Wednesday, September 21, 2016

It's 'Tailgate' time on BTN, and that's a good thing for fans


While the launch of the Big Ten Network in 2007 was aspirational and audacious (a first-of-its-kind network specific to a college athletic conference seemed both precarious and prescient back then), the network’s latest endeavor comes with many similar challenges -- and, like BTN itself, with room for ample success.

The debut of “BTN Tailgate,” an on-site pregame show originating each week from a conference football game, comes Saturday from East Lansing, Mich., site of the matchup between No. 11 Wisconsin and No. 8 Michigan State.

The show debuts at 10:30 a.m. and the game, which also airs on BTN, kicks off at noon.

Producer Marc Carman, like a head coach with a talented team, is ready for the months of preparation and meetings to turn into an actual show. He has some typical logistical concerns (any good producer would) but those pale in comparison to his excitement.

“I’m just looking forward to getting into the truck,” Carman said. “I’m not worried about content and look. I’m not worried about attendance. There’s no better more important game in America this weekend and we’re there. Plus it’s a noon game, and we’re 90 minutes out.”

The “Tailgate” team -- host Dave Revsine and analysts Gerry DiNardo and Anthony Adams -- has been working through rehearsals for weeks. There was no live audience, of course, but mock storylines, standing segments and repetitions together have been important in building the most important part of any show: chemistry.

Carman expects the show to possess an energy and personality, and he expects that to come across well with viewers.

In addition, he thinks preparation has put the production team in a good position to utilize the “Tailgate” set to its fullest potential during the inaugural season.  The footprint of the site will not rival that of ESPN’s award-winning “College GameDay” and BTN wisely plans to take a measured approach to the this season.

For example, there will be no mock football field for live demonstrations of Xs and Os or separate standup areas for reporters. For “Tailgate” simple might simply be the route to success in the inaugural season.

“For the most part our set will be our home base,” Carman said. The network has invested abundant time in finding just the right place for the set each week, too. That included site visits to every conference school during the summer. The biggest motivation was finding places with heavy foot traffic and where college students could congregate.

Thanks to “GameDay,” college football fans of all ages know the drill with on-site pregame shows. It’s largely about fans and interaction, a model perfected by “GameDay” and practiced by and by any number of other, not-quite-as-good studio shows on other networks and for other sports.

While the shadow of “GameDay” could loom over the launch of “BTN Tailgate,” Carman insists that’s not the case. He and his team are focused only on their endeavor.

“I’m not going in thinking we’re trying to compete with ‘GameDay.’ We’re not going to be that. They’re 20-plus years in. We’re starting from where we’re starting,” Carman said. “I’m much more personally focused on what we’re doing. Our mindset it to do a great 90 minutes and go from there.”

“I really feel like we’re moving in a good direction.  I don’t think there’s a tone of comparing.”

Make no mistakes, though, there will be comparisons. And, if BTN’s track record is any indication, “Tailgate” should live up to a viewer-pleasing standard.

Best of all for the network, the show has already earned strong support from sponsors. Of course that includes a debate segment, dubbed Slim Jim Settle the Beef, and four presenting sponsors -- each with its own on-site presence.

All of that support is enough to make network officials optimistic about an even longer version of “BTN Tailgate” next year. First things first, though -- an initial show with a look and feel Carman thinks viewers will like and an on-air team he thinks they’ll like even more.

The network has rallied about the program, too.

“This is my sixth year at BTN and I’ve never seen a more coordinated effort to prepare everything as I have for this show,” Carman said.Our communications, our event planning, so many groups have come together. For me all that starts to unlock great possibilities for what we can do and the stories we can tell.”

On location, BTN promises more than just the chance to watch TV happen. While the show airs at 10:30 a.m., activities begin at 9 a.m. and include a DJ and ample interaction between the on-air talent and fans.

This week’s show is the first of six campus visits already set for the “Tailgate” this season. Once November begins, the show will move to more week-by-week approach, allowing it to “be where it should for the games it should,” according to Carman.


For now, where “BTN Tailgate” should be is on TV each week at 10:30 a.m., and that should be a good thing for viewers.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Close-to-home death challenges ESPN as it honors Saunders, but does not offer a cause

(Reprinted from Aug. 21 Altoona Mirror.)

