Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sammy Awards for Best in Radio/TV

After a full year of activity for TalkingTVSports, it's time to present year-end awards ...

Best Studio Show

"ESPN College GameDay" -- Led by host Chris Fowler and the most entertaining mix of studio talent on any show, the "GameDay" crew shines every week while doing all other shows do and more, most notably moving from location to location throughout the season. While the NFL studio shows come close, "GameDay" remains the standard. It's able to focus on each week's top stories and somehow still provide a sense of what's happening all over the country every week during college football season. And it's clearly a topic (college football) and personnel (Fowler and Friends) success story, because ESPN's similar efforts for college basketball fail reliably.

Best Studio Host

Chris Fowler -- While several categories on this list could be close, Fowler has developed into a dynasty in this category. He's the New England Patriots of studio hosts. He adapts and succeeds. He sets his fellow hosts up well and serves as the Crown Prince of College Football -- the accepted and respected voice of the game. Best of all, he does it with knowledge and a sense of humor.

Best Play-by-Play Team

Mike Tirico / Jon Gruden / Ron Jaworski, ESPN -- The "Monday Night Football" crew, driven by Tirico's steady skills, Gruden's insights and Jaworski's preparation works well together. It has become (thankfully) a more football-first discussion on Monday nights on recent years, and Gruden has become one of the show's stars. While ESPN officials expect Gruden to remain on the "MNF" team through 2011, his presence will be a key to the team's ongoing success.

Best Play-by-Play Talent

Joe Buck, Fox Sports -- He's strong on baseball and football, the lead talent for Fox Sports on both sports. He's accurate and steady. When he lapses into opinion, something he should defer to his color commentators, he struggles a bit. But he's still the best in the business because of his strength on both sports.

Best Color Commentator

Jon Gruden, ESPN -- Few analysts of made such an obvious impact in such a short time. Gruden was an inspired and logical pick to join "Monday Night Football," on which he shines. His knowledge and sense of humor make the weekly show better, but the best thing about Gruden has been his versatility. He did wonderful work related to teh NFL Draft. He also crafted compelling segments with top NFL players during the season during "film sessions" and one-on-one interviews. He's super on TV -- even if he will be lost when he returns to the NFL sidelines at some point.

Best Sideline Reporter

Suzy Kolber, ESPN -- It's the hardest job in TV sports, the most difficult at which to make a mark and, often, the least respected. Sideline reporters get relatively little time to make their points -- which limits them from making cogent points and gives them little room to build a relationship with viewers. Even with all that going against her, Kolber clearly ranks as the best in the business. She comes across as knowledgeable without trying to hard to impress. She knows her stuff and picks her spots well. It's a shame so other sideline reporters understand the job as well as her.

Best Expert/Insider

Peter King, NBC Sports / Sports Illustrated -- With unmatched contacts and credibility, King lives up to his name among NFL experts and insiders. Despite missing some in-person assignments because of his TV work, the ability to monitor all games every week from the network's studios more than make up for that situation. He credits his sources and rarely misses a story. His online columns and TV segments invariably contain important information and news.

Newcomer of the Year

Mike Pereira, Fox Sports -- He was added to offer insights online (and that was nice), but his impact was immediate on TV. After regular segments each week on the NFL Network, he worked in the Los Angeles studio for Fox Sports and was able to keep an eye on every game each week. Then, when needed, he was brought into game broadcasts to explain rules or speculate on the outcome of in-game replay challenges. Such an expert was just what was missing from NFL broadcasts, and other league broadcast partners might try to find their own such expert in the future. Still, it's likely there will be no other Mike Pereira. A former NFL official and vice president of officiating for the league, he knows his stuff. Even when the NFL's rule book does not make sense, he explains it sensibly.

Comeback Talent of the Year

Chuck Wilson, ESPN Radio -- ESPN Radio brought back one of its founding voices just in time for the NCAA Tournament last spring. He helped on college basketball-related work and picked up duties on "SportsCenter Nightly" and other programming throughout the years. Simply put, Wilson is a sports-radio professional. He's diligent, sounds good and works hard. He cares and he prepares. Of all the interviews, conducted for this column during the past year, my time with Wilson was the most anticipated -- and he did not disappoint. He talked about himself, he talked about the business and he never talked just to talk. He's that way on radio as well, and that's what makes him so good.

Two Face Award

Matt Millen, ESPN/ABC and NFL Network, and Beth Mowins, ESPN/ABC -- Some talents work well in certain situations and not so well in others. Both Millen and Mowins proved that with their performances this year. First, Millen was decent, even good at times, on college football assignments. Even when he worked Michigan games and some fans complained (especially after his ill-fated stint at GM of the Detroit Lions), he was usually capable or insightful. Conversely, when he worked NFL games, in a three-person booth with Bob Papa and Joe Theisman, Millen sounded silly. He would try to be funny instead of sharing his expertise -- and that was a shame, because he knows a lot about football (even if some Detroit Lions fans would argue otherwise).

In the case of Mowins, solid play-by-play skills on many different assignments just did not transfer to at least one brief stint as a sideline reporter. She's clearly capable and strong on play-by-play but in rare duties as a sideline reporter for a Penn State-Iowa college football game in late September, she failed when she missed an opportunity to ask obvious questions to Penn State coach Joe Paterno at the end of the first half. The Nittany Lions had faltered on a late-half drive, with communication as an obvious problem, but Mowins did not address the situation -- which was clearly the topic of the first half.

Where Have You Gone Award

Three honorees in this category, for different reasons. One member of our trio (Jay Mariotti) justifiably lost his job in 2010, leaving little impact on "Around the Horn," a show for which he thought he was an invaluable member but the show's continues success in his absence proved otehrwise. Another (Jim Gray), got all kinds of attention for his role in "The Decision" but with that as the sad high-note of his year, it's probably been nice that he's had a low profile at the start of the NBA season. Finally, Erin Andrews, fresh off her "Dancing with the Stars" success and a contract renewal with ESPN, was set for a bigger role during college football season but she did little with it. Maybe more will come her way in 2011, but the duties as first-hour host for "College GameDay" seemed more highly hyped than what actually happened.

Next-on-the Horizon Award

After a tryout last week, ESPN officials have already contacted former Florida coach Urban Meyer about an on-air gig. It would not be a surprise for him to show up again, at least in some role, during bowl season -- and he's almost certain to find a role in 2011. A two-time national championship coach who seems able to translate his expertise well to TV, he could emerge as another strong addition for ESPN. And with so many outlets, ESPN would almost certainly find a role for Meyer. But ... it would be interesting to hear the coach (who is apparently leaving the sideline to spend more time with his family and/or for health reasons) justify taking a job that might make him spend even more time away from home and travel even more.

Best Innovation

In terms of personnel, the idea to add an official (Mike Pereira, Fox Sports) would be the obvious winner. However, several networks have added an on-field play clock as part of their down-and-distance logo. That's a good thing, but it is redundant with the clock/scoreboard already as part of broadcasts. If networks can figure a way to avoid the redundancy, the play clock would be an even better addition. With both it's just hard for people to know where to look.

TV Moment of the Year

“The Decision” -- Despite the most-viewed Super Bowl in history (106.5 million viewers), the move of the NFL Draft to prime time (drawing more than 45.4 milllion viewers to ESPN, ESPN2 and the NFL Network), the ratings success of the World Cup and so much more, the hour-long infomercial with LeBron James as the featured attraction announcing his move to the Miami Heat was clearly the most important TV moment of the year. It simultaneously damaged ESPN's journalistic credibility (at least what remained) and James' general goodwill. (Although he is rebounding in terms of marketing, with a recently announced children's furniture line.) Still, millions of people watched -- more than tuned into most NBA games during the previous season. And they continue to follow James, with ratings for the Miami Heat's season opener against the Boston Celtics and the Heat's first visit to play the Cleveland Cavaliers both drawing big ratings. But, best of all, the show provides a cautionary tale and a what-not-to-do blueprint for future announcement/reality programming. If TV types can learn from "The Decision," that would be the best thing to come from the broadcast.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Pre-Game TV Segment ... Leaning Out

Every sports talk show, every sports talk segment really, is the same -- it's banter and opinion, packaged in some easy-to-understand, black-and-white format.

