Thursday, March 31, 2011

First-Year Success of Deal, Three-Man Final Four TV Crew Heighten Anticipation for CBS Sports

HOUSTON -- When most people spend a $1,000, and especially thousands of dollars, they usually know what to expect from their purchase. They certainly hope they got a good deal, and they usually have all their questions answered.

Ironically, the folks at CBS Sports and Turner Sports, the entities that combined to spend $10.8 billion over 14 years for TV rights to the NCAA Tournament, were not so sure about what would happen with their investment.

During the past three weeks, though, that outlay has proven to be pretty wise -- at least in terms of success measured by fan response, ratings and viewership for the first year of the deal.

"We had a lot of questions going into this," said CBS Sports president Sean McManus. "Everything turned out even better than I had hoped. From a production standpoint, the broadcasts were seamless. The presentation was as good as it's ever been."

In addition, CBS and Turner have been thrilled with ratings, which were at record levels through the first two weeks as four different networks shared the broadcasts with each carrying games in their entirety. This past week, those numbers leveled off a bit as CBS regained its exclusivity for the regional semifinals and finals, but the overall numbers remain high.

So, CBS takes a decidedly upbeat approach into this weekend's Final Four in steamy Houston (where temperatures could near 90 degrees Saturday) -- a significant contrast from last year in Indianapolis when the possibility that CBS could lose rights to televising the tournament was openly debated.

With the Turner partnership, though, CBS effectively ushered in a better way to televise the event.

"We couldn’t be happier or more optimistic as we go into Final Four weekend," McManus said. "We're only a couple weeks into a 14-year deal, but so far it's pretty good."

Even if ratings for the Final Four stay flat with previous years, the tournament overall would have enjoyed a great ratings run this year. And if those ratings somehow uptick this weekend, it would only add to the CBS/Turner success -- even with an event they've tweaked significantly.

Those changes will continue during the Final Four, as CBS uses a three-man broadcast crew, adding NBA veteran Steve Kerr, who worked earlier rounds of the tournament with Marv Albert, to the proven duo of Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg.

The trio worked a handful of games together earlier in the season, most notably the first night of the First Four and the Big Ten Tournament semifinals, where they were rough at times (as they seemed unprepared or unwilling to focus on the teams involved in the games) but play-by-play man Nantz insists the trio has meshed well from the beginning.

"I felt really good about how it went from the get-go," Nantz said. "Some of those earlier games we were focusing on bigger-picture items, who was going to make the tournament or what the selection committee thought of a team's chances. Now we're going to be locked in on these critical games."

Technologically, CBS will focus with a total of 22 cameras while working on a basketball venue that has been crafted inside a football stadium.

Producer Bob Dekas, who has worked the past 30 Final Fours with director Bob Fishman (the longest run of any such tandem in TV sports), believes Reliant Stadium ranks as the best of recent big-venue locations for the event. CBS has worked at the stadium three previous times with the basketball configuration and Dekas thinks the layout works better here in Houston than it did in Indy (Lucas Oil Stadium) or Detroit (Ford Field) in recent years.

Plus, the production pair knows that having all those cameras does not mean they must use them all.

"We're going to cover the game with the cameras it makes sense for the viewers to cover the game with," said Fishman, who has directed 91 Final Four games. "The others are used for reaction and things like that. You're not going to see 20 different angles every trip up the floor."

Thankfully, the viewer-first approach seems to be the main mantra for CBS -- right behind the network's happiness over the ratings/viewership. Kellogg pledged to practice the viewer-first approach during the weekend broadcasts.

"My job is to be prepared, be the best partner you can for the people you're working with and remember to serve the game and serve the viewers," Kellogg said.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Deference to Refs a Tournament Trouble

Forget regional bias and even racial undertones, the most offensive part of the NCAA Tournament to this point has been the on-air love afforded the officials.

Sure, the regional bias exists, and Big East haters have enjoyed themselves during the tournament. And it sure sounds like the racial undertones remain in every conversation regarding BYU and Jimmer Fredette -- especially when people discuss whether his game will "translate at the next level."

Still, the love fest for the make-no-mistake zebras has been the biggest problem with tournament coverage.

It starts early in every game as the on-air types paint themselves into a status-supportive corner. They introduce the game officials to viewers and then almost invariably note how many combined years of experience they have. Or, they note it's a "veteran crew."

Maybe that's supposed set the stage for a straight-down-the-middle call and effectively escort the officials off stage, giving them their due to start and hoping they stay out of the way as things progress.