It’s been 11 days since ESPN’s John Saunders died and while the praise for his career and testimonials about him as a colleague and person have been appropriate, compelling, emotional and honest, there’s still something missing about the story… any form of journalism.

Not to be morbid, but viewers who invested hundreds of hours of their lives, probably more, watching Saunders great work through the years still do not know how he died.

Sure, we’re not his family, and his family can certainly choose to share what they wish, but TV and radio provide a special forum, one that helps build a bond, between those who work in the industry and those of us who consume their work.

In Saunders’ case we got quality every time, no matter the assignment. He was solid, in studio or on play by play, whether it was college football or some other sport. He seemed unflappable, and that’s how his colleagues have portrayed him in the past week or so.

In that way, we as viewers feel validated -- that the person we saw was the person he was. Maybe it’s just me, but it would be nice to know what really happened. It would not make us feel less of him, but it might help us better understand the circumstances of a family member or someone else we know. Maybe we could better support a cause or an individual as a result.

What’s frustrating is that had any other 61-year-old sports personality of Saunders’ stature died ESPN would have at least provided some context and indication about the person’s death. In this case, though, everyone at ESPN seems to close to the story to step back and report.

Kudos to Saunders’ colleagues on the Sunday morning roundtable, “The Sports Reporters,” for at least acknowledging Saunders’ ill health and battle with diabetes during on-air testimonials last week. Other reports have hinted at depression and long-standing injuries.

Viewers, folks who pay a cable bill or want to trust ESPN for its journalism, might not deserve all the specifics but they do at least deserve some reporting related to the story. It’s too bad that has not happened.

Cliché corner
It seems like the start of football season inevitably means an onslaught of more sports clichés and unchecked silliness than almost any other time of the year.

Two examples came to mind again this past week, and each prompted either a question or a need for more information, which is why such clichés fail and frustrate audiences (whether they’re listening, reading or watching).

First, a TV report stated that a football player “gained 10 pounds of muscle in the offseason.” No media member ever reports if someone gains 10 pounds of fat. Maybe the media might note that someone gained weight or looks overweight but if you start a sentence with “gained 10 pounds …” and ask a long-time sports consumer to finish the sentence, they know the cliché as well and will invariably state “… of fat.” It’s just lazy work.

Second, over use of jargon is often the result of a reporter trying to show their expertise while consistently not serving the audience.

It was prominent in Penn State football stories recently about the linebackers, who play the “mike,” “sam” and “will” positions. Sure, there are savvy football fans who know that means middle, strong and weak side, respectively. And they might even know how a team defines its strong and weak side alignments.

Here’s the thing, though, journalists and media should serve an audience by making things easy to understand or even educating them. Just tossing out the mike, sam or will does none of that. Providing context would be helpful, and is honestly necessary.

‘Tailgate’ time
Big Ten Network plans to unveil an on-site, Big Ten Conference-specific pregame TV show similar to ESPN’s ultra-successful “College GameDay” this fall.

“BTN Tailgate” will debut Sept. 24 from the Wisconsin-Michigan State game in East Lansing, Michigan, that morning. The show airs live, beginning at 10:30 a.m., hosted by BTN’s Dave Revsine with analysts Gerry DiNardo and Anthony Adams, the former Penn State standout who played for the Chicago Bears.

Network officials expect the show, like “GameDay,” to rotate among campus sites during the season.

If Penn State can start strong, its home games with Minnesota (Oct. 8), Ohio State (Oct. 22) and Iowa (Nov. 5) all could be worthy of consideration for a “Tailgate” visit.

“GameDay” has not visited Happy Valley since Sept. 26, 2009, when Iowa traveled to for an 8 p.m. game and secured a 21-10 victory.

