Friday, February 25, 2011

An Organization as ESPN's Ombudsman? Yawn

It might be a move toward more transparency and even a move toward a more well-rounded voice in the role of ombudsman, but ESPN's announcement this week that would work with The Poynter Institute and launch The Poynter Review Project left me with one reaction.


Oh, and then a second and third response -- a yawn, followed by the cynical feel that it's just a business deal, something the provides a benefit for both parties. And I'm not sure it's something better for ESPN's customers, fans and users.

For the past several years, ESPN -- promoting its desire to be accountable and open -- has utilized an ombudsman. In media circles, ombudsmen traditionally serve as independent voices who critique an outlet's work, even how it goes about its work.

Individuals who hold such positions have a sometimes difficult task because people who work for the media outlet usually do not appreciate others questioning their work. (Yes, it's ironic that people who ask questions for a living do not like being questioned.)

For ESPN, fairly high-profile and well-respected individuals held the position through the years. Those people (George Solomon, Lee Anne Schreiber and Don Ohlmeyer) brought proven journalism experiences and expertise to the position.

Plus, because of the traditional individual-in-the-role approach, they were able to wear the hat -- providing both criticism and praise -- well.

In fairness, though, a single person can be overmatched by the breadth and depth of content ESPN produces. It would be hard for them to fairly consider the content produced on TV, online and in print. Still, it seemed like they managed. At least they hit the highlights.

Through The Poynter Review Project, at least three people will be involved in producing monthly columns and addressing issues that result from ESPN's coverage and product. That should help more things to be addressed.

Plus, those involved bring more expertise, especially in terms of multimedia journalism, than the preceding ombudsmen. So their insights and opinions should be more valuable.

At the same time, though, the position now somehow seems faceless and nameless.

Sure, The Poynter Institute is THE name in journalism -- a respected bastion and training ground for both journalism approaches and ethics. It's hard to question anything the group does. It is the accepted source for all things journalism.

In that way, the partnership might be an inspired decision, something that will produce even better feedback and ideas to improve ESPN on behalf of customers, fans and users.

To sports fans, though, or people who expect an ombudsman to respond to their complaints and provide a voice, that just has to be a little unsettling. It's almost like there's another layer of unknown between the company and the people who support it than before.

And that's where my cynicism begins.

While ESPN gets to tout its decision to enhance its ombudsman position, and The Poynter Institute gets to promote its relationship with a major media company in a visible manner, it's just too early to know if the move will benefit ESPN's customers, fans and users or improve the product at all.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Belated Response to ESPN Moves? Here's Hoping

Lost in the buildup to the Super Bowl were two interesting, and connected, sports-media stories that might shape how fans get sports news in the coming months.

Here's hoping the actions and words from the folks at ESPN produce the positive results they promise -- and even the positive results that were not present when they tried some of these same experiments in the past.

A Stephen A. Smith Sequel
First, ESPN announced it had welcomed back Stephen A. Smith as a radio host and online columnist on Feb. 2. Since that time, he's hosted nightly talk shows in Los Angeles and New York City on ESPN affiliates.

He's on air form 7 to 9 p.m. ET in New York City and then 6 to 8 p.m. PT in Los Angeles. He contributes to local sports coverage and NBA game nights in the two markets. He also contributes to NBA coverage on and will assist with ESPN's coverage of the NBA Finals.

The assignments fit for Smith, filling the niche where he has proven successful. He has great contacts and experience. He knows the NBA and he knows how to write. If ESPN allows keeps his assignments focused, he can succeed.

Beyond that, though, Smith's status is uncertain. He was unsuccessful with a widespread ESPN audience on radio or TV in his previous five-year stint working for the all-sports network and anything along those lines could be challenging during this return engagement.

He got abundant promotion and the result was two failed talk shows. He just does not resonate, and the reason is simple. What makes him so strong in some markets on radio also limits him overall.

Good radio guys need a schtick, but they also need to share their human side. With Smith it's too hard to tell the difference between the schtick, smarm and smart. It's hard to cozy up to him and feel comfortable, and he does not make it any easier.

Content, Chats and Change
One day after announcing the hiring of Smith, ESPN conducted the first of what it promised would be regular online chats with decision makers at the network.

In the wake the departure of ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer, the move to chats sounded sensible. There's an audience of ESPN (albeit an appropriately motivated and vocal minority) that wants more control and input on what happens with the all-sport network.

Honestly, with the investment ESPN consumers make, such input makes sense. In every possible way, from cable bills to subscriptions to ESPN the Magazine and more, they're invested because they pay for what they get.

At the time, Walsh said the network had started its search process for another ombudsman and he expected the spot to be filled by early March.