Unfortunately, that has not been the case through most of the tournament to this point. With controversial calls and tight games, the officials have seemed ever present. Instead of not noticing them, they're often center stage.

That's not necessarily bad or wrong, because fans and viewers want the games called correctly and fairly. But because the broadcasters set the ground rules early -- reliably expressing their admiration and respect for the game's officials at the start of a broadcast -- the likelihood of those same broadcasters commenting on the work of officials or (even more unlikely) criticizing that work seems limited.

So, with an unbiased approach out of the question, it's then the broadcasters' credibility that then suffers.

In addition, for the $10 billion or so that CBS Sports and Turner Sports are paying for the tournament, the broadcasters seem surprisingly at arm's length from immediate official word of controversial moments during the game.

Fans a home expect such access and answers -- it's one of the perks of watching from the living room as opposed to a lower-level seat in the arena -- and TV has rarely delivered. Sure, commentary and follow-up information come during studio segments, but not reliably enough during the game itself.

With the importance of calls and fouls only likely to increase as the tournament progresses, the TV partners (and it becomes all CBS for the Final Four) need to get word -- or at least share that word if they are getting it -- with viewers sooner about what was called and what happened. Having the broadcasters of record guess just seems silly.

If the NCAA is holding back on information or preventing some network ears from clearly hearing what on-court officials tell to people at the scorer's table (and that's entirely likely) it should relent. Confusing moments and unanswered questions hurt the game, and a little bit of access can easily fix the problem.

Tournament Tidbits
  • While Verne Lundquist usually makes a broadcast enjoyable, he was sloppy at times Thursday night during the Sweet 16 round, especially when he mistook late-game UConn assist-dunk-showboat move for unselfish play.
  • Also, while Gus Johnson gets plenty of praise for his usually appropriate emotions on play-by-play, his color commentary partner, Len Elmore, gets overlooked for his ability to make cogent points quickly and also get out of the way for Johnson's calls.
  • Louisville coach Rick Pitino moved to ESPN this weekend for this round of action and predicted a Richmond victory over Kansas.
  • Fellow ousted coaches Tim Izzo (Michigan State) and Jay Wright (Villanova) take TV turns with CBS/Turner through the weekend.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

TV Numbers Just Part of Tournament's Success

As CBS Sports and Turner Sports prepare for regional semifinals and finals, they're building on almost exclusively good news (with notable ratings and viewership gains) after the first full week of the NCAA Tournament.

According to Nielsen Fast Nationals, the overall tournament rating has been 5.5 with a 13 share while CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV have averaged 8.4 million viewers -- up 14 percent from last year's 7.4 million viewers at this point.

Almost every day brought good news for the broadcasters during the tournament's first week. Last Sunday, with a 7.3 rating and 14 share, ranked as the best first Sunday TV performance in 17 years.

This week's action moves exclusively to CBS and TBS, and what happens to ratings should be interesting. With each game more and more important, that should mean higher ratings and more viewers. UPDATED TOURNAMENT SCHEDULE

That's something that has not happened for CBS when covering the tournament in recent years. Since 2006, ratings/share numbers have been on a slide. While 141.7 millions were estimated to have watched the tournament in 2005, none of the subsequent years have come close to that number.

Close games and the usual Cinderella stories helped ratings somewhat during the first week, but the improved broadcast approach -- with every game available somewhere in its entirety -- has been the key driving force in the ratings and viewership success.

At the same time, the broadcasts themselves have been good and the studio shows have been engaging and entertaining. Highlights have included:
  • A willingness to cover the news. While NCAA supervisor of officials John Adams looked a little less pleased during his subsequent on-air appearances this past weekend, CBS/Turner did the right thing by reaching out for his insights. Granted, his reasoning regarding the conclusion of the Arizona-Texas game and UNC's victory sounded flawed, but he was strong on the weekend's biggest moment (the wild Butler-Pitt finish).
  • An ability and willingness to have fun. After dealing with Adams again, studio host Ernie Johnson and commentator Charles Barkley had an exchange that included ... Johnson: "In a perfect world, John Adams wouldn't be on TV ..." Barkley: "We're going to start claiming him as a dependent."
  • Typically appropriate emotion from play-by-play man Gus Johnson.

Best of all, though, was Rick Pitino in studio. The Louisville coach, whose team was ousted early, was smart though somewhat stiff. Still, that did not stop him from sucking up to Adams and all officials on national TV ("they have a tough job to do," "you're not paying them enough") and making dour facial expressions when Barkley ripped the Big East Conference.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Fans, TV Partners Emerge as Winners

After the first full day of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, a day that included five games decided by two points or less (which tied a record for the most for a single day in tournament history), the emerging Cinderellas were not the biggest winners.