Sure, news and sports are defined by shades of gray, but the shows inevitably try to make it black and white, this or that, yes or no.

Unfortunately, the segments fail when the participants do not play by the rules, when they do not stick to the contract that's been crafted with viewers.

A segment on ESPN's "Monday Night Football" provided the latest example -- with connected and engaging analysts Chris Mortenson and Adam Schefter discussing whether specific NFL coaches were "safe" or "out" in terms of job security.

It was an appropriate and interesting topic for the next-to-last week of the season, but it failed because not all coaches were classified as either "safe" or "out." Instead, Mortenson and Schefter were able to use "leaning safe" or "leaning out."

For "insiders" such as Mortenson and Schefter, putting them in a position to speculate publicly about a coach's job security can be difficult, so perhaps the "leaning" label provided some necessary wiggle room. At the same time, though, it also defeats the credibility of the segment because viewers expect a firm answer from the talking heads -- even if they know such speculation can fall apart -- and "leaning" only allows them to straddle the fence of opinion.

If such segments are not going to provide what they promise, they just should not be used.

League Set for Three-Night Streak

Although Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who also moonlights as a radio/TV analyst for the Philadelphia Eagles, believes the postponed "Sunday Night Football" game proves the United States has become a "nation of wusses," the now Tuesday night matchup should prove something else -- the NFL's TV prowess.

After drawing millions of viewers Sunday for a regular slate of games, and then millions more viewers Monday for the Saints-Falcons matchup on "Monday Night Football," the league is set to dominate ratings and viewership for third day in a row Tuesday.

The move of the game to Tuesday night was made by the league (with, no doubt, ample input from NBC) as an effort at fan safety. Make no mistake, though, TV -- as always -- played a role. From the league's perspective, splitting national viewership between the Saints-Falcons and Vikings-Eagles was not the preferred option.

Additionally, NBC's prime time schedule was a bit stronger Monday than Tuesday, so that made moving the game to Tuesday a bit more desirable as well.

With the final result, the NFL gets to further dominate the ratings and public consciousness/discussion at the end of its season.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Kudos to ESPN, Kuselias for Farewell

Lame duck on-air talents rarely work on radio, at any level (locally or nationally), so it's been a surprise that ESPN backup talker Erik Kuselias -- bound for the Golf Channel in January -- has played such a big role on ESPN Radio the past week or so.

He's been working on "Mike and Mike in the Morning" this week, one of his typical roles filling in for Mike Greenberg. As always, Kuselias knows what he's doing, bantering with his partner and generating good onversation. His athletic background and his experience as a lawyer typically prompt some entertaining and interesting perspectives.

Best of all, his opinions rarely sound contrived or created just to evoke a reaction. When he's working, listeners get strong sports-talk radio.

Maybe that's why he's been given the opportunity to work this week, even with his departure a given. Because he's not overly emotional or reactionary, there's little danger he'll do something silly to damage his reputation on the way out the door.

Plus, when discussing his future (which begins Jan. 3 on the Golf Channel), he includes seemingly sincere appreciation for the people in charge at ESPN and the opportunities provided by the all-sports network.

Still, the Kuselias move is interesting on another level because the Sports Business Journal reported that DirecTV might drop the channel, which could cost it some 15 million viewers by the end of 2010. While Kuselias has done decent work, he has not been able to build beyond a niche with ESPN and the Golf Channel can provide a more regular role.

It certainly will not be a more visible role, though, because the network has struggled to attract viewers. Also according to the Sports Business Journal, the Golf Channel ranked 78th out of 90 cable networks in total-day viewership during November, with an average of 55,000 viewers in a 24-hour period. It averaged 88,000 viewers in prime time ... but Kuselias will be working mornings.

One plus for the Golf Channel was that it did draw better numbers in November than the MLB Network, Fox Soccer and NBA TV.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

NFL Music ... Another Change for TV

NFL officials have known for years that they're producing TV shows as much as providing games, and the latest testament to that was tests by Fox Sports to incorporate music into the broadcasts.

Not music as the broadcasts go to commercial. We already have that.

Not music when graphics appear on the screen as an extra way to grab viewers' attention, either. We already have that, too.

Instead, Fox Sports tested an approach for last week's Arizona Cardinals-Carolina Panthers game during which music cuts that were determined to match the shots on the screen were part of the broadcast. According to USA Today, the network had 15 audio clips from the composer of the music for "CSI" ready for the game. Also, clips from popular artists could be a possibility as they network continues to test the approach.

Unfortunately, the trial balloon that lifted off last week might even pop up on Super Bowl coverage.

If so, that would be a shame. But Eric Shanks, the 38-year-old who was put in charge of Fox Sports seven month ago, seems set on the approach. When talking to USA Today, he compared the musical options on sports broadcasts to providing the musical score for a movie as it happens.

Again, that's the problem. It's a sports broadcast -- not a movie, and not a video game. The folks working the game are directors and producers, not composers.

More and more, though, broadcasters seek to reach a younger demographic that's familiar with video games by making the games themselves look and feel like video games. Earlier examples of that have been different camera angles during live action that often seem ill-conceived or unusual to viewers. And the music represents the next step in that approach.

It's also a step toward how broadcasts will change -- for those watching and even for those behind the scenes.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A 50-Year-Old Game Worth Watching

Sure, it's been 50 years, and what will appear on TV tonight might only slightly resemble what people know as a baseball broadcast anymore (not that that's a bad thing), but Game 7 of the 1960 World Series on the MLB Network (8 p.m.) deserves a look -- and maybe more.

According to the MLB Network, an archivist working in Bing Crosby's estate found the broadcast of the concluding game of the Pirates-Yankees series earlier this year. Crosby, the legendary actor (he won an Academy Award)/crooner (his "White Christmas" still ranks as one of the best-selling songs of all time)/entertainer/TV personality, was part owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates for a period after World War II until his death.

He was in France during the 1960 World Series, though, and had the game taped.

"He apparently came back from France, watched the game a couple of times and tossed it on a shelf," MLB Network's Bob Costas said this morning on ESPN Radio. The game was shown in Pittsburgh earlier this fall, and Costas said the audience of former players, fans and VIPs responded with a combination of excitement and nostalgia.

For MLB Network, it's the kind of presentation the baseball-specific network should be able to share -- and thanks to the archivist and the work of many others -- will. For fans, it's a glimpse at one of the more historic games in a sport that values its history more than any other.

Those things certainly make it more valuable than whatever reruns the broadcast or cable networks have tonight. And for a sports fans, viewing such a game, even all these years later, only enhances one's credentials as a true fan.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Prepared Fox Team Gets Great Images

Kudos to the Fox Sports production team that decided to leave its cameras and microphones behind in Minneapolis -- and running inside the Metrodome -- because they captured some of the most compelling sports-related images of the year as a result.

Producer Richie Zyontz told USA Today they knew what they were looking for, and the roof collapse they anticipated happened as expected. It was great TV.

Friday, December 10, 2010

MIx of Heisman, 'Exce$$' on ESPN Interesting

In a bit of appropriately ironic and unplanned scheduling, ESPN's college football programming Saturday night includes the Heisman Trophy presentation at 8 p.m. and the debut of the "Pony Exce$$" as part of its acclaimed documentary series at 9 p.m.

With Heisman favorite Cam Newton of Auburn distancing himself from his father's admitted pay-for-play approach (the elder Newton apparently shopped his son's skills to the highest bidder when he was leaving junior college), and professing that he knew nothing about the attempted deals, that story clearly takes some luster off the presentation of college football's biggest award.

