Monday, April 7, 2014

Teamcasts have promise, but network bias already exits

For a first effort the "teamcasts" during the NCAA Tournament national semifinals were good. They came with good production values, logical approaches (a reliance on social media) and proven storylines.

The broadcasts aired on TNT and truTV -- and apparently confused some viewers who did not know the broadcasts were supposed to be a bit biased. With the national broadcasts on TBS for the first time Saturday, it was all-cable, diversified coverage that confused some because of the significant change.

On the teamcasts it was all UConn, all Florida, all Wisconsin or all Kentucky -- pretty much all the time.

It's a model that should, and will, get repeated for big and not-so-big sporting events in the future. Some would argue it already exists with CNN and Fox News, so it's easy to argue in support of the potential business model.

Along with the expected quality, the teamcasts also revealed expected weakness in reporting. It was not about chasing news, but more a matter of an ability to do the job and seem comfortable on camera. In the early game, Swin Cash, who literally made a living on a basketball court, was out of her element just a few steps off the hardwood. But for a rare assignment, that was to be expected.

In the aftermath of the national semifinals, Richard Sandomir of The New York Times wrote that the concept was a success. He believes the approach can work really well if the on-air types go into full homer mode, giving a potentially biased audience more of what it wants.

Still, whatever level of cheerleading happens, viewers (and even those with a strong rooting interest) want information as well. They want access. They want to feel that they're part of a community.

A teamcast can do that, and it might do that with some bias or rooting, but it does not necessarily have to do that alone to be successful. Even fans who bleed whatever color want a bit of credibility. That's why the social media segments were a nice touch, and even why Rex Chapman was appropriate on the UK broadcast.

Still, credibility matters -- and that could be seen, or not, as ESPN covered the national semifinals of the NCAA Women's Tournament on Sunday.

In the second of those broadcasts there was a clear rooting interest in the matchup between UConn and Stanford. ESPN's on-air folks were rooting for a competitive game.

As UConn trailed with five minutes remaining in the first half, they discussed a "possible upset" and offered their most concerned tones. A off-balance, prayerful Stanford three-point shot that banked is as time expired on the shot clock was cited as an example as the "kind of shot that goes in" during an upset.

Meanwhile, viewers as home knew it was too early be talking upset because a media timeout remained before the half … and because it's UConn.

As a result, all the breathless hype sounded just like that, hype. Sure, the statistic that UConn had trailed longer in the first half than they had all season was a nice note. But it was just that, a note. What was missing was any kind of perspective that prevented the on-air types (or at least the director and producer  who had a route to their earpieces) from getting caught up in silliness.

In the end, ESPN also has a rooting interest in hyping undefeated Notre Dame vs. undefeated UConn in the national championship game Tuesday night. As a result, the second women's national semifinal was more a teamcast than any of the four men's broadcasts the night before.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

National semifinals guarantee ratings, change

After setting cable records for ratings and viewership last weekend during the regional finals of the NCAA Tournament, TBS televises the national semifinals tonight with more ratings records guaranteed.

It's the first time both games have been on a cable outlet.

In addition to the cable change, TNT and truTV provide team-specific broadcasts as part of the overall package -- and that change comes with its own challenges and opportunities.

Game coverage on TBS begins at 6 p.m. with Connecticut-Florida, followed by Kentucky-Wisconsin. CBS Sports play-by-play man Jim Nantz leads the on-air team that includes analysts Greg Anthony and Steve Kerr and reporter Tracy Wolfson.

So far, Nantz/Anthony have proven capable if unspectacular during the tournament. Both Anthony and Kerr (who is not joining the top team until this weekend, as he has in previous years) have had their moments of general informativeness without anything especially insightful or timely. They also both struggled at key moments in the regional round. Starting tonight, they can only be better.

Still, hype for tonight's games has been lees about the primary broadcast than two others that will originate from the Final Four at the same time.

After months of hype, these games provide the debut of team-specific broadcasts on TBS and truTV. It's another way for broadcasters to leverage the power of the NCAA Tournament and provide something they think will be well received by viewers.

So, TNT will offer the "teamcasts" for Florida and Kentucky while truTV provides home-grown announcers to call the games for Connecticut and Wisconsin. It'll be interesting to hear and watch what happens.