Thanks to TV partners CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV, viewers were the real winners.

With the CBS monopoly of games gone as part of a 14-year deal worth $10.8 billion that began with this year's tournament, games were spread over each of the four outlets. As a result, viewers -- remote controls in hand -- were in charge of switching from game to game to catch exciting finishes or following a game to its completion without being moved away to another game.

Jumping from game to game to catch close finishes was an approach ESPN first practiced years ago for the tournament and CBS utilized well during its years of broadcasting all 63 games of the event.

While some viewers unnecessarily worried about finding truTV on their channel lineup before the tournament started, that was not a problem the first day. Instead, the TV partners made it easy for viewers to embrace the opportunity to "be the producer" and follow games in their entirety or jump from game to game. (And viewers probably have itchier trigger fingers, or thumbs, than the real producers.)

With a standard score/time remaining graphic at the top of TV screens on every outlet, viewers could see the progress of other games and where the game was being televised. Also, when games were interesting or tight, announce teams told viewers about it and the logo for the outlet carrying the game flashed to emphasize that another game might be of interest.

An enlarged studio team was the other notable change for the tournament as Turner Sports NBA analysts Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith found roles in a crowded studio that included three hosts (Greg Gumble, Ernie Johnson, Matt Winer), other analysts (Seth Davis, Steve Smith) and, of course, the requisite coaches (Tom Crean of Indiana and Phil Martelli of St. Joseph's) without a team in the tournament.

This weekend, those experts and talkers will be in two separate locations -- New York and Atlanta. So far, though, they have not been overbearing or overwhelming.

There are a lot of them, but they seem to be picking their spots well, with a good balance of strong criticism without silliness. If they keep that up, and the game action plays out as usual in the NCAA Tournament, the changes seem to be shaping up as a perfect positive progression for March Madness.


Monday, March 14, 2011

Tournament Tips Tuesday on truTV

All the whining has ended, so it's time to focus on the game action and the things that make the NCAA Tournament so compelling -- game-ending, last-second shots and Cinderella teams.

First, though, viewers have to find the games.

Broadcast partner truTV plays host to the newly christened "First Four" on Tuesday and Wednesday nights as the NCAA Tournament begins a new era.

It's an era of bigger money (for the NCAA and it's member institutions) and more responsibility (for viewers).

As part of a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal that begins this year, four different networks carry the games. It's no longer a CBS Sports monopoly, and that means viewers can watch the games of their choice in their entirety. Along with CBS, TV outlets include TBS, TNT and truTV.

Although truTV has been an easy target because it's the least-watched of the four networks in the partnership, it is available to 92 million of the nation's 110 million TV households, so most people should have access to the games.

At the same time, though, balancing the tournament among four broadcast partners means the tournament loses some of what was its accepted and traditional TV format -- that exciting, wonderful switching from game finishes.

Ratings for each of the networks should be up -- again, picking on truTV (and it's true for TBS and TNT as well), the games could draw ratings better than what regular programming on the networks usually pull.

In addition, CBS has wisely balanced the broadcast schedule allowing it to feature big-market teams and traditional powers while giving its partners quality games at the same time. Here's the FULL TV SCHEDULE for the first three rounds.

Games Tuesday/Wednesday are the former play-in/opening round, making games that begin Thursday the first round. Of course, in one of the biggest untold stories of the tournament, do not expect CBS and its partners, or ESPN or any other NCAA broadcast partner, to report on how the simple renaming of rounds means more bonus money for coaches who have incentives in their contracts.

Anyway, with games ready to tip in just hours, here are four things you need to know as the Road to the Final Four gets under way.

First, CBS and its partners enjoy Cinderella performances early but they want big-name teams to advance.
Viewers love excitement and unpredictability, especially in the first few rounds. As things progress, though, notable coaches and traditional powers drive interest and ratings. Plus, as was clear with the No. 1 CBS broadcast team during the Big Ten Conference semifinals, the on-air types know the nuances and news related to visible, well-known programs but they do not have as much of a comfort level with middling or unexpected teams. Good teams make for better broadcasts.

Second, Gus Johnson might be one of the most-hyped second bananas in sports TV history -- and certainly in its current era.
Yes, a second banana is traditionally a sidekick, so the name is not 100 percent accurate but Johnson is the tournament's No. 2 play-by-play announcer, who seems to rank No. 1 in many viewers' hearts. His energy and style are fun, but it's still hard to imagine viewers for any game tuning in to hear a specific announcer. He's close, though, and he gets an awful lot of love from fans and media critics.

