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Enthusiastic Coverage or Cheerleading?

You knew trouble was coming when the broadcast started with images of the Taj Mahal and Egyptian Pyramids, leading to a loving shot of the gleaming new Cowboys Stadium.

But NBC Sports’ coverage Sunday of the inaugural game at the Dallas Cowboys’ $1.2-billion football stadium left me with a basic question:

In a network TV broadcast of a game that big, where does the line fall between enthusiastic coverage and over-hyped cheerleading?

That’s because Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and his organization were using the matchup between Dallas and the New York Giants as a glitzy platform to unveil their new monster stadium in Arlington, Texas. And the NBC Sports department, fresh off the best football ratings it has seen in years, was more than willing to leverage that hype in touting a new facility heralded as the sports world’s Eighth Wonder.

“What the Roman Coliseum was to the First Century is what Cowboys Stadium is to the 21st Century,” intoned play-by-play announcer Al Michaels, sounding a bit giddy to be in the house with 105,121 fans – later confirmed as a record crowd for a single NFL game. “Welcome to Jerryworld…which has raised the bar to an entirely new level.”

No doubt, the numbers were impressive. Nearly as long as the Empire State Building is high – with two 2,100-square-foot video monitors as large as a jet airplane, as NBC anchors had been breathlessly telling viewers for days – the new stadium offered a gigantic retractable roof, luxury seats with all sorts of amenities and the largest covered structure without columns in the world.

But the stadium also wound up costing twice original estimates, with the local community reportedly ponying up more than $933-million — a total that includes interest on bonds the city took out to fund its contributions — to help fund Jones’ vision of building the most expensive sports stadium ever. The effort required increasing some local taxes while charging $40 for parking and $60 for a 20-inch pizza, according to local news reports.

And though the stadium set a regular-season NFL attendance record Sunday, some 30,000 fans had bought $29, standing-room-only tickets. No seats.

None of those sour notes were discussed during NBC’s coverage, which included showcase spots in Friday’s Today Show featuring anchors Al Roker and Matt Lauer and talk during the NBC-produced entertainment news show Access Hollywood. There’s little doubt this extra coverage was aimed at parking some non-sports fans in front of NBC’s game on a night when rival CBS had the Emmy awards, but Today is supposedly a production of NBC News. A little touch of journalism would have been nice.

When pop star Jordin Sparks’ microphone didn’t seem to reach NBC’s air during her rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, no one even noted it during the broadcast – not even to give her a much-deserved ribbing for also screwing up the lyrics, in an ominous omen for Dallas.

During a conference call with reporters Thursday, Bob Costas, host of the pre-game show Football Night America, suggested questions about the impact of the facility would most likely occur during his interview with Jones.

“That’s the place to do it – not try to slip it in between downs,” said Costas. Unfortunately, that effort fell short, too, as the host’s questions fell more along the lines of “What part of the fan experience here makes you most proud?” and “What’s the most reasonable (ticket) deal?”

“We’re a sports telecast,” said Sunday Night Football producer Fred Gaudelli in a bit of foreshadowing during last week’s conference call. “That’s not really what we’re here for on a Sunday night.”

Which touches on the sports journalism angle of all this, summed up in a simple question, What exactly are they there for, really?’

If you’re going to wow us with breathless facts on the size of the joint and celebrate the game’s record-breaking status, surely there’s also a little time to acknowledge any downside to the debut of this behemoth – or at least tone down the genuflecting.

This is the area where broadcasters face the most potential conflict. It’s in their financial interests to hype the game and focus fan attention on the spectacle, but for broadcasters performing a pseudo-journalistic function, it’s also an engraved invitation to avoid any troubling facts or discussions.

Newly-minted NBC analyst and former Super Bowl champion coach Tony Dungy may have sounded the most reasonable note Sunday, recalling the moment in August 2008 when he led the Indianapolis Colts against the Buffalo Bills in the inaugural game at the Colts’ new Lucas Oil Stadium.

The result: an embarrasing 20-7 loss.

“The stadium won’t win the game,” said Dungy, in one of those analyst’s quotes which sound ridiculously obvious when actually written down. “You gotta play football.”

Considering that the Cowboys lost that game by a last-second field goal, after quarterback Tony Romo gave up three turnovers, maybe that notion wasn’t so obvious, after all – especially to NBC.

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