Walsh addressed a range of topics -- from ESPN's editorial decision-making process and how it hires on-air talent to the network's perceived East Coast bias. It was an interesting session, a good session, the kind of session that could make the huge network more responsive to its customers and more transparent.

No matter what it does, it remains a business at heart and will never please some people -- no matter how open it attempts to be with those users.

Still, here's hoping the chats, and the next ombudsman are a step in the right direction.

Unreasonable Reaction? Pointing to 'PTI'

Talk about thin-skinned. All the NASCAR types, media members included, were off base earlier this week with their reaction to comments by Tony Kornheiser.

Then again, maybe Kornheiser was correct -- or correctly doing his job.

First and foremost, the "Pardon the Interruption" co-host who has his own radio program in Washington, D.C., was generating discussion and reaction (something most sports-talk types invariably attempt) when he said Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s pole-qualifying time for the Daytona 500 might have somehow been arranged.

After all, it was certainly serendipitous.

Racing types invariably bristle at any hint of anything being fixed in the sport, and those close to the action cannot fathom that those not around racing regularly would even entertain such thoughts. Still, media members who deal with the sport on an irregular basis and even some fans often make the leap in logic that things on the track can be controlled.

That reaction to Kornheiser bubbled up as it did was surprising, though. It's a sign that we're in the midst of a slow time of the sports season because it was a non-story -- just a guy doing his job (even if some would question how well he's informed), that should have gone unmentioned.

Fixing, schmixing. That's just silly.

Until, of course, some NASCAR driver in the midst of a big losing streak and in danger of losing his sponsorship somehow finds a little bit of on-track magic later this season and wins a race at just the right time.

who responded to Tony

Monday, February 7, 2011

Highs, Lows from Record-Setting Super Bowl

With ratings, share and viewership numbers rolling in, Super Bowl XLV has reached some expected milestones -- including most-watch TV program in U.S. history.

With 162.9 million viewers, the game surpassed last year's then-record of 153.4.

Also, 87 percent of televisions in Pittsburgh were tuned to the game, as were 85 percent in Milwaukee.

Host city Dallas set a record as as well. Eighty percent of the TVs there were tuned to the game, the most ever for a host city. (Of course, after the weather of the week many of the locals probably felt snowbound and just stayed inside. Plus, they have good football fans in Big D.)

With the U.S. population having swelled through the years, the viewership number should be among the highest -- just because there are more people around to watch the season-ending game than there was 20 years ago.

Conversely, the rating was huge by current standards, a 46.0, and still fell short of the eight highest-rated Super Bowls, all of which pulled at least 46.4s. None of those has happened in the past quarter century, though, since the nearly pre-cable, three-channel (plus PBS) world that a majority of viewers these days know nothing about.

So in many ways the Super Bowl -- and the entire weekend (at least in terms of what people watching at home saw) was a winner.

Here's a recap, initially published in the Altoona Mirror on Monday and then updated below that).

From the Mirror ...

It might not seem that way to Steelers fans, but the Super Bowl was good.

More accurately, it was a good broadcast of the most meaningful, most-watched football game of the season.

Fox Sports, which covered the action, followed the storylines and had the shots, did a good job. It was a fairly flawless football broadcast, except for a few early replays that drew an audible response from fans in the stands but were not shown on TV.

While the Steelers had three turnovers, the Fox Sports team (led by producer Richie Zyontz and director Rich Russo, a Penn State graduate) never fumbled.

Before the game Russo promised a football-first approach—and that’s what viewers got.

Play-by-play man Joe Buck was measured and steady. He let the action on the screen talk and, thankfully, did not offer an opinion on the action—a mistake many of his contemporaries make with regularity. Buck simply stuck to his role describing the action.

Similarly, color commentator Troy Aikman did not try to impress people by talking. He picked his spots and shared the right information at the right time.

During the Packers’ late-game drive, when receiver Greg Jennings caught his second big pass on a post-pattern, Aikman said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin had expected that and told the broadcast team as much earlier in the week.

“He told his quarterbacks to throw that post pass every time they could in practice,” Simms said. “Because he knew they were going to get that matchup with Jennings, and he was worried. Now the Packers have made two big plays on that pass.”

In addition, TV’s best on-air addition in years, former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira, stood out by simply doing his job and doing it well.

Pereira correctly opined on the only replay challenge of the game, which came with 25 seconds remaining in the third quarter. When Green Bay challenged a play that was ruled an incomplete pass on the field, Pereira said, “to me that’s a bang-bang incomplete pass.”

A minute or so later, after a seemingly long delay for the review, the officials on the field agreed.