But, after viewers get an hour of hype and promotion, no doubt pretending that the other finalists have a chance at winning the award while avoiding any sincere mention of Newton's situation, ESPN then moves to a film all about paying college football players.

"Pony Exce$$" examines Southern Methodist University in the early 1980s, when SMU shot to national prominence thanks in large part to its willingness to pay players to play college football. When the NCAA finally stepped in and served up the "death penalty" for the first and only time, effectively shutting down the program and pushing it to depths with which it has not recovered 25 years later, it reshaped college football for years.

Promos for the film hint at an entertaining, maybe even enlightening, film, and the topic obviously remains timely.

Still, the tone of film might be most interesting -- especially because one of those who was a key member on the SMU team's of the early 1980s was running back Craig James, the same Craig James who went on to a career in the NFL and works for ESPN as a college football analyst. How the film treats the topic clearly reflects, at least on some level, how seriously the all-sports network itself considers such cheating.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Costas, Counterparts Get it Right on Replay

"Football Night in America" made a potentially powerful statement for the good of pro football Sunday night when Bob Costas, the on-site host for NBC Sports, used his weekly commentary segment to point out the myriad problems with the NFL's replay system.

Sometimes Costas rails for no apparent reason in that weekly spot, but with common sense in his corner and so many possible examples to display the flaws of the replay system, the commentator perhaps best known for his baseball work hit a home run.

Costas pegged the problems of replay -- everything from the vested interests of stadium scoreboard operators, who often fail to show replays that could hurt the host team, to the occasional shortcoming of network broadcasts, which might not make the right replay available soon enough for coaches to make a decision about a possible challenge.

In fact, the commentary was somewhat remarkable simply because it mentioned the networks themselves. But that was good, because it was accurate and transparent -- things to which the league itself should strive for the replay system.

With Costas' gravitas, and especially as a result of the high-profile forum in which he expressed his opinion, perhaps there's a chance the NFL might be swayed to alter its archaic system. When former Colts coach Tony Dungy and former NFL defensive back Rodney Harrison both chimed in immediately after Costas to support the idea of change, that only made things better -- at least for the millions of us who watch from home each week and know the frustrating inaccuracies and inefficiencies of the system.

After all, if the idea of replay for NFL games is to get things right, then challenges should be taken out of the hands of coaches and every play in every game should be eligible for review. Coaches, limited to two challenges per game under the current system, might lose an early challenge and then be hesitant to use another later in the game because they fear being left without a challenge for the waning moments of a game.

That obviously erodes the integrity of the game -- and the difference in one play can mean the difference in winning and losing a game, and whether that's the third game of the season or the 13th it matters just as much because one more loss on a team's record could certainly mean the difference between a playoff spot for a team or not.

Dungy missed things a bit when he said the college replay rule reviews every scoring play -- it actually reviews every single play -- but that should be the system to which the NFL aspires.

In the past, the league's perceived arrogance (anything that did not originate in the league's New York offices or form its owners has always been looked down upon, it seems) has been a problem when adjusting rules or making significant changes. Simply because the NFL does not want to be seen as implementing someone else's idea.

Still, a replay system that uses a referee at the stadium but not on the field could succeed. It would avoid the silliness of having the game's referee entering a booth on the sideline and it would seemingly allow replays to happen sooner.

An improved replay system would benefit fans at home, who can often see a good or bad call clearly themselves, as well as fans at the stadiums, who would have to endure shorter breaks for replay reviews under an improved system. Coaches and player would also benefit because their efforts would be rewarded and the game itself would not be perverted -- especially in instances when a team tries to run play quickly, before an initial replay clarifies any possible challenge.

It's just such a logical approach -- that the NFL use technology and make its replay system better -- that it deserves to be evaluated. And, with Costas championing the approach that finally might happen. Thanks Bob!

Friday, November 26, 2010

'Best Day' Hinges on One College Game

While college football analysts and hype masters seem to agree that Friday ranks as the best or most important day of the season, it's not so much a daylong extravaganza as one midday matchup that matters.

The annual Iron Bowl, with Auburn at Alabama this season, matters the most -- and it could be the most competitive game involving ranked teams. What happens in that game could impact the national championship game more than any other result of the day.

Although BCS leader Oregon plays No. 21 Arizona and unbeaten Boise State (fourth in the BCS standings) faces No. 19 Nevada in ranked-vs.-ranked matchups, if either of the underdogs won those games it would be a huge upset.

Defending national champ Alabama is actually favored at home against Auburn. And that in-state contest always comes with high stakes.

Of all the games worth watching during the day, the Iron Bowl seems unparalleled. Sure, West Virginia and Pitt bring emotion and physicality to their game, but the stakes there are not nearly as high -- even with a BCS bowl berth at stake.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving TV Traditions are Not Turkeys

Before the complaints begin and grow a bit louder on Thanksgiving Day, consider this a happy, proactive pitch for tradition.

Football fans will find three NFL games on TV Thursday:
-- New England at Detroit (12:30 p.m., CBS);
-- New Orleans at Dallas (4:15 p.m., Fox); and
-- Cincinnati at the New York Jets (8:20 p.m., NFL Network).

With the 2-8 Lions again mired in a dismal season, some ill-informed and highly opinionated types will no doubt complain about the fact that they always host a Thanksgiving Day game. They'll argue that the game should be rotated among any NFL teams that have an interest.

They're wrong. Even if the visiting Patriots, who are 8-2 and might be as good as the Lions are bad, blow out the Lions (and that's likely), the critics are wrong.

Games in Detroit and Dallas remain NFL traditions, TV staples to go with the turkey and then the first wave of leftovers.

Changing teams would not change the ratings that much, either. People will watch. Even the Lions.

They watch with family and friends. Or they watch because they love the NFL. Plus, there's no need to waste A-list teams to try to salvage TV interest or ratings on Thanksgiving Day.

To its credit, the NFL has done a little bit to help -- as evidenced by the visiting teams this year. With New England, the early game has one of the best teams in the league with personalities (especially Patriots QB Tom Brady) who generate a great deal of interest among both casual and hard-core fans. Additionally, at the start of the season the Saints-Cowboys game probably looked like a playoff preview -- that the Cowboys (3-7) have underachieved could not have been expected.

That's the real reason for not altering Thanksgiving Day schedules. The NFL has proven to be so unpredictable (OK, other than Detroit's consistent troubles) that altering things on Thanksgiving Day just to involve other teams or reach for ratings seems silly.

Plus, the NFL does no need to reach. It's going to get ratings no matter what. This season the average viewership for games, all games in TV windows, has been more than 10 million people per game.

Finally, not all other owners and/or fan bases want the games at home. So moving things around might cause as much trouble as it solves. For those who want change, the NFL Network has the best possible thing -- a night game that has existed the past couple years, at varying locations, to complete the NFL's monopoly on the day and provide some inventory for the league's TV network.

That's enough change for me. Other than that, let's stick with the traditional turkey day sites.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

'Mike & Mike' Make Interview Interesting

Sports-talk radio standouts Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic made the most of an exclusive, half-hour interview with Tiger Woods on Thursday.

They asked almost everything that needed to be asked and in the process provided the golfer with a forum while still showing they were professionals. Their ability to balance everything from the silly to the serious on "Mike & Mike in the Morning" makes it one of the best shows on sports-talk radio.

After Woods called himself "blessed and balanced" at the start of the interview, Greenie and Golic asked about Woods' behavior, the incident last Thanksgiving that brought all his indescretions to light and his performance on the golf course in the year since then. They had a lot to ask about in half an hour, and did a decent job of getting that done.

As best he could (and as he usually does in interviews), Woods tried to keep anything personal at an arm's length. But he's clearly learned, or is at least trying, to be a bit more human and vulnerable during interviews.

