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.