Tuner tidbits
n  The Steelers’ third preseason game, a trip to New Orleans to play the Saints, airs at 8 p.m. Thursday on WTAJ-TV (Channel 10).
n  This week means a full slate of action at the Little League World Series. While the money that drives the event, both for ESPN and Little League itself, seems obscene, and the happy-happy, joy-joy stories for the week probably are more true than false, its fairly easy for me to get over those critiques because the approach and intimacy of the broadcasts do produce generally good TV. Plus, my affinity for the event probably dulls my cynicism a bit.
n  Man, UFC’s Conor McGregor knows how to shape himself as a media spectacle and try to sell tickets for his pay-per-view events. His match Saturday night with Nate Diaz at UFC 202 ended after press time, but there’s no doubt McGregor is a champ in terms of promotion -- and UFC, despite a supposedly strained relationship with him, has milked that skill for all the media attention it can. That’s a big part of what can drive what it’s all about it boxing and UFC. But, while boxing has not been able to build or support such breakout personalities, several UFC types play well in the media.
n  In recent months ESPN has devoted more and more airtime and online attention to pro wrestling. Weekly segments with WWE “superstars” and more stories online about events and news, including tonight’s “SummerSlam,” represent a hopeful approach for ESPN, as it hopes to attract a few more TV and web viewers. It’s hard to argue that attention for the troupe’s scripted events represent any form of journalistic progress for ESPN. At the same time, because ESPN has lost multiple millions of subscribers (it’s base had dropped from nearly 100 million to just under 90 million in the past couple of years because many have moved away from cable), it’s probably happy to secure any form of consistent audience it can find.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Penn State's big loss to N.Y. Jets -- and it's not the QB

Most Penn State fans do not know his name, but they probably appreciate his work and know a bit more about their favorite varsity sports teams because of his dedication and talent.

For the past eight years Penn State alumnus Tony Mancuso has worked for the university’s athletic department. He helped grow the online presence for athletics and largely drove the use of video.

His feature stories and multimedia work provided behind-the-scenes access to big moments for the most high-profile teams and offered glimpses at the interesting and passionate personalities who drove all of Penn State’s 31 varsity sports teams.

Honestly, Mancuso was a behind-the-scenes force himself -- taking an opportunity for what was ostensibly a content creation and writing job and making it bigger and better. He was a member of the team, but he made the team better.

He experimented and taught himself video skills to complement his strong writing. He became the go-to man for compelling online content as Penn State worked to tell its own story and deliver information directly to fans. He was invariably a good-news guy, which coaches and student-athletes appreciated and which had to make his always busy, tug-me-in-every-possible-direction position enjoyable.

By his own count, Mancuso covered Penn State events in 26 states and two countries. There were games, practices, Coaches Caravans, other special events and so much more.

Mancuso also managed a group of student writers that regularly populated the Nittany Lion All-Sports Blog, which can be found at GoPSUsports.com online. When he started, there were five student writers and that group grew to a dozen the past few years.

Plus, Mancuso, at a time when the athletic department was enduring terrible turmoil, seemed to be in the right place at the right time.

He was almost always right there beside Bill O’Brien when the football coach made his rounds locally, regionally and nationally. He did much of the same when James Franklin took control of the program.

The resulting content was compelling and honest (at least as honest as possible for program- or team-created content).

It was not just football (103 consecutive games). Mancuso was everywhere, covering regular season and postseason competitions in every varsity sport. There were also national championships in fencing, men’s gymnastics, women’s soccer, women’s volleyball and wrestling, as well as almost every single success for the athletic program along the way.

He was not everywhere, it just seemed that way.

His genuine, inquisitive nature made his interviews with everyone from freshmen standouts to athletic directors (there were at three during his time on the job) interesting. Sure, he was the in-house guy, but he was savvy enough to bring some fandom and perspective to the position for it to work really well.

His presence also coincided with an explosion of the use of the internet and videos to connect fans to teams. Not surprisingly, interest in Penn State was reflected in online visitors. The blog on GoPSUsports.com attracted a few thousand visitors in 2010. The past three years, there have been more than 1 million visits each year.

Mancuso would deflect praise, and he did not develop the Penn State sports website alonre, nor did he hold any sort of major editorial control. That’s just a disclaimer, though.

His drive, personality and talent made the blog worth visiting. His use of video made the big-budget, big-time department personal. His work also made some of Penn State’s icier people at least a little personable.