Clearly, Woods wanted to convey his primary focus on his relationship with his children. He did that repeatedly. At times, Woods sounded almost like a counselor addressing the situation. Maybe that's a sign of progress for him -- he said he belives he's a better person this year than last.

Asked if he was happier today than at this time last year, Woods said: "Infinately. It's just amazing how much better I feel internally each and every day."

He was also asked if he had the same drive on the golf course that he had previously. "I have the same drive to get better, no doubt," he said. "That's an each-and-every-day process. But I can't get better as player until I'm beter as a person."

That connection between his children/fatherhood and golf success was the only area Greenie and Golic did not ask about. They never asked if Woods was OK being a better father, which he said he wanted, if it somehow meant he would not be as good a golfer.

The linkage between those priorities would've been interesting because he left no doubt that his children were his No. 1 priority.

Still, things missing from the interview were few and anyone who finds fault would be nit-picking. While Woods came off well, the versatile duo of Greenberg and Golic was the real winner -- as they again proved their skill.

LISTEN HERE for the complete interview.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Vick Creates Headaches for Broadcasters, Too

Along with the defenders he sometimes leaves grasping at air, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick has prompted headaches for broadcasters with his re-emergence and success.

Whether on a game broadcast, most recently "Monday Night Football" when when he crafted a dominant performance against the Washington Redskins, or during sports-talk shows on radio or TV, Vick remains a hot-button topic sure to spur reaction.

Because of that potential response, you can often hear the caution in the voice of broadcasters when discussing Vick. While they describe his athletic prowess and success, they also carefully, very carefully, acknowledge his documented off-the-field problems.

While the broadcasters seem unanimous in their opinion that Vick has paid his debt to society for his involvement in the gruesome death of dogs and his role in dog-fighting activities, they know a vocal portion of their audience -- and even if it's a minority it's a loud minority -- might never forgive Vick.

Because of that, the discussion about Vick happens with abundant self-editing and trepidation. It's interesting to hear, if only because it's almost a train wreck waiting to happen because the concern throws the broadcasters off their game a bit, or at least makes them work differently.

Ironically, that's the same thing Vick does to opposing defenses -- forces them to alter how they go about their work.

Most interesting, though, people certainly do seem to care about Vick. Although the Eagles dominated the Redskins this past Monday night, the broadcast drew a higher overall rating (6.3) than the more competitive Steelers-Bengals game the week before (6.1).

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Miller-Morgan Move: Maybe Meaningful

After 21 years working together and with their contracts expiring, Jon Miller and Joe Morgan were dropped from the broadcast booth for "Sunday Night Baseball" on ESPN.

The all-sports network announced the long-rumored move Monday, but no replacements were named. Apparently, Miller might continue to work with ESPN Radio, but Morgan will not return in any capacity.

Keeping Miller on radio would be nice. He's one of the few remaining "voices" of the sport, which has a rich tradition on radio, and he remains sharp. He was just named to the Baseball Hall of Fame as the 2010 Ford C. Frick Award recipient this summer. He also serves as the voice of the San Francisco Giants. For years before that, he was the voice of the Baltimore Orioles.

Morgan, often criticized as too talkative, should land somewhere. The former Cincinnati Reds second baseman was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990 and he has plenty of knowledge to share.

Where ESPN turns next might be the most meaningful part of the move. And it could be a big move, because "Sunday Night Baseball" production personnel might be involved in the shakeup as well.

By dumping the Miller-Morgan tandem, which might not necessarily have run its course but could logically be due for a change after two-plus decades, ESPN has a chance to reshape its baseball broadcasts. How and why provide the challenges, though.

Most baseball broadcasts have remain relatively unchanged for the past 30 years. More technology has come along (including the ability to supposedly chart the strike zone) and networks have tried in-game interviews with managers and players, but broadcasts maintain the same core DNA as their predecessors from the 1970s.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, because the game itself has not changed all that much and because baseball, more than almost any other sport, values tradition.

Still, there are some (both in baseball and in the media or with TV partners) who have lobbied for some change in recent years and this might be ESPN's opportunity to reshape how it broadcasts baseball.

No changes are going to suddenly attract millions more viewers to "Sunday Night Baseball" or to baseball in general. In fact, with so much baseball on TV, it's always hard to separate what's important from what's mundane. But if ESPN wants to alter its approach a bit for the prime-time broadcast, or reshape things this would be the time to implement those changes.

If it does try something different, it would make the Miller-Morgan move more meaningful. If not, it's just a little move to put different people behind the wheel of the same vehicle.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Interesting NFL TV Results in Reader Poll

With a week to vote in an online poll, USA Today readers selected their favorites among NFL announcers and broadcast teams -- and some of the results were interesting, if not surprising.

First, the winners ...
  • Best Game Analyst: Phil Simms, CBS (29% of vote)
  • Best Play-by-Play: Al Michaels, NBC (42%)
  • Best Game Crew: Al Michaels / Chris Collinsworth / Andrea Kremer, NBC (35%)
  • Best Pregame Show: "Fox NFL Sunday" (33%)
  • Best Pregame Host: Chris Berman, ESPN (38%)
  • Best Insider: Adam Schefter, ESPN (28%)
  • Best Sideline Reporter: Suzy Kolber, ESPN (24%)
  • Best Studio Show: "NFL Matchup," ESPN (48%)
(And the link to Michael McCarthy's column and the vote remains active.)

Perhaps most surprising were all ESPN-related results, for different reasons.

First, while people in the TV sports industry and some media critics sometimes see Chris Berman as caricature of himself at this point, he remains popular among those who voted. He's entertaining and has a diverse and strong studio group to work with, so that helps. While some of his cultural references seem dated at times and the Swami routine might have run its course, people still watch.

Next, "NFL Matchup" was selected as best studio show. That reflects a vote from a hardcore audience that clearly likes the in-depth program, which was almost not renewed for this season. Of course, the field in that category might have been the most thin of all the categories -- because three of the shows up for vote air on either NFL Network and Showtime and simply might be seen by as many fans -- but "Matchup" easily thumped the competition. Fans clearly appreciate a show that puts that type of singular focus on a game.

In the Best Insider category, Schefter's success makes sense. He's good, an excellent acquisition for ESPN from the NFL Network a year or so ago. Combining his sources and work ethic with those of fellow insider Chris Mortensen often makes ESPN an unbeatable combination. What's surprising was the Schefter garnered 28 percent of the vote, just ahead of NBC's Mike Florio (27 percent), meaning Mortensen was not in the top two.

Finally, the vote for sideline reporters was surprisingly close and drew less total votes than any other category. While Kolber got 24 percent of the vote, Andrea Kremer of NBC (21 percent) and Tony Siragusa of Fox (21 percent) were close behind. And they're not even close to being the same type of sideline reporter. While Kremer and NBC work to position her as an information source, Siragusa provides just as much comedy as information.

Most interesting, or maybe obvious, was the level of interest in sideline reporters. Make that the lack of interest.

Specifically, the Best Insider candidates attracted more than 9,700 combined votes while the Best Studio Show category attracted 9,358. For Best Game Analyst it was 8,365 and Best Play-by-Play drew 7,298.

For Best Sideline Reporter, the total was 6,980. So people clearly do not care as much about news from the sideline during games. Or at least they do not care enough to share their opinions about the work of the sideline reporters.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Another Week, Another NFL Replay Fumble

OK, the NFL might be an unchallenged ratings giant and the league might provide great week-to-week television programming, but its replay rule continually proves flawed -- and that's just about the most visible marriage of TV and the sport.

Even worse, the flaws inevitably, inexcusably impact the integrity of the game.

Credit standout NFL beat reporter Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for shedding light on the latest failing. After the Steelers passed on a replay challenge Sunday night against the Saints, coach Mike Tomlin told the media: "When you're on the road, you don't get [good] looks at replay." At least that was the quote from the Post-Gazette after the game.