Some hard-core fans might appreciate being able to turn away from Nantz & Co., and network officials have encouraged the team-specific broadcasters to be highly supportive and team specific. It's an interesting concept. And it would be even better if it were not strongly contrived in this instance … because many of those doing the games are not the team's regular broadcasters.

The on-air pros who would know the teams best, the team's radio broadcasters, were prohibited from participating by their respective rights holders. Still, the personnel working the games does have ties to the programs. At the same time, they should be careful with how much they go into cheerleader mode, or even if they do.

Here's the team-by-team talent:

  • Florida: David Steele, voice of the Orlando Magic who has experience on Florida basketball and football; analyst Mark Wise, who has worked Gators games for 14 years; and reporter James Bates, a former Florida football player.
  • UConn: Erice Frede, a studio host for UConn games on CSN New England; analyst Donny Marshall, a former UConn standout and YES Network NBA analyst; and reporter Swin Cash, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and two-time NCAA women's champ at UConn.
  • Kentucky: Rob Bromley, who has worked for UKTV for more than 30 years; analyst Rex Chapman, a 12-year NBA veteran and all-SEC player at UK; and reporter Dave Baker, who does TV play-by-play for UK.
  • Wisconsin: Wayne Larrivee of the Big Ten Network, who is also the radio voice of the Green Bay Packers; and analyst Mike Kelley, a member of Wisconsin's 2000 team that reached the Final Four.

Here's why they should be careful about what they do:

Fans know and trust these folks (maybe the former athletes, Marshall, Cash and Chapman, even more than the broadcasters) but those same fans want good broadcasts more than some "homers" thrown out there on a national cable outlet. For UK, Bromley and Baker bring years of expertise and familiarity to the job, but there has to be a balance so they do not become caricatures.

Fans and viewers appreciate access, information and insight more than rah-rah silliness, so how that gets balanced in these broadcasts will be interesting to watch.

Individually, Larrivee might be in the most challenging position. Most times when he draws a Wisconsin assignment, he's working a game in which he must not be biased. Tonight, though, he's supposedly being encouraged to do so. He's' really good at what he does. Hopefully that will not change tonight.

No matter who's working, expect the games to be a ratings success. First, they'll be a first-of-their kind approach, so they'll provide a baseline and a way to measure such broadcasts moving forward. Second, they'll probably out-draw whatever TBS or truTV could've done to counter program the tournament.

Still, it seems like an even less expensive and more fan-friendly approach to multiple-outlet broadcasts would be the approach ESPN used for the national championship game in football.

Some real-time analysis, with coaches or their cadre of college basketball analysts CBS/TNT already employs would seem to be just as watchable, and by just as many fans. Unlike football, though, basketball's faster pace might not provide as much time for such analysis. Still, that's exactly how viewers consume games -- often talking together while the action happens -- so a second-guessing-while-it-happens approach might be better, and should be considered in the future.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Halfway to Final Four, analysts leave us wanting

We're halfway to the Final Four, with Florida and Wisconsin having scored their spots, and we can only hope the analysts on the top broadcast teams -- who will team together for the season's final games next weekend -- can perform together better together than individually.

That's because in big moments in their most recent games Greg Anthony and Steve Kerr have come across an unaware, uninformed and, even worse, indecisive.

Late in his regional semifinal assignment (Michigan-Tennessee), Anthony was unsure the player making an inbound pass after a made basket could run the baseline. Sorry, but that's Analyst 101.

Maybe he meant to be more specific, that the player could run farther than he did to get a better angle on the pass, which he said a few seconds later, but just as a single action by a player can change a game or a perception, an analyst's misstep can ring true -- and for a long time -- as well. Anthony can do better.

Kerr should be able to do better as well. He struggled mightily in the final minutes of the Arizona-Wisconsin regional final. His problems with a too-supportive attitude for the game officials -- which might be the biggest, most common problem for broadcast partners in any sport, and especially the NCAA Tournament. Yes, they have a tough job (at least that's the cliché we hear repeated endlessly), but when they make a mistake criticism is fair.