Third, three is not a crowd with Jim Nantz, Clark Kellogg and Steve Kerr.
On the No. 1 TV team, Steve Kerr has joined Nantz/Kellogg as a second color commentator. He was an OK fit during his debut working the Big Ten semifinals, and hopefully the trio will continue to work out the kinks. However, with two color commentators, Nantz needs to stay away from offering opinions -- he's there to describe the action and sounds preachy when he comments on the sport or issues. Also, we need less behind-the-scenes chuckles and info from this group about what happens at CBS. Best of all, though, it's a group without Billy Packer. His absence has not made my heart remember him fondly.

Fourth, crowded studios and NBA experts crossing over to work college games do bring interesting perspectives.
Everybody expected Charles Barkley to unleash loud rants (and he still might) but ESPN's studio crew, especially Jay Bilas, took care of that during Selection Sunday. We do not need spot-on analysis from the studio types, so the role of NBA guys -- joining the fray because TNT has a part of the action this year -- can be more entertainment and enjoyment. With brackets and the cultural phenom it has become, the tournament has a large casual audience. Barkley and Kenny Smith should be fine providing information and opinions. It might not be so much expertise, because they clearly do not know all they should, but it'll be fine. Plus, the tournament gets Marv Albert (YES!) working games for those who enjoy him.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Barkley Barks Before Ballgames Begin

During interviews after the media found out Charles Barkley would have a role in coverage of teh NCAA Tournament, and then again last week when CBS and its partners conducted a media briefing in New York City to hype the revamped tournament coverage, Charles Barkley championed the little teams and promised he would not be as critical of college players as he was with their NBA counterparts.

So far, he's livied up to his word.

Before the tournament has started, Barkley correctly took aim at one of the most controversial people associated with the tournament through the years -- former CBS color commentator Billy Packer.

While the addition of Barkley should represent just a footnote in the changes for the tournament, he has been given abundant attention by the media. And, if he contines to take aim at appropriate targets like Packer, he might find an ever wider audience than that he has gained with his often controversial NBA studio work.

Two ESPN Talents Shine in Buildup

Close, dramatic games make sports entertaining on TV, but sports programming also includes an abundance of talking heads and studio shows.

In the past few days, the preponderance of that programming has focused on college basketball – and on-air experts with accurate opinions and a passionate perspective often prove entertaining as well.

In the midst of all that jabbering, two people have stood out -- Joe Lunardi, the hardest-working man on TV at this time of year every year, and Jay Bilas, who brings a refreshingly honest, if sometimes grumpy, perspective to filling out the NCAA Tournament field.

Lunardi’s expertise and opinions resonate because he works hard and inevitably gets things right. Plus, he’s honest, telling ESPN viewers during an update early Saturday that deciding between the final teams in the tournament this year was a matter of sorting through generally bad fruit.

Likewise, Bilas often provides a rare voice of dissent, as opposed to hype, in regard to rounding out the tournament field. With 68 teams making the cut this season, Bilas knows what’s at the bottom does not matter and he’s not afraid to voice that opinion.

Many teams and moments will shine once the tournament begins, but before it even starts Lunardi and Bilas have been two of the stars.

Conversely, ESPN’s Hubert Davis has been so-so in the studio, an energy drain at times with little information.

He has not been the worst college basketball on-air offender in the past week, though. That honor goes to former coach Bobby Knight, and not only because he unleashed an on-air profanity last week.

Even worse was what started as a possibly great TV moment that became silliness. Last week, during a “Gameday” segment, Knight focused on Ohio State after it was noted that OSU coach Thad Matta had reached out to the legendary coach for help with his team’s defense.

Viewers were told Knight had shared a defensive drill with Matta -- and that they would see that drill as well. When Knight walked to the dry-erase board, it seemed like an interesting coaching moment would follow.

Instead, he diagramed a drill that was simply a five-on-four, which he said forced the four to play better defense. Knight called it his favorite defensive drill. Huh? Kind of a letdown actually. That was it?

Coach-of-the-Year candidate Matta could not come up with that himself? Instead of taking away insights from Knight, viewers were left wondering why the coach of the nation’s top-ranked team needed help dreaming up that drill.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Before the Madness, Some March Moments ...

Even before the redesigned and redistributed NCAA Tournament takes over television for the next three weeks, March has already established itself as a memorable. Here are just a few of the reasons:

-- Legendary golf producer Frank Chirkinian, who shaped the game as well as how modern golf appears on TV, died March 4 after a battle with cancer. He was 84. He moved to CBS Sports from the network's news division in 1957, and his arrival coincided with an increase in golf popularity driven largely by the emergence and performance of Arnold Palmer.

