George Michael, father of the kitschy yet influential George Michael Sports Machine, a man with a fondness for squirrel videos and Chris Berman alike, died on Christmas Eve. One of his former interns, Alan Siegel, remembers his old boss.
Everything I needed to know about George Michael I learned the first time I met him. It was a warm afternoon in September 2003. I was sitting in a small cafeteria inside WRC-TV's studios in Washington, D.C., with a half-dozen other undergrads. The man behind the Sports Machine was introducing himself, and it occurred to me that he was addressing us the way he addressed his television audience: loudly and without interruption. He looked like a senator — Joe Biden, maybe, but not as stiff — who had just returned from a vacation, tall and tanned but happy to be in a suit again. His spiel that day was short, and I still recall two things he told us. The first was a warning.
"Don't," he said, "write that I curse in your reports."
Nobody laughed. It's not that it wasn't funny. It's that he wasn't joking. (I got the feeling that disgruntled student interns had ratted him out to their professors.)
George went on. He told us we'd be getting real-life experience, that this was the best place to learn about the various facets of TV production. It was exciting. But what I remember most is that, toward the end of his speech, he tossed a grenade into our heads.
"Nobody at ESPN knows what they're doing," George declared, "except Chris Berman."
He wasn't joking then, either.
* * *
George Michael Gimpel, 70, died on Christmas Eve. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia was the cited cause, but I'd bet that until the very end, his greatest pains had little to do with cancer. Remember, this is a man who never forgave ABC after he was passed over for hockey play-by-play duty at the 1980 Winter Olympics. "When [the United States] beat the Russians, I was about as depressed as you could get," George told Sports Illustrated in 2004. "I thought, Man, the golden opportunity of your career just vanished before your eyes." This is also the guy who worked with Howard Cosell for six years and would later claim bitterly that Cosell never said hello to him once. "Like many of us," Washington Post columnist Mike Wise wrote after George's death, "the insecurities that made him lash out over perceived slights remained from his youth."
George was the father of The George Michael Sports Machine, a cheery syndicated highlight show that ran Sunday nights for more than two decades. "A whole new world of sports," George crowed in an old promo, "brought to you by the magic of satellites and tape technologies." It was like a primitive, condensed, sports-centric version of YouTube. Pre-Internet, where else could you find clips of Ric Flair, Elvis impersonators and NASCAR in one place?
The whole thing was hokey as hell. There was the Machine itself. In my nerdy imagination, the Machine was a real-life version of HAL 9000, a sentient computer that beamed perfectly polished highlights from space to Earth. In reality, as SI's Bill Syken described it, the Machine was "a wall-sized prop with huge buttons and giant tape reels that looked as if it were salvaged from the Batcave." Sports Machine 2.0 dropped the reels and added a red button, which George would "press" to call up another video. The tackiness was the show's signature. "The syndicated show served up highlights that the local news didn't have time for," Syken wrote, "along with a side dish of kitsch."
By the turn of the millennium, the Sports Machine was a relic, having been left behind after the explosion of cable television. The Machine, born in 1984, shut down for good in 2007. Along the way it influenced everything from your local sportscast to the highlight program that would do so much to render it obsolete. Before SportsCenter became a phenomenon, there was George Michael and his silly Machine.
* * *
NBC's Meet the Press was taped at Washington's WRC, but it was clear that George Michael, not Tim Russert, was king of the joint. The door to the sports department wasn't just clear glass; it was embossed with a Sports Machine logo, like the entrance to a professional team's headquarters. The place looked like nothing less than a Vegas sports book. Sporting events of all kinds played across a wall made up of small television screens. In front of that was a long table featuring a row of TVs. This was where interns charted games.
Brawls, bloopers, zany fans, cute animals. It was all premium fuel for The Sports Machine. If you missed any of those, watch out. Once, during a Red Sox playoff game against the Athletics, I didn't write down the time code when a woman popped up on screen holding a "Trot Trot to Boston" sign (Trot Nixon played for the Sox at the time). The intern coordinator yelled at me, and I almost got switched to a preseason NBA game.