Kerr missed on a block-charge call to start his problem. He then took too long to offer an opinion on an out-of-bounds possession play that a happened seconds later. He said the call looked correct, without enough evidence to change it via replay. He then changed his mind, and lost focus on the game itself.

The ensuing lull in the action left nearly five minutes for Arizona coach Sean Miller to come up with a possible offensive plan. What resulted was feeble, at best. While the call was correct, giving Arizona a chance it lost when it lost possession on the block-charge call, the offensive play call was weak.

It was the kind of thing an analyst should point out, and quickly. Instead, it was basically overlooked -- and it's not like the on-air team was fawning over the winning team from Wisconsin, either.

Either way, both Anthony and Kerr were just OK, not Final Four caliber. Maybe together they can be better. And let's hope so, because viewers deserve better.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

It's Madness: A mob mentality to analysis

Minutes after the 68-team NCAA Tournament field was set -- even before it was complete, actually -- the impossible, silly generalizations started. And, moments after that, the mindless contradictions followed.

It was an epidemic of cliches and contractions.

No matter the network or the outlet, everyone seemed to agree the Midwest Region was: "loaded," "stacked," or pick some powerful adjective. The message was clear and unanimous from almost every analyst and network: the region provided the most challenging path for its No. 1 seed, Wichita State, to reach the Final Four.

Clearly, there a many top teams in the region. That includes Michigan, Duke and Louisville as top four seeds behind the unbeaten Shockers. That's a group of national championship caliber teams, so there's no doubt about the quality in the region.

What college basketball fans heard most after that was just illogical and wrong, though.

Yes, it's an apparently strong region, but continually overstating the difficulty of Wichita State's potential path was silly. Sure, surging Louisville might have been under seeded at No. 4, but implying that the top seed would have to defeat every other team in the region was dishonest. It's not a round-robin tournament. No team needs to beat every other.

In fact, Wichita State could only face, at most, two of those other three top seeds if advances to the Final Four … and that's only if all the seeds hold.

Who knows, Kentucky (another strong team that does indeed make the region seem imposing) could upend the Shockers in the third round. Or maybe the top seed could lose its first game. Maybe one of those other top teams will falter.

No matter who advances, or how they advance, they will not do so by playing every other team in the region or tournament -- and the analysts know that. By overlooking the obvious, they do a disservice to listeners and viewers, and they do it constantly. Despite all the compelling and interesting information they do share, that bit of overstatement hampers their message.

Worst of all, in almost the next breath, those same analysts and same networks (and, really, pick any one of them), stress the urgency of the tournament and it's one-and-done format. They'll point to that as the attraction of the tournament -- any team could lose at any time. It's not survival of the fittest. It's simply survive and advance  -- one game at a time, one team at a time.

Simply standing that, focusing on teams and trends and offering opinions about who could win and why would be spot-on analysis. Generalizing more than that, though, is not good analysis.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Olympics: Win-lose deal for athletes (mostly), NBC

For the U.S. athletes as well as the U.S. broadcast partner, the Olympic Games present pretty much the same opportunity every few years -- and it's not exactly a win-win proposition. It's often a win-lose thing.

For the athletes, that means a small group does well and gets praise and the accompanying set-for-life recognition and sponsorships, or they try hard, lose and get a nice parting gift in the form of good-try kudos and kind words. At least they got some attention for a sport many mainstream fans and viewers pay attention to only occasionally, at best.

For NBC -- which has established itself as the Olympics network in the United States and, as a result, a major financier of the Olympics (including $775 billion for these Winter Games) -- the win-lose situation means hypersensitivity and reaction to each and every action and on-screen moment.

It's a slightly unfair process and standard for the athletes, but not so much for the broadcaster.

That's because NBC has time on its side. And because, for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the network has a nine-hour time difference to use to its benefit. Also any criticism becomes a lot easier to slough off when the network draws its typically huge ratings.

The time difference means almost everything NBC shows in prime time is old news, but it also means its approach and stories should be sharp and solid (so far, they have been) and that when the network misses on something it's worth noting.

Take the Opening Ceremony, for example, preserving the live feel is important for such an event but parade-of-nations coverage lacked consistency and perspective that NBC had the time to improve upon. The network correctly showed what little news there was -- that one of five Olympic rings failed to light properly. Again, it's not huge, but it's at least honest, as opposed to the rehearsal footage that Russian TV used to mask the mistake.