He did quality work that benefited the program overall, and that fans should appreciate. And if they did not notice his work already, they might notice his absence going forward.

Mancuso recently accepted a digital media position with the New York Jets. His last day of work at Penn State was Friday.

With the Jets, he’ll make decisions about what appears online and how it’s used, which videos accompany stories, how information gets used on social media and much more. He earned the opportunity, based on his Penn State track record and after participating in eight-week-long hiring process that included 16 (yes, 16) interviews.

At Penn State, his loss will be significant. Too often the university finds ways to create layers, allowing a couple of people to do the job that one person could typically handle.

Mancuso is not typical, though. Finding one person to replace him will not be easy. In fact, it’s probably unfair to his eventual successor to expect them to meet the standard he established.

For the sake of fans, hopefully someone can at least come close. But it will not be easy.

When news of Mancuso’s move made it to me, two things came to mind. First, good for him (and Christian Hackenberg who will have a familiar face around). Second, Mancuso seemed to typify a saying by one of my favorite Penn Staters, men’s volleyball coach Mark Pavlik. With consistency, Pavlik talks about Penn Staters as ordinary people who do extraordinary things. That’s Mancuso.

As he departs, Penn State loses a good person and fans lose a valuable member of the media who provided important connections to their favorite teams.

Friday, May 27, 2016

As summer begins, it's slow season for BTN

If it’s almost June, it’s almost the toughest time of the year for the Big Ten Network. With the academic year over at member institutions and spring sports seasons winding down, programmers know it’s the slow season on BTN.

“Once baseball and softball and lacrosse end, it does become a challenge for us,” said Michael Calderon, BTN’s vice president of programming and digital media. Without live games -- the most valuable asset for any network that carries sports -- driving viewership becomes a bigger challenge. Calderon and his team embrace the challenge and related opportunities, though.

“We’ve tried different things in the past -- school-themed days, sports-themed days,” Calderon said. “The one thing I think we’ve learned in our first nine years is that peoples’ attention spans are shorter and shorter.”

To accommodate that, BTN changed the format of almost all its game replays 18 months ago. All replays now feature only more recent parts of the BTN library, games broadcast in high definition, and must fit in a 60-minute window.

BTN’s lean editing staff and several interns will stay busy this summer. Calderon said the network plans to edit and air at least 45 more games. He thinks another two dozen games could get edited as well.

Summer interns often focus on editing specific projects -- clips related to a school or a list of players from a school or a sport. It’s all valuable work that helps boost BTN’s archives and put the network in a position to better serve viewers.

Calderon and his team, who are in regular contact with any number of stakeholders (including administrators, coaches, faculty representatives, sports information personnel and even Fox Sports, which owns 51 percent of BTN), already have a lot of programming set for fall and winter seasons.

Some prime time BTN football games were announced a few weeks ago and Calderon said schedules for fall Olympic sports are 99 percent complete. Balancing the schedule during the busy season provides and even bigger challenge than planning and preparing during the briefly slow summer.

“The most difficult thing is trying to squeeze 500-plus live events into a nine-month calendar. There are a lot of fluid parts. It’s a jigsaw puzzle,” Calderon said. “It’s a big challenge to put it all together but it’s a lot of fun as well. We try to work to have a more macro schedule, so we’re not doing women’s soccer or men’s soccer in a silo. We consider all four sports (men’s and women’s soccer, field hockey and women’s volleyball) together, so we can put the best of the best on TV.”

Also, Calderon said nobody at BTN specifically tracks which conference schools appear on TV any more than any others. At best, it’s an informal process. “We try to be fair,” he said. “Certainly if we do a football or basketball themed week there are schools that are better at those sports than others, and might show up more as a result. We know we’re all partners, though.”

Even when all the games are set, an actual broadcast schedule gets announced only two weeks ahead of time. So, July’s schedule -- which will include the start of football season thanks to the conference’s media days and meetings -- should be announced in mid-June.


