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'Masterpiece Gridiron'

What if Super Bowl XXXII were brought to us by PBS? You'd have to skip the chili and beer, and set out the brie and wine.


A woman I know works for public television. She called last week to ask: "Did you hear about the NFL?"

Hear what?

"CBS got the TV rights."

I misunderstood.

"PBS got the NFL? "

"No, stupid," she said. "CBS."

I did indeed feel stupid, as well as puzzled why someone from public television would call me "stupid," as opposed to, say, "intellectually inadequate."

Apologizing, attributing my mistake to ears that are half what they used to be--not unlike Evander Holyfield's--I said, "The NFL on PBS. That'll be the day."

Then I thought . . . hmmm.

What if PBS did go for it? What if Sunday's Super Bowl XXXII game--pitting the Green Bay Packers, of gridiron fame and glory, against the Denver Broncos, of, well, Colorado--were brought to us not by those strutting peacocks of NBC, but by public television, a network more likely to air a program about the mating habits of peacocks?

I like it. "Masterpiece Footballe."

Once, I did volunteer work for a PBS station in Chicago. As an experiment, during a pledge week, WTTW-TV aired a syndicated collegiate basketball game between, if I recall correctly, Kentucky and Marquette.

The idea was to see if viewers would cough up money to watch sports--since, apparently, too few of them had been coughing up money for "Jacques Cousteau Discovers a Clam" or for "Karen Carpenter Sings With the Buffalo Philharmonic."

With no commercials, WTTW needed someone to fill in the gaps. You know, to talk before the game, during timeouts, during halftime, after the game . . . just not during the game.

To be cute, I started off the telecast by saying: "Marquette has its work cut out for it, just as Jacques Marquette, the French Jesuit missionary and explorer, 1637-1675, did when he ventured up the Mississippi River."

You know, this being PBS.

At halftime, we took pledges. I think we raised $9 and a pledge from hundreds of callers to never support PBS again.

Ah, but a Super Bowl. . . .

Think of the ratings. Think of the pledges. Think of the tote bags.

"National Geographic's Search for the Flesh-Eating Brazilian Kinkajou" will not be seen this evening, so that we may bring you the following special program.

Funding for this program is brought to you by Cruex Corp.

"Good evening. I am Diana Rigg. Last time on 'National Football League,' we presented the further tribulations of the woebegone New England Patriots, as well as the coach and owner thereof.

"At episode's end, William 'Tuna' Parcells, humbled by the Packers of Green Bay and scarred by accusations of disloyalty and treason, had abandoned his men in bourgeois Foxborough, having been seduced by the irresistible blandishments of New York.

"Tonight, in Part XXXII, it shall be the ever-hopeful Broncos of Denver who attempt to seize the crown, notwithstanding the jactation of those from the National Football Conference who maintain that the chances of being vanquished by an American Football Conference aggregate is tantamount, I dare say, somewhat to the chances of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton winning the 2000 Summer Olympics' synchronized swimming.

"Here now, Super Bowl XXXII."

During which:

* Play-by-play man Jim Lehrer ignores a vicious Packer tackle, instead reminding viewers of far worse outbreaks of violence in less fortunate corners of the world.

* Color analyst Mister Rogers says, "Boys and girls, can you say 'cheap shot?' "

* Studio commentator Russell Baker, at halftime, compares the plight of Bronco quarterback John Elway to a particularly gripping scene from "I, Claudius."

* Barney the dinosaur, Kermit the frog and cellist Yo-Yo Ma do a colorful "Tribute to Big Bird," who appeared in Super Bowl I's halftime show, but now is old and can hardly walk. In a moving speech, Bird declares himself the luckiest fowl on the face of the Earth.

* PBS viewers are reminded that for a donation of only $50, they may receive a free video from the hilarious new BBC series, "Mr. Bean Gets Mad Cow Disease."

* Helen Mirren of "Prime Suspect" drops by the booth, wearing a Green Bay cheesehead.

* A silver trophy is presented to the victors by the Frugal Gourmet, who pats several of the players on the rear.

* The game's most valuable player proclaims, "I'm going to Sesame Street!"

* Kermit's agent announces that the frog is leaving PBS for a lucrative endorsement deal, to croak: "Bud . . . wei . . . ser."

* Super Bowl XXXII turns out to be PBS' second-highest-rated sports show ever, right behind Ken Burns' XXXII-part series on how baseball was played during the Civil War.


* Mike Downey is a Times columnist.

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