In addition to the sounds, Fox Sports had all the shots, including injured players from both teams leaving the field, the only almost-bad snap between Steelers quarterback and backup center Doug Legursky and Rashard Mendenhall’s fourth-quarter fumble, which led to Green Bay’s third touchdown off a Pittsburgh turnover.

Missing was on-field sound from the Steelers. (Were only the Packers coaches and players wearing microphones?) Also missing were quicker updates on injuries. (Those things came, but slower than necessary.)

Still, the game was the highlight of the night—close to the end, which will boost ratings, and entertaining.

Halftime with the Black Eyed Peas was a big miss as the group, without enough of a playlist of its own to carry the show, leaned on Slash from Guns n’ Roses and Usher to round out the set. With misfires from Usher’s microphone, though, bad things got worse.

As always, there were standout commercials, with humor as the common element. Tops on the list were Pepsi Max and Doritos (both early), Budweiser (Tiny Dancer), Volkswagen (Darth Vader), a Bridgestone (beaver/dam) spot and an promo for “House” that mimicked the famous Joe Greene commercial for Coke.

Misses came from almost every automaker and Best Buy, which could not parlay Ozzy Osborne and Justin Beiber into anything special.

Day-After Updates: Oh My, Myers
--- As far as post-game interviews go, Chris Myers' effort with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was a sub-standard effort. Granted, it was a lose-lose situation for a sideline reporter, but Myers made no connection and the usually loquacious Tomlin was forthright enough to make it work. CBS reporter Steve Tasker set the standard with his Q-and-A with Rex Ryan (admittedly Ryan carried it as Tomlin attempted to Sunday night) after the AFC Championship Game and Myers could not get to that level. He seems aloof and cold and that came across on TV.
--- Biggest miss for Joe Buck-Troy Aikman, especially with former NFL officiating guru Mike Pereira in the booth, was not being critical enough of the officials. Two calls were especially troublesome for Packers fans -- the phantom facemask penalty (which is forgivable because of the angle of the official) and the forward progress on a Steelers pass play when the receiver caught the play, ran backward, got tackled behind where he initially pulled in the pass and was given the initial forward progress. Typical NFL inconsistency, which typically goes unquestioned.
--- While the Terry Bradshaw-Ben Roethlisberger interview was promoted and played pretty well during the pregame show, the interesting thing was that Bradshaw said "It's important I have a relationship with you." Which begged a pretty big question. Why? Is it some NFL prerequisite that every QB who succeeds another farther down the the line in a successful team's lineage get along with his predecessors?
--- On-air types also missed some things viewers saw on screen, especially Troy Polamalu limping for the Steelers.
--- Final thoughts on the commercials ... Two spots for Eminem, and the cartoonish tea spot just seemed to balance the too-long and preachy Chrysler commercial. Plus, it was one of those situations where you cannot envision the pitchman using the product (Chryslter), even if the message was solid. ... GoDaddy's formula apparently works, but it seems tired to me. ... If the E-Trade baby has not run its course, the faux interview/silly, staged interaction between Curt Menefee and the baby certainly has no place on TV.
-- Oh, the NFL's own ad "Best. Fans. Ever." with clips from classic TV shows and NFL gear superimposed on the stars, was really good. ... Snickers returned with a "ouch" ad similar to what bolstered Betty White into pop culture circles last year. But, while the commercial might have been funny and even satisfying, it will not do for Roseanne Arnold what it did for White.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Super Bowl: A Football Focus and Pregame Points

Despite all the attention and hype for the Super Bowl, two no-nonsense football teams with two knowledgeable, football-focused fan bases might get just what they deserve Sunday -- a no-nonsense broadcast.

In fact, for the Fox Sports broadcast team, the gameday approach sounds similar to what the on-field teams inevitably preach at this point.

"We have to do what we've been doing all season long, the same thing we've done every week," said director Rich Russo. "Joe (Buck) and Troy (Aikman) drive the ship and we support them. They know the pace of a good broadcast and they know football.

"Joe's really good at not over-talking a moment -- he has a great feel for that -- and Troy makes his football points clearly and quickly. They're really good at what we do, and our entire team is good at what it does. So that's what we'll do.

"We're not going to pull back on our football focus. For the casual fans who are watching, I think they'll pick things up without us going out of our way."

If the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers cooperate by staging a competitive contest, Super Bowl XLV might end up as the most-watched program in TV history. (A close game would keep more viewers until the end.)

Honestly, though, that "most-watched" thing could happen no matter what the result. Based on the general popularity of the teams and the TV ratings dominance of everything NFL throughout the season, it should be another super audience for the season-ending game.