It seems hopelessly quaint now, but George's folksy approach was effective. For much of his tenure in the District, which began in 1980 and ended in 2007 amid talks of budget cuts, George ruled the local ratings. His national show aired on hundreds of stations around the country. But as popular as George was, there were aspects of the Sports Machine that made me cringe.
"I remember thinking, why does he tell you who won and what happened before he shows the highlights?" said Cory Hepola, a talented fellow intern who's now a sports anchor in Rochester, N.Y. "But his style worked. He made you want to see the highlights…even if you'd seen them three times before."
To George, scores were for his Sports Machine hotline, where degenerate gamblers could check the score of Austin Peay-Tennessee Tech. Scores were boring. Highlights were for entertainment. There's a reason George liked Chris Berman so much. They were kindred spirits. Two decades before I watched Berman put on a San Francisco Giants cap to interview Juan Marichal, there was George Michael, riding in the Washington Redskins' Super Bowl parade. "I like George," Shari Theismann, ex-wife of Skins quarterback Joe Theismann, once told the Washington Post. "He's a cheerleader."
George, like Berman, was a fanboy in a suit. And George, like Berman, saw himself as an entertainer above all else. That was his philosophy, and he clung to it from the day he arrived at WRC in 1980. It made him a star. Within four years his local Sports Final show had become the nationally syndicated Sports Machine.
Other than set changes and the addition of a female co-host, the show didn't evolve much over the years. To those weaned on ESPN, it could seem like a parody of a highlight show. But it'd be a crime to dismiss George's influence. SportsCenter may have debuted in 1979, before the Sports Machine, but in the early days the former's scope outstripped the latter's.
George showcased every damn sport on Earth. Bull riding, pro wrestling — you name it, he liked it. Or seemed to, at least. ESPN would later embrace the same kitchen-sink approach. SportsCenter, like the Sports Machine, now contains everything from diving catches by major leaguers to half-court shots by high school kids. Look at the network's programming slate now. You can watch the NFL and the NBA in addition to English soccer, poker, bass fishing, and strongman contests. George may not have admitted it –- after all, ESPN took threads of his idea and spun them into gold –- but he was probably proud to see the network embracing the fringes of sports.
George, like ESPN many years later, saw the value in a branded highlight show. And make no mistake -– the Sports Machine was a brand. Every video was stamped with a Sports Machine logo. I remember one staff member lamenting a rival network's emblem while watching a game. The problem? It was too big to cover with a Sports Machine logo. Now every broadcast features giant score boxes and logos.
The show had a style all to itself. Here, the highlight reigned. George squeezed every drop of razzle-dazzle from clips by using slow motion. It was his way of saying, "You don't want to miss this." Check out this recap of a Chicago Bulls playoff game. All the spectacular plays, including a sweet baseline move by Michael Jordan, are at half-speed.
George's style trickled down to his employees. Even to an intern, that was abundantly clear. Once, as a golfer lined up a putt, a squirrel ran across the green. A handful of staff members just about showered each other with Moet. I also remember sitting in a tiny editing room one Sunday, watching a drag race for the sole purpose of spotting a fiery crash and notifying my superiors. Alas, nothing exploded. I wasn't sure whether to be relieved or disappointed.
* * *
Let's go to the videotape. October 2003. If George were narrating my intern career, that's where he'd start. But the highlight reel would be brief. Because by that point, I was ready to bash in the Sports Machine with a Louisville Slugger. I whined to friends about spending weekends at "The Sports Regime." (It wasn't funny then either.)
It wasn't so much the hours as the office culture that intimidated me. Once that fall, a producer whispered to us, "Boss is in a bad mood." Within minutes, George was slamming down the phone and calling somebody a motherfucker. Cory summed it up well: "George was extremely gruff and tough with his staff, especially interns -– most of the time pretending they didn't exist. But if you were aggressive, he took notice. Personally, I remember walking up to George and introducing myself. He was caught off guard – and kind of pissed -– but he never forgot me. This helped me later on."