“Once we get to the kickoff luncheon in July, things get into gear,” Calderon said.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Media-themed bracket wise for local sports talk

Cory Giger's handwritten seeds for the "tournament."
It's not an original idea by any stretch of the imagination, but latching onto the NCAA Tournament with a regional "tournament" focused on the Most Annoying Media Member was a good move by the namesake of "Sports Talk with Cory Giger," which airs in the Altoona and State College media markets from 4 to 6 p.m. weekdays.

Giger made himself the top seed in the event and built a 16-person field of personalities that his listeners know by their efforts, or at least their reputations.

After the first round of play -- contested by voting at Giger's Twitter account (@CoryGiger) -- trimmed the field in half, eight competitors remained. And it was an interesting mix.

Those quarterfinals featured:
1 Giger vs. 8 Neil Rudel
That's the Altoona Mirror sports writer and radio host vs. the same paper's managing editor (Rudel), known as one of the longest-tenured members on the Penn State sports beat. Giger had a a solid early lead in voting for Most Annoying among the pair. By job description alone, that probably makes sense. When he advances, Giger could face an interesting semifinal challenge.

2 Dave Jones vs. 10 Ron Musselman
This matchup features Patirot-News/Pennlive columnist Jones, perhaps the least self-effacing member of the Penn State media contingent. He's developed strong sources on the beat, though, and even when not present ranks as a presence in the media room. He's proven and solid at his job, and, in the mind of some Penn State fans, could rank as annoying. More interesting is that Musselman, absent from the Penn State beat and the media market overall until being hired in the past week or so by WJAC, advanced in the first round. He made news while covering Penn State when Joe Paterno was the coach (with a road rage story) and again when Bill O'Brien was in charge (with the coach famously calling the reporter by a different first name while knowing the difference). Those were during stints with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He also previously worked for StateCollege.com

3 Mark Madden vs. 6 Jerry Valeri
A late addition but a high seed, Madden might not be heard by many people in the Altoona/State College markets unless they are Pittsburgh Penguins fans, or die-hards who find his work online. There's no doubt he's polarizing, but that also means he's effective at his job. Sometimes, true to his affinity for pro wresting, it sometimes feels as if he's playing the heel, but he shows his journalistic chips often enough to offset the silliness -- at least for me. Conversely, Valeri, who does not work in sports, other than being a fans and some occasional Penn State public address opportunities, would seem to be a walkover opponent for Double M. Valeri can be annoying, but he has seemingly found his niche as a morning-drive host on a State College country station. He often does double duty, and more, for Forever Broadcasting. He might merit a spot in the field for conversation sake, but the six seed is generous and the Madden matchup seems tough.

4 Phil Grosz vs. 5 Dejan Kovacevic 
This quarterfinal matches the longtime publisher of Blue-White Illustrated (Grosz) and the entrepreneur and journalist who moved form newspapers to launch his own subscriber and sponsor driven website focused on Pittsburgh sports (Kovacevic). It's hard to paint Grosz as annoying in a bad manner. He's a character, a hard-working early adopter with recruiting coverage and has worked to keep his publication relevant as the market has gotten more cluttered. While Kovacevic's approach has gotten off to a strong start, it has been more than a business success. In the last week specifically, his site, http://dkpittsburghsports.com/, broke the news of the suspension of Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant -- and the reaction for people seeking more information subsequently broke the website. Briefly. Kovacevic's personal touch and strong opinions might make him annoying to some, and help him advance in this tournament, but that hardly makes him a bad guy.

The event will conclude in the next couple of days on Twitter, and, honestly, there's not a bad guy in the bunch. Giger has appropriately made the tournament a fun endeavor and hopefully those involved will as well. (Unfortunately, in an oversight, there was not a single women in the field.)

All who remain have a tough-enough skin to deal with an eventual Most Annoying Media Member title, and the semifinals seem primed to feature Giger, Kovacevic, Madden and Musselman -- in a slight upset. After that, Madden's bombast could propel him into a finals matchup with Giger.

The real winner in anything like this should be listeners, though.

Yes, it's contrived. Yes, it can seem self-serving but it's still decent radio and a way to drive some interest and interaction. It's a model used regularly across the nation -- and, in my mind, perfected years ago on Philadelphia sports-talk radio with regular "Field of 64" segments that drove a day's worth of conversation and even allowed the hosts to overrule decisions made by callers.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Cohn merits appointment viewing for 5,000th

She’s always made her mark by being a sports expert and journalist (even a fan) more than a calendar girl, but Linda Cohn should merit appointment viewing -- mark your calendars -- on Feb. 21.