At the same time, NBC missed on things viewers saw -- especially the multi-covered fingers on the gloves of Greek athletes. Curious viewers had to think it was a human-rights protest statement, but the fingers were actually the color of the Olympic rings. So its was an Olympics statement from the country were the movement got its start. Good information either way, and information that was not shared either way. Just silence.

Conversely, host Matt Lauer took time to point out that the multicolored attire for athletes from Germany was not a human-rights statement. Both the colored fingers on the gloves and the bright coats and red pants were obvious to viewers. They should have been obvious to someone from NBC at some point before the broadcast aired all those hours later, too.

Still, that's nitpicking, fair nitpicking but about as high as the criticism of NBC should get during the Olympic Games. The network is there to tell a story and viewers do not care (though some media critics might) that they limited the length of the speech by the International Olympic Committee president.

NBC knows how to approach the event to draw ratings, and at the end of the day that's what most viewers expect -- a snow-covered TV show with some competition and a red-white-and-blue underlying theme to get them through the next couple of weeks of prime-time viewing. It's a delicate balance for NBC as 1) a paid supporter of the Games, 2) an entity there for journalistic purposes and 3) a group of people with tight ties to the IOC and USOC who just want to cover a sporting event.

However, unless there's a catastrophic injury to a U.S. athlete or some terrorist action that shapes the Games in general, NBC's approach should work well. With online results and streaming video, as well as NBC Sports Network, CNBC, MSNBC and USA Network as options, NBC provides live coverage of almost everything. It then reshapes and shares the bet stories in primetime -- and 31.7 million people watched the Opening Ceremony, with 25.1 million tuning in Saturday night.

Advertisers are happy, broadcasters are happy and viewers are happy. Beyond that, specifics matter only slightly.

That said, figure skating analysts Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir have been entertaining and solid on NBC Sports Network. Kudos to Terry Gannon for giving them room and reeling them in at times, too. they sound fresh, honest and unrehearsed. Maybe a little gushy at times, but good. And, hopefully, veteran reporter Andrea Joyce, who handles figure skating interviews, will stop asking skaters during one-on-one interviews to share their feelings "in their own words." Who else could talk for them in such situations?

Monday, February 3, 2014

For Fox Sports a just-steady (and record) Super Bowl

While Peyton Manning might not have cared for the way the post-game question was asked, there's little doubt the Denver Broncos produced an embarrassing performance Sunday in the Super Bowl against the dominant Seattle Seahawks.

From the first play, Denver looked out of sorts while Seattle simply did all sorts of thing well.

In between were the folks from Fox Sports, who produced an above-average broadcast of the most-watched sporting event in the United States without setting some unheard of standard of excellence or really reaching an undisputed champion level themselves. They did a strong job, just not quite super.

The game itself was part of the problem, with the unexpected blowout making the game somewhat less interesting -- even though final viewership reached 111.5 million, making it the most-watched program in U.S. history.

Fox Sports deserves credit for not trotting out silly technology it did not need, specifically infrared looks at body heat from players. With the weather as a non-story, they appropriately treated it as such. Likewise, they did not overdue the non-story of Manning's verbal choices at the line of scrimmage.

Of course, had Denver been able to even gain a first down in any sort of timely manner, that could've changed, and on-field audio was one area where the broadcast seemed inconsistent. Sounds form the field (an area TV broadcasts have been emphasizing more and more in recent seasons) seemed more limited in the first half than the second. (Maybe that had something to do with when Denver finally gained some offensive traction, but it was noticeable.)

Overall, Fox was fairly football focused. Not an overabundance of silliness (once the game began) and, best of all, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman were honest with viewers. When the game got out of hand, and that happened pretty early, viewers could tell. If they could not tell, Buck and Aikman were professional enough to let them know.

A few replays could have come sooner. More information about injuries a little more quickly. In that way, the game seemed like any other regular season game -- which is not a bad thing. But, with so much talent and technology at hand, the Super Bowl should produce those types of things a little more quickly than a regular season game. To me, that's the difference between standard and super.