After some digging, Bouchette pretty much determined that there was no missing word ("good") in the quote. The Steelers coaching staff in the press box, the folks who would normally let Tomlin know whether or not to challenge a call, really did not get a look at the replay.

That's because the TV in their coaching box was not tuned to the game. And, according to Bouchette's report in Wednesday's Post-Gazette, an NFL spokesman said it was the coaches' job to make sure they requested the channel be changed.

Really? That just sounds like passing the buck.

OK, coaches from any team should have enough self awareness to have the game tuned in on the monitors or TVs in their coaching box -- and to their discredit they did not -- but the incident just provides another example of the sometimes random nature of the NFL replay rule.

If the league wants to utilize replay, it should be its responsibility to make sure the tools are available and working. In this case, that's the TV in the coaches' box.

And the inability or unwillingness to do that, and to require it of host teams as opposed to visitors having to ask for it to happen, just provides another example of the system's failings.

The challenge portion of the rule itself is a disservice to the integrity of the game. Asking coaches to choose when they want a replay is unfair -- a replay referee should examine every play no matter what. After all, when it supposedly means more, in the final two minutes of a half, a replay official does that anyway.

Well what does that person do for the other 28 minutes of each half? They're not working in any capacity that clearly benefits the game, but they're probably getting paid. And does that mean those long stretches, a majority of the game, mean less than the final two minutes of each half?

Plus, there are always the moments when one team hurries to the line, trying to get a play off before a replay can happen on a potentially controversial play. If a team can get things moving before a coach on the sideline gets word from his assistants in the booth have time to challenge the play, well, so much for the integrity of the game in that instance, too.

An always working replay official could prevent that from happening. And a replay rule that works consistently would be the best possible option. Someday the NF might get it right.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Ratings Confirm Dominance of NFL

It was noted in The New York Times (in two different places), USA Today and at locations across the Internet, but it was news almost every sports fan in the United States already knew -- because they made it happen.

A regular-season football game pulled a higher rating than Game 4 of the World Series on Sunday. The Steelers-Saints matchup attracted 18.1 million viewers, compared to 15.5 million viewers for Game 4 of Giants-Rangers.

Yawn. Yep, that's no surprise. The football game held the attention in our house, too.

It's been that way since the start of the NFL season. Just last week the NFL announced that the 12 most-watched programs of the TV season to this point have been a dozen of its games.

While top-notch sporting events remain strong draws on TV, nothing compares to the NFL.

Still, the World Series was successful by many measures. It finished as one of the lowest-rated Series ever, but it helped Fox draw enough viewers to have the best week among all broadcast networks.

What remains, though, could be one final NFL victory. The concluding Game 5 of the World Series drew 14.9 million viewers Monday. It was up against "Monday Night Football" on ESPN. That matchup, Texans-Colts, might not carry the cachet of Steelers-Saints the night before, but if the football game (when final ratings come in tomorrow) drew more viewers than the concluding game of the Series that's just another football victory.

And the NFL will work to expand its dominance as the season continues with national broadcasts moving to Thursday nights and Saturday nights once college football season winds down.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

After Venom, Mostly Pleasantries for Paterno

A week after readers started submitting questions -- many of which were mean-spirited (and that's a fair assessment) -- editors for the site selected nine they thought were worthy to ask Penn State assistant football coach Jay Paterno.

The resulting interview, taped earlier this week as part of's Just Askin' series, runs nearly 15 minutes based on those questions.

One questioner even asks Paterno why he thinks some fans are so tough on him. Another asks about his efforts outside coaching and his political work.


Friday, October 22, 2010

Restaurants, TV Sports ... It's All the Same

Despite all they discussion and hype about who works in the TV broadcast booth on coverage of sporting events, it's the games that matter most.

A good group in the booth can make a game more enjoyable -- just as a bad group might make it little less entertaining -- but most fans do not decide to watch (or not to watch) based on the announcers. People tune in to watch their team, or a game that interests them.

For years, TV types have argued that John Madden "moved the needle" and brought viewers to games. Madden was many things -- entertaining, engaging, infuriating -- and he almost inevitably evoked a response and made a connection with viewers. But, he was always working a network's No. 1 NFL game of day.

Whether it was on CBS with Pat Summerall or later on "Monday Night Football," which aired on ABC and then NBC, Madden almost inevitably got an A-list assignment. So people were going to watch no matter what. It's hard to believe they were there just for him, even in minimal numbers. Had Madden worked week after week on irrelevant or low-profile games, he would not have become so beloved or well known.

In some ways, the TV business mirrors dining out that way. People eat out for the food. A good server can make the experience better -- just as a bad server can make the night seem a little less enjoyable -- but it's the food that matters. Even if you get that bad server, you're still apt to return if the entree was good. (You'll just hope you're not seated at that server's table the next time.)

Among televised sports entities, the NFL remains the featured menu item -- because people always watch. This year's average ratings have hit record levels, and might only increase as the season progresses and games become more meaningful.

Ratings the past week or so again bore out the NFL's dominance, even with a weak "Monday Night Football" matchup. That bland Jacksonville Jaguars-Tennessee Titans matchup still attracted 9.7 million viewers, compared to 8.2 million viewers for a more meaningful American League Championship Series game between the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers.

College football has been strong the fall too, with its prime-time ratings and viewership on ABC also finishing higher than post-season baseball -- and that would be the case no matter who was working the games. Proven and highly visible Brent Musburger usually gets those prime-time assignments, but if he were not there (we can dream) people would watch anyway.

Still, that does not mean on-air sports talent does not have an important role. Especially as TV programming becomes more fragmented and more niche shows develop, loyalties could be heightened for some on-air talent. After all, every professional league (as well as the Big Ten Conference) has its own network and every marquis mixed martial arts event has its own buildup in a TV series.

With things like that, people already appreciate and expect familiarity with those describing the action or hosting the shows. So they could play a slight role in whether people watch or not. In the end, though, what they plan to watch matters most. It's always about what's on the menu.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Rating 32 'Great Calls' a Top-Notch Effort

What's the best broadcast call of a sporting event ever?

Credit Sports Illustrated writer Joe Posnanski for providing his opinion and ranking what he considers the top 32. Plus, thanks to the user-friendly combination of the Internet and YouTube, Posnanski's piece includes clips from the calls he cites.

Some seem obvious, and you will probably find omissions that seem obvious as well.

Still, it's a good idea that was executed well. It's worth the time, to read, listen and watch.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Former Steelers Conduct Big Ben Q-and-As

Who conducts the better interview, the team's former coach or a former running back?

We'll find out when they both get their shot during interviews that air Sunday. That's Bill Cowher and Merril Hoge interviewing returning Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for "The NFL Today" and "Sunday NFL Countdown," respectively.

According to the CBS publicity machine, Cowher "goes one-on-one with hard hitting questions" on "The NFL Today." At the same time, ESPN promotes Hoge as someone who has become a close confident of the quarterback who was suspended four games for off-field behavior and is returning to action this week at home against Cleveland.

ESPN provided a couple-question glimpse at the Hoge interview last week during several different programs. It looked interesting, but hardly earth shattering. Most semi-savvy sports fans could provide the same answers as Big Ben.

He's contrite. He's knows he has to prove himself by his actions off the field. He's sorry.

Heck, should he offer anything other than that, well, that would be newsworthy.

According to CBS, Roethlisberger will discuss how he has changed during the suspension; what he has learned; and how he can help the 3-1 Steelers get all the way to Super Bowl XLV. And, of course, we'll get those hard-hitting questions from Cowher.

We'll see, though. While Cowher clearly has chops as a hard-nosed coach, the interviewing skills seemed unlikely -- especially since the CBS preview for the interaction between coach and former player comes only with an answer and not one of the questions.

