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 -- http://msn.foxsports.com/writer/Mike_Pereira -- 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 ESPN3.com -- 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.