Still, the game was without any glaring errors and the absence of Terry Bradshaw (who was in Louisiana for his father's funeral) was handled fairly well during the pre- and post-game shows, when he had the biggest workload. It's a shame emerging Randy Moss did not get more of an opportunity on the air as part of the reworked duties, but he'll eventually earn such a spot.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Weather or not, it's time for the Super Bowl

With weather as a primary concern for the first Super Bowl contested at a traditionally cold-weather site outdoors, percentages have been a big part of the pre-game discussion about the matchup between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks.
Specifically, the chance of bad weather has been addressed endlessly. For the record, the chance of precipitation this evening is less than 30 percent. And if it comes, it'll more likely be rain than snow.
Still, MetLife Stadium (shared by the New York Giants and New York Jets but located in New Jersey) seats fewer than 83,000 people. So only a relative handful of people will be directly impacted by the weather.
More than 130 million people could watch the game on TV. They should be aware of some other percentages. They include:
100 percent chance that Fox Sports at some point uses an infrared camera to show players' body heat during the game. Overall, the game's production team has access to more than 50 cameras (14 of them robotic, the most ever for a broadcast on the network) and they love to show off technology like that.
96 percent chance an ad with animals or humor resonates most with viewers. Watch for strong efforts from Budweiser/Bud Light, Doritos, M&Ms, several automakers and, of course, celebrity cameos. A few film trailers will debut as well. Thirty-seconds of ad time this year cost about $4 million. Count me as a sucker for anything emotional Budweiser trots out that features the Clydesdales.
93 percent chance someone on the lengthy pre-game show - probably former referee Mike Pereira - discusses the importance of officiating and uses a two-letter penalty abbreviation to discuss penalties, such as "PI" for pass interference. Game and league officials use those themselves and broadcasters across networks have been trying to take viewers behind the scenes by using that same jargon this year. It's jargon, though, and sometimes just confusing.
86 percent chance the broadcast tandem of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, working their fourth Super Bowl together as play-by-play man and color commentator, respectively, make reference to Denver QB Peyton Manning's use of "Omaha" as a play-change signal at the line of scrimmage.
56 percent chance Richard Sherman draws as much attention to himself in a post-game interview as he did following the NFC Championship Game. First, Seattle has to win the game for him to talk and, second, the crush of people around him will be even bigger, making it harder for him to rant exclusively. If he talks, though, sideline reporter Pam Oliver will have the interview. She's handling the Seahawks while Erin Andrews has the Broncos.
45 percent chance anything truly newsworthy comes out of the sit-down interview with Bill O'Reilly of Fox News and President Barack Obama. It's a mostly no-news ratings move providing a connection point with the Super Bowl for the chief executive, exposure for O'Reilly and a break from the all-football focus of the four-hour pregame show. It's scheduled to air at 4:30 p.m.
31 percent chance that any fan/reaction shot catches something similar to Alex Rodriguez getting fed popcorn by Cameron Diaz as happened when Fox Sports last had the big game. Producer Richie Zyontz, working his fourth Super Bowl, and director Rich Russo, a Penn State alumnus working his second, got that shot when the Packers played the Steelers in 2011. That game was indoors at Cowboys Stadium, though. Viewers can expect the usual fan/celebrity shots, but it'll be a little harder to tell who's who when people are bundled up or if they're comfortable in their stadium suites.
22 percent chance you've heard of national anthem singer Renee Fleming, an Indiana, Pa., native and soprano opera singer, before this moment. The over-under bet on how long it'll take her to sing the anthem is 2:25. That's one of nearly 500 such prop bets Las Vegas sports books offer around the Super Bowl.
3 percent chance the stadium experiences a power outage similar to what happened last year in New Orleans. Something else might happen, but not that because NFL officials have had a year to prevent it.
0 percent chance - as in nada, none - that the game broadcast will include aerial shots from a blimp. Even though MetLife has its own blimp, the cold weather and potential for rain (or sleet or snow) grounded all lighter-than-air options. Advertising and broadcast officials have known that would be the case since the time the NFL announced the outdoor Super Bowl a couple years ago, but it was not confirmed publicly until a few days ago. And airspace for a plane around the stadium would be limited because of security concerns.