Roethlisberger said this about the possibility of the Steelers trading him as they did wide receiver Santonio Holmes: "Well, when the talk started happening, and you did hear those rumors and stuff, and wherever they came from, I don't know, but it hit close to home and I realized I don't want to go anywhere. I love it here."

Love might be a strong word, but if either of the interviews is likable, and watchable, that'll be great.

Friday, October 8, 2010

High School Students Replicate 'GameDay'

One of the latest examples of the pervasiveness and power of "College GameDay" was reported Friday by the Valley News Dispatch in western Pennsylvania.

Reporter Bill Beckner Jr. chronicled a day-long event in Leechburg, Pa., where students planned to launch their own High School Game Day. It's not a broadcast event, but it is something organizers hope can build energy just like when the ESPN types hit a college campus.

With no classes in the school district because of an in-service day for teachers, students plan a full day of activity leading up to the game between Northgate and Leechburg. Best of all, the student hosts are competing (they plan to shoot rock-paper-scissors) for the right to portray Lee Corso.

Click HERE to the complete article.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Latest Brand for All-Sports Leader: espnW

It's a blog that has not launched (but will soon), some digital content (that should emerge in the spring) and an outlet that might find an audience.

Right now, though, ESPN's latest brand -- espnW -- remains in its infancy.

The all-sports giant refers to espnW as its "new women's brand" and a retreat this past weekend in Southern California marked its first building-block moment with a panel discussion featuring big-name women's athletes and former athletes.

ESPN officials also invited members of the online sports community -- bloggers -- to the event. It was a wise move, because for what will be a niche brand will need the buzz and support of the existing community to survive. Some of that emerged through some thoughtful analysis. But, the retreat also prompted some other strong responses and differing expectations.

With ESPN's track record, a niche, and maybe more, seems possible for espnW. A separate TV network seems unlikely -- at least anytime soon -- simply because barely enough quality content exits to program the networks ESPN already maintains.

Still, it's really not ESPN's commitment or the response of advertisers that will impact the development of the brand most. Oh, those are necessary things, but it's a safe bet that ESPN can find a way to make things work financially, at least at the start.

Expectations and response will determine the brand's success beyond the initial period. In just the two blog posts linked above, the expectations and tone of the response to the brand clearly differ. Sometimes in a smaller, start-up brand/channel/endeavor, an unwillingness to compromise by those the product is supposed to serve can be the biggest problem of all.

ESPN might have a great brand in mind, an idea whose time has come, but that does not mean launching and maintaining it will be easy.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Duo, A Genius and Now 'PTI' in HD

For nine years, "Pardon the Interruption" called a small studio in central Washington, D.C. (photo), its home -- building hefty ratings and viewership (drawing an average 1.1 rating and 1.29 million viewers in 2009) on the strength of relationship between co-hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon.

This week, though, "PTI" moved to another studio in the nation's capital.

That ABC-owned facility, thereby part of the Disney/ESPN family, used to serve as home for "Nightline" produced by ABC News. It provides high-definition capabilities and some high-tech bells and whistles the talk show never enjoyed in the past.

Still, the secret to success for "PTI" is not about the location. It's about the people -- a "genius" and two best friends who happen to enjoy sports.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Paterno Capably Answers Call on 'Herd'

A four-day tour of Big Ten Conference schools ended Thursday in Happy Valley for ESPN Radio's "The Herd with Colin Cowherd" (the tour also included tapings of "SportsNation" with radio/TV host Colin Cowherd and Michelle Beadle), and Penn State quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno was one of the featured guests during the final show.

While head coaches at other the three other schools on the brief tour (Bret Bielema/Wisconsin, Kirk Ferentz/Iowa, Rich Rodriguez/Michigan) appeared with Cowherd on radio, the younger Paterno filled that role at Penn State.

It was an expected move, because Joe Paterno almost never appears on nationally syndicated radio shows -- because he's a legend and does not need to make such appearances -- and because Jay Paterno thrives in such settings.

He did so again Thursday. During the eight-minute segment, he answered questions about his father's future as coach, compared Penn State's development as a program (some 40 years ago when football in the East was considered suspect) to that of Boise State and offered some entertaining and interesting personal insights. Complete clip HERE

Monday, September 20, 2010

'Sunday Night Football' Good, But Better Possible

With a star-studded start (Dallas-Washington in Week 1 and the "Manning Bowl" in Week 2) as well as the ability to adjust its schedule late in the season to ensure compelling matchups if necessary, "Sunday Night Football" easily represents the most high-profile outlet for the NFL from week to week.

It's the league's network home in prime time for much of the season, and the broadcast crew -- in studio and on site -- typically meets that responsibility with appropriate still. Plus, NBC Sports has made key changes in recent years that have made the show even better.

Atop that list for this year was cutting Keith Olbermann's role in the show. While his ESPN background gave him chemistry with host Dan Patrick and credibility with some fans, his MSNBC news duties and his hosting approach on "Countdown with Keith Olberman" clearly counteracted that goodwill and trust for other viewers. Without him, the studio show is better.

Also, NBC cut the clutter in its studio in recent seasons, which has allowed former coach Tony Dungy and former player Rodney Harrison to shine. They're insightful and opinionated -- a nice combination.

Once the games begin, proven and steady Al Michaels calls the action. He remains among the best in the game, but does have his idiosyncrasies -- including an incessant need to comment on the video player introductions the network uses to share game lineups, and an over-willingness to offer his opinion about things other than the game.

Thankfully, Chris Collinsworth -- who was overdue in replacing John Madden on broadcasts -- gets enough time to make his points. He's also informed and opinionated. He's not always right, but that hardly matters. He's easy to listen to and makes the games enjoyable. Maybe Michaels could make anyone a success, because he does direct things capably to allow Collinsworth to shine, but the former receiver himself deserves much of the credit. He's just good at what he does.

The entire package works well, but productive tweaks remain possible. Foremost would be limiting the bully pulpit on-site host Bob Costas enjoys from week to week. Or, at least providing some reporting context when Costas takes hold of the broadcast as his own -- usually during the last segment of NBC's halftime production before going to commercial and returning to game action.

This week, Costas' topic was concussions in the NFL. What viewers got was on-air essay/editorial about the dangers of the sport and the need for the league to continue to tread cautiously -- and consistently -- in how players with head injuries are treated. Costas gets the benefit of the doubt in terms of reporting for such commentaries (he's been around a long time and is generally accepted as a great interviewer, so he must've done the legwork on that topic and others, right?), but his opinion in that format just seems out of place in the broadcast.

A bit more on-air reporting, comments from officials, reaction from players -- a complete package on a topic, perhaps concluded by a commentary -- would make the segments better.
NBC could limit its highlights at halftime (people who care already know the results) and use more of the mid-game break to explore such issues if it would like. It could be compelling TV, especially before what might be the largest NFL audience from week to week.

By itself, though, it's just a host who has the ability to get such air time making the least of it.

Plus, when it comes just minutes after a comedy segment/commercial from Toyota, the tone just misses. Or seems suddenly stark compared to everything else.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Best NFL TV Hire Needs More Air Time

Of all the off-season personnel moves that have reshaped (if only slightly) the on-air lineups for networks covering the NFL, none rivals the addition of former NFL vice president for officiating Mike Pereira at Fox Sports.

After a guest column for Fox Sports online in June, when he argued that Major League Baseball should follow the NFL's lead in the use of replay, Pereira officially joined Fox Sports in late June.

He made his full-fledged debut during the opening weekend of NFL action. His presence was important, too.

With the controversial non-touchdown catch in the Lions-Giants game, and with a late game incomplete pass/fumble ruling in the Falcons-Steelers game, Pereira was able to share his expertise about a couple of meaningful moments. And, after a dozen years in charge of the NFL's 120 game officials he has plenty of expertise to share.

Fox Sports officials had planned to incorporate Pereira in quick installments. He was able to observe games from the network's control center in Los Angeles and offer insights and interpretations when necessary.