Last year's game, with the New Orleans Saints (and their rags-to-riches/underdog storyline) vs Indianapolis Colts (with charismatic QB Peyton Manning) was the most-watched TV show of ever, attracting 153.4 million total viewers. Each of the past three Super Bowls has set a record for average audience.

While Russo and his team have more bells and whistles for this broadcast (42 cameras compared to 15 for a regular-season game), he said nothing really changes about the job.

"We have all we normally have and more, so each of those additional cameras has a specific purpose," he said. "They're just ways to enhance what we do and in the end our job is to get the right shots at the right time."

Regular meetings with each of the teams earlier this week (the Steelers on Wednesday and the Packers on Thursday) helped with final preparation, and the broadcast team has worked several games at Cowboys Stadium so they're familiar with the surroundings. Russo said the stadium "shoots well."

The broadcast team should be especially familiar with the Packers because they've handled the team's past six games. Buck-Aikman with Russo-producer Richie Zyontz also worked the 2009 regular season game between the two teams that resulted in a 37-36 Steelers victory.

While he always worries about things he cannot control, Russo has the utmost confidence in his team and its preparation.

"Our team puts in hours and hours of preparation so they're able to react, immediately, to what happens," he said. "Is it a two-receiver set? A five-receiver set? What are a team’s tendencies? In terms of directing, I do equate it to playing -- being able to adapt or react to what happens as soon as it happens. And we’re all competitive. We want to produce the best broadcast possible."

A football-first approach represents be a big step toward making that happen.

Interesting interviews among pregame fare
The separate pregame show on Fox (Russo and his team do not take over until 6 p.m. for the 6:29 p.m. kickoff) features two potentially interesting interviews.

For the casual fan, there's President Obama with Bill O'Reilly of Fox News sometime after 4:30 p.m. Probably not many fireworks, but the master of no spin might attempt to spin it that way. And, any interview with a sitting president could prove newsworthy.

An hour later, analyst and former Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw sits down with Ben Roethlisberger.

Bradshaw has been publicly critical of Big Ben several times in the past few years and they were actually were given 10 minutes alone (with no Fox officials and no team representatives) to talk before the interview was taped earlier this week at Cowboys Stadium.

A Saturday night selection show, good radio and "Glee"
  • The NFL Network has the live announcement of the latest Pro Football Hall of Fame class at 7 p.m. Saturday. While the show had an NFL Draft feel last year, it also felt a little more voyeuristic in the past because a first-round draft pick who falls must wait only one more day, at most, to be picked while a former player who misses out on the Hall misses out for a year, at least. Hopefully that will be different this year.
  • "Mike and Mike in the Morning" kicks things off for ESPN Radio on Sunday morning with their usual show from the game site beginning at 6 a.m. Sometimes it's not as strong as what they've done during the week, but it does give talk radio's best national tandem a prominent presence the day of the game. Plus, with ESPN's power they'll have good guests.
  • One of Fox's strongest shows, "Glee," gets the post-Super Bowl slot for an hour-long show starting at about 10:30 p.m. Sunday. While the winning fan base might be ready so sing along, the engaging show might even make it easier for fans of the losing team, too.
Finally, a word from our sponsors
Nope, not about to forget the commercials. It's the Super Bowl, after all.

Ads cost as much as $3 million for a 30-second spot this year, and many of the usual big names return -- Anheuser-Busch, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, E-Trade and movie studios with trailers for summer movies (including "Captain America"). Newcomers include online coupon company Groupon, HomeAway (vacation home rentals) and a supposedly racy Kardashian-related commercial for Sketchers sneakers.

Some companies have already promoted "banned" ads online, and the connection between TV and online could limit some advertisers, who might try to hard to push people to their sites rather than sell their products. It is a delicate balance.

As always, though, expect that balance to tip in favor of humor. The Clydesdales are slated to return again, too.

Here's a look at a Volkswagen commercial that was posted online in advance of the game and drew more than 5 million hits during its first 24 hours on the web. If there others meet this standard (even if you know where the commercial is going), the breaks in the game Sunday should be fun.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

CBS College Sports Rejects NFLPA Ad

An ad by the National Football League Players Union, which would have turned up the rhetoric the day before the Super Bowl about a possible lockout, was rejected by CBS College Sports.

An Associated Press report documents the situation.
And here's the ad, which might have been a misstep by the players, so maybe the TV network saved the players from themselves ...

At the same time, kudos to the YouTube user who quickly produced this "Bad News Bears"-influenced remix of the commercial. For viewers of a certain age, it might be easier remember getting behind the Bears' case to play than it would be to support either side in the apparently impending millionaires vs. billionaires conflict coming in the NFL.