James Brown is CBS Sports' equivalent of a Hall of Famer. Brown in August was in Canton, Ohio, to receive the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The award recognizes “longtime exceptional contributions to radio and television in professional football.”
Brown, a former Harvard basketball star, an ordained minister and broadcast veteran who has been part of eight Super Bowl telecasts, will be in Buffalo as TV host for the Thursday Night Football game between the Bills and New York Jets at New Era Field. The game will be carried on CBS and -- in an NFL first -- streamed live on Twitter.
The man known as JB has crossed the country many times over as a broadcaster, but he has a soft spot for Buffalo and its fans, as he told The News in a phone interview this week.
“The Buffalo fans may not like me comparing them to Green Bay,” Brown said, “but the point is they are rabid about the team, they are salt of the earth people there who love their hometown team and there's no better atmosphere to broadcast a game from than there, especially when the team is doing well.”
Brown said the No. 1 criterion he has for evaluating a football city is: What kind of fans are located there?
“Are they hospitable? Do they welcome you in warmly? Buffalo does. Buffalo to me is kind of like a Southern city because we typically associate hospitality with Southern hospitality. And the people there have been that way, they are a very tight-knit community.”
Brown said one of his most indelible impressions of Western New Yorkers has nothing to do with football. He once did a story for CBS about the family of Joseph and Susan Salamone from Grand Island.
“The Salamones went with their church over to Chernobyl,” the city in Ukraine that was the site of the infamous nuclear power-plant accident in 1986. “They went over to adopt a kid at an orphanage there, a young man whose name was Al Salamone. … He is a double amputee. Sue and Joe Salamone went over to Chernobyl to start the process of adopting this young man at the orphanage. … There was a tough young lady in there, a couple of years older than Al, who was protecting him from some of the other kids in there who were being not very loving and nice towards Al. When they saw how close they were they couldn't leave her, so they adopted her as well. Tanya is her name.”
Alexi Salamone, adopted when he was 6, went on to play for the U.S. Sled Hockey team in the 2006 and 2010 Paralympic Winter Games, where the U.S. won the bronze and gold medals, respectively.
“When I think about Buffalo,” Brown said, “they to me represent the kind of people there and I'm in love with the kind of heart, the loving hospitality that they show.”
Brown knows the game of football, but doesn't try to compete with former players and coaches on the air when it comes to breaking down a game. CBS’s No. 1 team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms will be in the booth Thursday night.
“I have throughout my career -- even when I did basketball -- one of the lessons I learned from an executive producer here was to set the analysts up, the ex-players, the ex-coaches, they're the ones from the fraternity. From my perspective, I just try to make sure I have all the big-picture headlines internalized so as to elicit the best from them.”
As for the Bills versus the Jets, Brown spoke about the ingredients that should make it a good matchup to watch.
“One, you've got a great environment, as I mentioned. No. 2, it's a division battle and they are always extremely important. No. 3, I don't have the percentages in front of me, but if a team starts 0-2 their chances of making it to the postseason are not very good, so you know the guys are going to be amped up to give it their best because it is a division battle. No. 4, Rex Ryan from a media standpoint is probably somebody we find exciting, because he's not bland, he's visceral, he wears his feelings on his sleeve, so that makes it exciting from a broadcast perspective.”
In an age in which we have the NFL Sunday Ticket, where TV Everywhere means Football Everywhere, there is still something special about a prime-time game. The players know that the other teams are watching them in prime time. And the broadcasters are aware of it, too.
“The guys are very prideful,” Brown said. “It's the only game that's going to be on the air. They are playing in front of their colleagues. They know they want to put their best foot forward.”
Harold Bryant, a CBS executive producer and senior vice president for production, is the man in charge of the game broadcast on Thursday. Bryant says he and his team treat every Thursday nighter as if it’s a playoff game.
“It's prime time for CBS and we want to elevate Thursday night as much as possible,” Bryant said in a phone interview this week. “You’re getting more casual fans that are dipping in. We want them to have a very positive experience, so we will do things like high-end opening teasers to set up the game -- we call them Thursday Night Presents. They're like little movies that tell a story that will hopefully engage you and get you interested in the game.
“We'll have additional cameras, we've got the 4K cameras out there, we've got the traditional sky cam but we've also got the two-point system along the sidelines. We've got steady cams and pylon cams, some of the things you don't always get on Sundays.”
Brown is aware that Thursday night’s CBS game broadcast will be streamed live on Twitter, a first for the NFL. He said he’s glad to widen his audience, but he tries not to think about the numbers once the red light goes on.
“I learned in my first go-around at CBS, when I was involved with the NCAA Tournament (for men’s basketball), I was a rookie broadcaster coming out of local TV in Washington, D.C. When I started thinking about how many people might be watching the NCAA championship game that was, in football terms, allowing oneself to be distracted.
“Am I aware of the number of folks watching and this new media that's playing a role in it? Absolutely, but once the kickoff takes place my sole focus is on the game, on what's happening on the field, and give it my best. I'm excited by each and every game.”