At 8 a.m. that Sunday, Cohn will host her 5,000th “SportsCenter.” She has hosted more episodes of ESPN’s flagship news program than any other anchor, male or female. In the buildup to the show, ESPN has created a Twitter hashtag (#LCo5KSC).

Cohn, who does her job well and consistently serves viewers, deserves the attention she’ll get in the next week or so. She has proven her versatility through the years on everything from studio shows to live events and radio broadcasts.

Amidst the growing mass of egotistical or ill-informed TV types, it’s good to know trustable talents like Cohn remain.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Expect more Peyton Manning on TV -- as an analyst

When Peyton Manning announces his retirement, and he will, he will not be away from the NFL for long.

Instead of measuring success by on-field accomplishments (18 seasons, 200 victories, 539 touchdowns and 71,940 passing yards), his expertise, insights and interview skills will become the new standards.

Almost as certainly as Groundhog Day means a convergence of attention on Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, Manning seems set for a career in sports television. He’s already proven himself in two separate “Saturday Night Live” appearances and a variety of funny, self-aware and self-deprecating commercials.

Manning’s aw-shucks approach should translate well to TV and we might get a little more depth from him as he shares his opinions. Also, if network producers find the right forum for his legendary film preparation viewers might get treated to some interesting Xs and Os.

Expect Manning to be the most-sought-after free agent of the offseason. Again, that’s not as a potential backup quarterback. Every network with an NFL contract would want him on their team. My sense is that might be more as a studio analyst than a game analyst, but perhaps with the right pairing he might succeed working games. He's be good on games, it just seems that he'd have a bigger forum in studio.

Of the five networks that carry the NFL, only one really seems on the outside when it comes to bidding for Manning’s services. That he could be envisioned at any of the other networks is what makes him so valuable.

Least likely would be the NFL Network. It’s just not a big enough platform for Manning and he already brings more gravitas and less silliness to the position than several of the former players among that network’s too big continent of experts.

Now, alphabetically, scenarios for the other networks:

CBS: Viewers might miss former players Tony Gonzalez or Bart Scott if Manning took one of their spots, but both are relatively new to the set. Swapping a QB for a QB, Manning for Boomer Esiason, might make sense to some, but Esiason seems to be CBS’s token studio naysayer, so he might be secure as a result. After all, viewers need someone to wear the black hat. On games, it's doubtful the network would break up its top team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, but if they pair Manning with, say, Ian Eagle, that No. 2 team would get even stronger. (And it might already be the network's best tandem.) 

ESPN: The network usually has everything, including a big on-air roster. However, with Keyshawn Johnson gone from “Sunday NFL Countdown” (his contract expired), there might be a seat for Manning with folks like aging Mike Ditka, former receiver Cris Carter and former linebackers Tom Jackson and Ray Lewis. In some ways, that seems like an easy and smart fit for all involved. At the same time, ESPN’s monetary problems could prevent a big investment in a big-time free agent. In terms of game coverage, he could be an interesting third on "Monday Night Football."

Fox: With a packed, proven and fairly A-list studio, that might be the tightest fit for Manning of any network studio team. Now, if they'd ax comedian Rob Riggle (or any comedian) to make room for Manning, that'd be great. Maybe Fox could lean less on the busy Michael Strahan (who works "Live with Kelly and Michael" as well as "Good Morning America") to make room, but that seems unlikely for the popular studio contributor. On games, he could again merit an assignment near the top of the roster.

NBC: With Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison in studio, and Hines Ward on site with Bob Costas, the network has a lineup that works. Former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis did not fit in his role, but maybe Manning could, especially with former coach Dungy. His first post-Super Bowl interview was with NBC’s “Today Show” and he later appeared on "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon," but that’s probably reading too much into his plans.

It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out and where Manning ends up on our TVs. Whatever the case, it seems likely we'll see him on TV, working games as opposed to playing them.