It was a wonderful idea, but it was a bit clunky at times during the first week. A time lag in the on-air hookup prompted some cumbersome delays when he was on air. Plus, thanks to his experience on the NFL Network, he was able to make clear, concise points without needing as much time as TV had allowed.

Still, Pereira's debut was a resounding success, and Fox Sports wisely complemented his efforts during Sunday games with an online column that allowed him to look at specific instances from several games at one time. That forum -- -- provides a glimpse at what the network should strive to allow him to accomplish on TV, too. When Pereira worked for the NFL Network, his more in-depth on-air segments sometimes proved especially interesting.

Fox Sports might not have that time to spare week to week, especially on busy game Sundays, but it should find a way to feature Pereira a bit more. Every week might not be as eventful as the opening week, but no week will be completed without the need for some sort of rules interpretation.

A stand-alone officiating segment quarterly during the season would be enjoyable. At worst, a one-time segment should come during the midpoint of the season -- or perhaps Thanksgiving Day when more casual fans might be watching. Pereira does what he does well, explaining rules interpretations and offering insights into on-field procedures.

Because he was an employee of the league for so long, it might take a while for him to ever be critical of officials or the league, or even outspoken about officiating issues or trends. But if Pereira can just offer insights about what happens, and why it happens, in terms of officiating, it will produce some good TV moments.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

As Always, NFL Dominates TV Ratings

Never mind the competition, the fact that it was only Week 1 or even the looming probability of labor strife, the NFL again drew record ratings for several games this past weekend.

It was an especially good week for NBC Sports, which had the season-opening Vikings-Saints game last Thursday and a TV friendly Cowboys-Redskins game on Sunday night.

Specifically, the Vikings-Saints drew 27.5 million viewers -- making it the network's most-watched, regular-season game ever. On Sunday night, 25.3 million people watched the Cowboys-Redskins matchup. In addtion, ratings for the Sunday night game were up 24 percent from the first Sunday night game of last season (Bears-Packers).

Fox Sports enjoyed increased viewership as well. It's late Sunday afternoon game (Packers-Eagles) had a 14 percent higher rating than the game in that timeslot last year (Redskins-Giants).

Football itself does not guarantee ratings success, though. Several college football games drew ratings lower than matchups in similar timeslots last year. Those down included Penn State-Alabama on ESPN (down 36 percent from USC-Ohio State in 2009) and Michigan-Notre Dame on NBC (down 20 percent from when they met on the same weekend in 2009, then on ABC).

Clearly, and not surprisingly, the NFL remains the almost always successful TV sports king. The sport plays quickly and well on TV. It can be enjoyed when viewed casually and as background noise or when watched from the opening coin toss to the final second. Plus, it regularly provides known personalities, teams and traditions.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

ESPN Gears Up for Penn State-Alabama

As expected with any potentially eventful or important Saturday in college football season, ESPN has given this coming weekend a name -- "Monster Saturday," with several ranked-vs.-ranked matchups dominating the schedule.

The prime-time game in that lineup, Penn State at Alabama (7 p.m., ESPN), could be the least competitive of the bunch -- even legendary coach Joe Paterno said his team would need a miracle to win and was overmatched -- but the all-sports network has it pregame promotions in high gear.

Among the latest is a game-specific video that (mostly) relates Alabama's dominance in the teams' series.

Monday, September 6, 2010

NFL Analysts' Input Part of Possible Change

Color commentators working NFL preseason games were uniformly inconsistent during the preseason (from top-notch efforts by network talkers to so-so and even poor work on team-controlled broadcasts), but they all seemed to share one opinion: their dislike for the repositioning of the umpire on the field.

As a change for this season, the NFL moved umpires from a spot on the defensive side of the ball at a depth about equal to the linebackers to a position in the offensive backfield. It was a move for safety, to take umpires out of harm's way as standing "picks" for receivers crossing the field and as human tackling dummies when action moves straight up the field.

But, because the umpires must spot the ball and get to their position before play can begin, the change from a place 5 or so yards from the ball to a place nearly a 12 yards away has been troublesome.

Coaches complained. Players did as well. And the Indianapolis Colts tested the rule about when the ball could be snapped repeatedly during a nationally televised preseason game, prompting several penalties.

Best of all, most TV analysts chided the move as well. Their criticisms included how the move impacted the integrity of the game and it's inconsistency -- because the umpires do move back to the defensive side of the ball in the final two minutes of the game, as an acknowledgment that team's might try to work faster late in the game and that the umpire should be in a more efficient position.

Amid such criticism, the NFL agreed to move umpires to defense for the final 5 minutes of each half during the last week of the preseason. Additionally, the league plans a meeting this week -- after the nationally televised Vikings-Saints season opener on Thursday -- to revisit the umpire topic again as the season begins.

It's clearly a rule that needs work, and it's a positive that analysts have consistently pointed out its flaws.

Friday, September 3, 2010

College Football: Longer Show, Shorter Breaks

After a taste of action Thursday night, college football season opens with a bunch of ho-hum, surely lopsided contests and a few non-conference games worth watching this weekend.

Three games highlight the latter group -- Oregon State-TCU (7:45 p.m. Saturday, ESPN), LSU-North Carolina (8 p.m. Saturday, ABC), and Boise State-Virginia Tech (8 p.m. Monday, ESPN) -- and Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit get to work both the second and third game on that list.

Still, non-game action might be some of the most discussed activity of the weekend, at least in terms of TV.

That includes an earlier start and channel (9 a.m., ESPNU) for "College GameDay" on Saturday and some shorter commercial breaks during the Notre Dame game on NBC.

Erin Andrews will host that first hour of "GameDay" as part of her new contract, which provides that taste of hosting action and work for "Good Morning America" as a complement to her duties as a sideline reporter. After her participation in "Dancing with the Stars" further increased her visibility, the opportunities were a logical (and maybe necessary) step to keep her at ESPN and allow her to build and vary her on-screen resume.

Expect the first hour of "GameDay" to go well because Andrews is good and professional. Plus, it's not like she's being asked to do a totally different job. She's comfortable in front of the camera and she'll just be sitting down for some conversations as opposed to standing up. If it does not go well, that would be a surprise.

After that initial hour, Chris Fowler and friends return at 10 a.m. on ESPN -- thankfully getting Fowler off U.S. Open coverage (even though he enjoys tennis) and putting him in the seat where he has seemingly redefined the role as studio host. In the live "GameDay" setting, he's engaging, enjoyable and entertaining. Perfect at his job.

With Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit and Desmond Howard, the team works well together and the show is always worth watching.

Like Andrews, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly expanded his job duties a bit in the offseason. Because he's looking to assist his preferred up-tempo offense in every possible way, he lobbied NBC -- which broadcasts all of the Irish's home games -- to shorten their in-game commercial breaks. As reported by USA Today, this week, those breaks will go from 2 minutes, 30 seconds to 1 minute, 45 seconds.

The quicker breaks might not transmit into an advantage for Notre Dame, because any break for both teams would seemingly help the defense get a break and get ready to resume action, but if Kelly thinks it helps, well then it might.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Versus Game (Pitt-Utah) Starts Season Strong

While ESPN promises 31 games in the next five days across its numerous "platforms"-- including nine games broadcast only online at -- Versus kicks off college football season at 9 p.m. Thursday with the best game of the early part of the weekend when 15th-ranked Pitt travels to Utah.

Versus is available in about 75 million homes nationwide, compared to 99.5 million for ESPN's most prominent cable channels (ESPN and ESPN2).

Because of its relationships, usually carrying games featuring teams such as Air Force, BYU and from the Pac 10 Conference, Versus rarely has a game worth watching beyond a specific region of the country -- let alone on the East Coast.

This game, though, meets that standard and should allow the network to promote the remainder of its schedule.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

'Little Big Men' Latest Film in Strong Series

Another quality installment of ESPN's sports documentary series debuts at 8 Tuesday night.

