arm tactics smack of censorship

Over the years, there have been many jokes about NFL standing for No Fun League, demanding uniformity and squelching individuality.

From this seat, there's always a worry about any league wielding as much power as the NFL does, especially to the point where it can virtually dictate coverage policy to the networks, including reprimanding programmers and having shows canceled.

Given the pervasive crassness of TV's programming and general "let's see if we can get away with this" attitude, I didn't mind the NFL coming down on ABC this week.

But this does smack of censorship and using the leverage of the NFL brand to strong-arm broadcasting partners.

The NFL didn't like ABC's risque humor as displayed in the skit that opened "Monday Night Football" this week, so it did something about it. The opening was an undisguised promo for the network's hit show "Desperate Housewives" in which one of the actresses (Nicollette Sheridan) removes the towel she's wearing in the locker room and seduces Eagles receiver Terrell Owens.

"ABC's opening was inappropriate and unsuitable for our `Monday Night Football' audience," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in a statement. "While ABC may have gained attention for one of its other shows, the NFL and its fans lost."

Wait a minute. If the show passes prime-time broadcast standards, why doesn't it pass muster as the scripted opening for a prime-time football telecast? Did I like it? Not particularly. Was I offended? No. The resulting knee-jerk media reaction around the country was nothing if not predictable and overblown piling on.

Meanwhile, the NFL is issuing strong words for a partner that's paying the league $550 million a year for the Monday night franchise.

ABC responded with a meek statement: "We have heard from many of our viewers about last night's `MNF' opening segment, and we agree that the placement was inappropriate. We apologize."

Bottom line: The show gets unwarranted extra promotion and the NFL has flexed its muscle. The only thing more pathetic is having to take it seriously.

A year ago, the NFL pressured ESPN to cancel "Playmakers," the scripted drama about a pro football team that delved into every aspect of the game that the league would rather stay buried. Since then, ESPN president George Bodenheimer called the decision to cancel the show, which had received decent ratings and critical acclaim, "the toughest he'd had to make."

Of course it was. The show was viable, and it hurt -- creatively, personally, and financially -- to yank the plug.

It shows that the only critics the TV industry truly heeds are those with financial clout.

Air of importance

Charley Steiner, who'll call tomorrow's 121st Harvard-Yale football game (Channel 56, WWZN [1510 AM], noon), chuckles and says, "There will be a full house at Harvard Stadium and I've got the lowest SAT scores of anybody there. It's always comforting to know the guy with the lowest score is driving the bus."

It's quite a bus that Channel 56 general manager Vinnie Manzi has put together, a consortium of stations capable of reaching 70 million households in the second season of a four-year deal to televise The Game.

Chicago superstation WGN and high-definition satellite station HDNet will carry the game nationally, while COX3 in Rhode Island and WB affiliates in Albany and Hartford will air it regionally.

Alumni analysts Dan Jiggetts (Harvard '76) and Brian Dowling (Yale '69) will join Steiner in the booth, with Channel 56 sports anchor Mike Ratte and HDNet's Kandace Krueger doing sideline reports.

Ratte will host a half-hour pregame show at 11:30 a.m. with Jiggetts and Dowling, catching some of the tailgating flavor.

"When I was doing SEC and Big Ten games for ESPN, tailgaters didn't have candelabras and Grey Poupon," said Steiner. "Actually, they'd be insulted if it were there when they said, `Praise the Lord and pass the ribs.' "

That's a reason Steiner is thrilled to be doing the game. "In many ways, it's the anti-network experience," he said. "These people aren't worried what games are on opposite The Game.

"It's a case where it means a lot to a few."

And they'll be watching at every Harvard and Yale club in the United States, an upscale audience that meant commercial time was an easy sell (national buyers Visa and Anheuser-Busch were among the takers).

"This has been a terrific year for Boston sports," said Steiner. "And Harvard has the chance to make it a perfect season."

Another foul strike

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

That's the position NBC finds itself in after Pittsburgh QB Tyler Palko uttered an obscenity in a postgame interview Saturday after leading the Panthers to a 41-38 victory over Notre Dame.

On Oct. 3, Dale Earnhardt Jr. used a different word from that forbidden file in a trackside interview after winning the NASCAR Talladega race.

It says here that the five-second delay isn't a bad thing.

You can be sure the men would have appreciated being "saved" by such a delay after hearing how they embarrassed themselves -- plus their families, coaches, teammates, parents, friends, fans, sponsors, and programs.

Games within games

One reason Fantasy Football is taken seriously in TV circles (with updated stats and player-selection advice) is because "players" tend to spend two or three more hours watching the NFL each week than non-players, according to NFL Senior VP of New Media & Publishing Chris Russo. That's one reason NFL.com for the first time is offering a free midseason Fantasy game, starting Sunday and running through Week 16. "It's a good fan-development vehicle," said Russo. For Patriots fans interested in getting involved, quarterback Tom Brady ranks No. 14 among all players, with Corey Dillon No. 25 (out of 1,800 players). Adam Vinatieri, with 117 points, ranked first among kickers after Sunday night's game. Columnist-analyst-personnel guru Gil Brandt, who has been with NFL.com since its launch in 1995, "has a big following among fantasy players," said Russo. "They know he's aware of new players, still goes to games, and is on top of the draft." Among the prizes: a behind-the-scenes trip to next spring's NFL draft.

Bill Griffith's e-mail address is griffith@globe.com  

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