Cory eventually interviewed Gilbert Arenas and covered a high school football championship game for the station. George also took a few minutes to critique Cory's résumé tape, stopping it at one point to tell him to cut out the clichés. At semester's end, George walked over to Cory, made eye contact and said, "Keep working hard. You did a great job here. Thank you." George could be gracious.
I, however, was neither confident nor aggressive. The one time I spoke up, I regretted it. Miami of Ohio was playing Bowling Green on a slow Thursday night, and Ben Roethlisberger threw four touchdown passes. George was preparing for his 11 o'clock segment, and via a producer, I informed him of what I thought was the proper way to say the quarterback's last name. "Are you sure?" George asked me. I told him yes.
About a minute later, after watching the end of the game's broadcast, I almost knocked over two interns while running up to George. Roth-lisberger, I told him. Not Roe-thlisberger. I don't remember his response. I do remember that he said Roethlisberger's name correctly on the air.
That's a good thing too, because his temper was legendary. In 1986, Stephanie Mansfield profiled George for the Washington Post. (Slate's Jack Shafer dug up the story shortly after George's passing, when the city seemed to have forgotten his many transgressions.) I found the story toward the end of my internship, after a cameraman from another station told me about it. The profile was full of incredible details like this: "[George] says he once tossed a typewriter on the floor when he got angry. A former producer recalls that Michael threw an ashtray across the room after saying on the air that Dale Berra was Yogi Berra's brother instead of his son."
I learned more about George from Mansfield's story than I did from my job at the Sports Machine. George grew up poor in St. Louis. His real last name was Gimpel. He didn't have a good relationship with his father. He said he played college soccer but his alma mater, St. Louis University, has no record of his being on the team. He once won an Emmy and claimed he never lobbied for it, despite evidence that he did. And my favorite nugget from the story: As a deejay in the 70s, he once smoked a joint with Mick Jagger. "That was typical of him," a former colleague said of George, not Mick. "He would do anything."
He was also coy about his age. In the November 2004 SI article, a celebration of the Sports Machine's 20th season in national syndication, George was 63. That would've made him 68 or 69 when he died. According to his obituary, he was 70. I suspect he was insecure about how old he really was. After all, his actual age belonged to his past self, not to his life as a media star. As much as he loved the George Michael persona he created, he hated George Gimpel more.
"He's long dead," George told Mansfield. "I don't enjoy ever thinking about him."
* * *
One of my last duties as an intern was to play anchor. So one night late in the semester, wearing a gray suit, I waited for the 11 o'clock news to end and took my spot behind the desk. The task sounded simple enough. Read the "Sports in a Minute" segment –- a quick recap of the day's events -– off the teleprompter. George sat nearby, an intimidating presence. It was cold, but I was sweating. I wish I remember what I said. It was probably a rundown of the Wizards or Capitals game and some Redskins news. I have no clue.
"You haven't done this before, have you," George said when I was finished. I wasn't sure if it was a question or a statement. He told me to button my coat and sit up straight. I ran through it again –- the second time went smoother than the first –- and left with a VHS tape of my mini-broadcast. It was my final interaction with George, who I imagined adding my half-assed performance to a blooper reel, sandwiched between Morganna the Kissing Bandit and the Philly Phanatic.
The internship ended in December. I felt like I had my life back. No more college football doubleheaders on Saturdays. No more shirt-and-tie dress code. No more George Michael, who, frankly, scared the hell out of me. I realize now that back then, as a college junior, I wasn't ready for him. This was a man, who in the words of Michael Wilbon, George's friend and collaborator, succeeded through "will and force of personality as much as anything. … He cursed. He threw things. He made people want to quit." Because of past slights, perceived or otherwise, George made you jackhammer your way into his world. Otherwise, you'd be stuck on the outside in a gray suit, eternally flubbing "Sports in a Minute" lines.
Last summer, I interviewed for an office assistant position at WRC. It was the first time I'd been back to the station since late 2003. I took a tour, which included a cubicle-filled sports department that was no longer walled off from the newsroom. Things had changed. George wasn't king anymore. A part of me hoped the glass door with the embossed Sports Machine logo was still on its hinges. I looked, but it was gone.
Alan Siegel is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area. Contact him at ASiegel05@yahoo.com.