"Little Big Men" follows the baseball team from Kirkland, Wash., which won the Little League World Series in 1982. The team, led by power-hitting pitcher Cody Webster, upended a team from Taiwan in the championship game -- but that's just part of the story.

Filmmaker Al Szymanski, with 11 Emmy Awards to his credit, capably recaps the team's upset victory in South Williamsport using game footage from ABC Sports (including TV sports legend Jim McKay) and goes beyond that to make the story more compelling and personal by following the team and its players after the victory.

Even two years removed from the U.S. hockey team in the Lake Placid Olympics, the Little League game did pack an nationalistic punch in 1982, which the film accurately conveys. Also, the general underdog story (teams from Taiwain had won five consecutive LLWS and 10 of of 12 before 1982) always makes for a good sports story.

As an added benefit, the film provides an interesting time capsule -- especially just two days after the latest Little League World Series concluded.

Specifically, the LLWS in 1982 included just one field, Lamade Stadium, and that was before the turf was so well manicured -- so viewers get a sense of the heat and dust that day 28 years ago.

Plus, the area around the ballpark was less commercialized and made-for-TV, but it was more cluttered than in recent years with fans. Back then, before the Internet, Twitter updates and even live broadcasts from the Series (it was tape delayed until the late 1980s), many baseball fans in central Pennsylvania were listening to the game on radio and as a victory for the U.S. team became more likely they did flock to the stadium.

To Szymanski's credit, the film feels right. It's not always easy to capture something like that years later, but that game that day was a remember-where-you-were moment for those involved and for many watching the game in person or on TV.

Emotional insights from Webster and his teammates about the aftermath of the victory only make the film more powerful -- because they touch on topics that always (unfortunately) remain timely, including how adults treat children and teenagers participating in sports.

Rebroadcasts of the film are scheduled: Sept. 1 (Midnight, ESPN2); Sept. 2 (11 p.m., ESPN Classic); Sept. 11 (1:30 a.m., ESPN2); Oct. 25 (Midnight, ESPN Classic); and Nov. 28 (1 a.m., ESPN Classic.)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Musburger, Oliver Display Midseason Form

Two of the weekend's more visible sports broadcasts featured two on-air personalities in mid-season form -- but that's not necessarily a good thing.

Play-by-play man Brent Musburger, who has perfected that high-volume, over-the-top approach, was in many ways perfect for the Little League World Series. Working games with 11-, 12- and 13-year-old participants requires positive energy because nobody's a loser at the Series and he's the perfect man to deliver that message.

He can talk about the "youngsters" with a jovial, upbeat approach and his presence brings additional credibility to an event that has established itself as a late-summer TV staple and a ratings winner.

In addition, Musburger can pontificate about the state of the sport or the impact of replay on baseball (as he did during the championship game Sunday) and it sounds important, and like he's championing change (which he was for Major League Baseball) without it really making an impact. Likewise, the games provide interesting competition with an international flair but they hardly matter overall.

Ironically, while Musburger gives the Little League World Series additional star power, it was that assignment that helped resurrect his career. After he left CBS Sports in well-publicized maneuver on April 1, 1990 -- he was made aware of the move that morning and hosted the championship game of the Final Four that night -- Musburger's first visible assignment with ABC Sports came covering the Little League World Series four months later.

Since then, he's again established himself as ESPN's lead college football play-by-play man and has hosted numerous other highly visible events.

Still, sometimes he just tries too hard to be the conscious of an event, or a champion for a cause and he did so again Sunday.

First, there was a positive (and correct) nod to the impact of replay at the LLWS and its potential in the big leagues. "It is clear that it can be used, as it has been here, with very little time delay," he said.

But, he later incorrectly lobbied for a coach in the championship game to use a replay challenge in the bottom of the fifth inning on a possibly trapped catch (it was not) that was not able to be challenged. Undeterred, Musburger said: "Well, if they ever expand it, that should be something that's part of it."

Sometimes, he would be so much better if he would just call the action. He certainly deserves room after a stellar career, but that over-the-top approach remains an Achilles heel.

Likewise, Fox Sports sideline reporter Pam Oliver made a cliche a reality Sunday night working the Steelers-Broncos game. It was a display of going to a sideline reporter who was apparently close to the action and might have information but the report added nothing.

Specifically, after an injury to Steelers linebacker James Farrior early in the game opened a large cut on his right forehead (he lost his helmet and was hit by an opponent among a of pile of players while making a tackle), viewers waited nearly a quarter to get an update on his condition from the field.

When the report came, Oliver stated only the obvious -- that Farrior had a laceration and would not return to the game.

Really? That's something everyone knew from almost the moment it happened -- and the lack of information provided only the latest example of sideline reporters not actually reporting. While the guys in the broadcast booth had already provided necessary context by mentioning a similar injury to Giants quarterback earlier in the preseason, Oliver was left with little. Especially because the Steelers might not have been forthcoming about the situation.

If that was the case, she should've put off any report that shared nothing. Or the game's producer and director should've ignored the issue if they were not going to get good information. Instead, because the sideline reporter's presence had to be justified, viewers got the same old superficial effort they usually get.

It's not entirely Oliver's fault. All sideline reporters get stuck in the same situation. Maybe someday some broadcast will find a way for them to shine with regularity but that's just not typically the case.

Friday, August 27, 2010

'Exposure' Means Programming for ESPN

With eight games from five states in the next three days, ESPN and its family of networks help kick off high school football season aross the country.

With its "ESPN Rise High School Football Kickoff," the all-sports network presents games from California, Florida, Ohio, South Carolina and Texas. Games will air on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU.

According to the official news release: "ESPN RISE represents ESPN’s commitment to engage and elevate high school athletes by providing them with recognition, resources, information and inspiration that can motivate them to improve their skills and achieve their goals to be the best athletes they can."

Eight games in high definition on TV also mean something else for ESPN -- porgramming, which produces advertising revenue, and a chance to both self promote (which ESPN never avoids) and to create some media exposure loyalty with younger sports fans as well as top-notch competitors.

Eight of the teams competing in the televised this game fall in the top-50 rankings compiled by ESPN RISE. Also, seven individual players are ranked among the nation's top 150, according to ESPNU rankings. So, games brought to you by ESPN feature teams and players whose prowess has been verified by ESPN.

In its early years, ESPN did the same thing with its own separate college football rankings. The network eventually adopted Associated Press rankings like most other media outlets because it avoided confusion and was too transparent of an self-promoting act.

With high school football, though, there's no reason ESPN cannot position and promote itself as the authority. What other entity can compete nationally?

People watching the games might be inclined to visit online and check out ESPN's rating sytems or the other ESPN RISE assests -- which include ESPN RISE, GIRL, Hardwood and Gridiron magazines. There's also and more than 160 high school events each year, including Elite 11, Elite 24, ESPN RISE Games, ESPN RISE National High School Invitational, Faster to First, Area Code Baseball and Nike Combines/Nike SPARQ Mini Camps.

Because ESPN televises the games, standout teams and student athletes then will know ESPN loves them and wants to promote them. Perhaps relationships will grow as a result.

Maybe when the recruits bound for Division I schools involved in this weekend's games declare their college intentions, they'll do so as part of a show on an ESPN network. Maybe they'll be featured on "SportsCentral" specials during their pro careers. Maybe they'll get a job as an analyst once their on-field careers end.

That's a big set of what-if dominoes and scenarios, though.

What if ESPN did not televise high school games (in any sport)? Would high school athletes not go to college? And the best of the best not advance beyond that? Or someday find a post-playing career job?

Of course not, on all counts. While ESPN and other outlets will not turn away from high school sports -- expect the growing trend to increase even more in coming years -- that does not mean it's a good thing.

Sure, the competitors get some measure of exposure, but any measurements about who truly benefits from such broadcasts invariably favors the all-sports network itself.