It's time we revisited the Bryant Gumbel issue. When we first noticed him, he was pretty and pompous as the smarter-than-thou host of NBC's ''Today'' show, pounding his interview subjects into submission with his brainpower and unrelenting questions. He didn't mix at all with the fashion and cooking segments (hello, he doesn't even like cheese!).
By the time he landed at CBS' ''The Early Show'' in 1998, though, Gumbel had started taking steps to demonstrate his commitment as an infotainer. (Was it perhaps the fatalism that comes with hosting the lowest-rated morning show?) He's parlayed those skills into Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel, a quiet eight-year-old HBO talk show, which just happens to be the best newsmagazine on television (even if it is about sports).
''Real Sports'' -- a monthly one-hour program spanning everything from athletes' careers to investigative pieces to slice-of-life tales -- marks a homecoming of sorts for Gumbel, who got his start in sports and seems more comfortable in a smaller venue. And it's so not all about him anymore: Gumbel's corps of correspondents -- Mary Carillo, James Brown, Frank Deford, Bernard Goldberg, and Armen Keteyian (journalists and former athletes) -- all get turns asking the tough questions in sometimes touching, usually touchy sit-downs.
Gumbel still works the bully pulpit, but this is a bully you want on your side. In ''Sports''' October installment, he ventured to Rome, Ga. (a town with an active Klan), to report the story of Marcus Dixon, a black 18-year-old football star sentenced to 10 years in prison for having consensual sex with a younger white classmate. Gumbel's wide-ranging interviews (with loved ones, the prosecutor, the coauthor of the law) were capped by an evocative one-on-one with Dixon. When the young man said, ''I cried like a baby'' during the ordeal, you almost forgot it was a show about sports. This is where Gumbel, and his show, are at their strongest: He unearths great stories that are only marginally about sports, and slides them in under the radar. Sneaky bastard.
''Sports'' also offers evidence of Gumbel's evolving emotional maturity, specifically that he's more open to give-and-take rapport. When he interviewed race-car driver Alex Zanardi for the July episode, he asked him about losing both his legs in a horrific crash. Gumbel: ''Why the hell, after what happened to you, would you go back?'' Zanardi: ''Why the hell do you have the right to question me, 'Why do you go back?''' When Gumbel reacted with compassion instead of testily snapping back, it was clear that he has grown.