Still, Chirkinian, who basically portrayed himself in the golf movie "Tin Cup" with Kevin Costner in 1996, reshaped the game as well. By using innovative camera angles and discrete microphones, and by adding large scoreboards on the courses and white paint to the inside of holes on greens, golf became more intimate and TV friendly.

He was demanding (earning a nickname as "The Ayatollah," which he actually embraced) and successful. While leading broadcasts of The Masters for 38 years and reshaping golf, he earned numerous awards and was elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame. (His induction is scheduled May 9 and Chirkinian taped his induction speech for the event just days before his death.)

His approach reshaped more than golf, though. His drive for perfection and willingness to try different things established a culture at CBS that influenced a generation of behind-the-scenes TV talent that has continued to produce entertaining and groundbreaking TV sports broadcasts.

-- In a bit of perfect timing, Fox Sports revealed plans to renew its contract with Darrell Waltrip just hours after the NASCAR analyst did something rare for TV color commentators. He saw something on the screen and acknowledged it for viewers.

During the pace laps for last week's race in Las Vegas, Waltrip pointed out that the 43-car field actually had two pace cars -- one leading the field and one after the first 20 cars.

On screen, viewers could see the field was broken into two separate packs of cars instead of one big group. It looked a little different than usual, and Waltrip acknowledged that. He also provided a reason, telling viewers that separate, smaller groups allow pace cars to provide a more accurate opportunity for drivers set their pit road speed.

All races limit the speed of cars on pit road but, because the cars do not have speedometers, drivers must determine their speed according to other gauges in their cars. By trailing the pace car at that prescribed speed before the race begins, they can plan accordingly. Not a big deal, but interesting info that viewers got because Waltrip was paying attention and knew what he was talking about.

-- Conversely, it's amazing that Dick Vitale -- just days before "Selection Sunday" for the NCAA Tournament -- would chose to, or be expected to, talk about anything but college basketball. During his weekly visit Tuesday on ESPN Radio with "Mike and Mike in the Morning," Vitale chimed in on the Miami Heat and stories about certain players from the NBA team crying after a tough loss. Whenever any expert or talking head starts with "I wasn't there, but ..." it's not a formula to produce good information for listeners or viewers. It failed in this instance, too.

-- Sports Illustrated writer Lars Anderson earned the award as the most mean-spirited talk-radio guest of the month. Appearing with Paul Finebaum last week, both Anderson (and Finebaum) shot down a caller who seemed to simply ask about Anderson's perceived flip-flop regarding former Auburn QB Cam Newton, and whether or not Newton knew about his father's illegal activities. In an SI article last fall, Anderson indicated Newton was unaware of his father's pay-for-play pitches. Later, though, another piece penned by Anderson offered a different perspective. The caller asked for Anderson's opinion and got belittled. It just sounded bad.

-- A regular-season ending Big Ten Conference basketball game between Penn State and Minnesota again showed a couple of the many faults of TV replay for sports. After a Penn State player was whistled for an intentional foul because he elbowed an opponent in the head while grabbing a rebound (and contact to the head was point of emphasis for officials this season), officials went to the monitor to apparently confirm the call.

While the officials were at work evaluating the situation, viewers at home were frustratingly uninformed about the reason for the review. And that's always the case. Officials are using a TV technology to supposedly enhance the game, but the TV viewers at home are left wanting.

Second, and most egregiously, the replay clearly showed that the player whistled for the foul never made contact with his opponent. With the position of the official on the floor it was clear why he thought it was a foul. But, if they go to replay to verify something, why can they not fix the mistake they've made? And that seems to happen all-too regularly as well.

-- ESPN2 made a media push to accompany its March 1 arrival in Australia that included an interesting commercial.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Greenberg's Rant About Sports Fans as Consumers An Accurate, Honest Testament of His Talent

"Mike and Mike in the Morning" thrives on ESPN Radio and has crafted a niche in mainstream sports culture because of the honest, humility and talent of the on-air tandem: Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic.

The show was engaging and powerful on radio alone, and in the past several years the simulcast on ESPN2 has only enhanced its power by strengthening the connection between the hosts and the listeners and viewers.

We might not always agree with them, but they're fun and likable.

Best of all, without trying hard, they seem like us -- at least the non-athletes in the audience. Especially Greenberg. He's a fan, and he's not afraid to let people know.

He opens up about his likes and dislikes. That makes him more personable and the show all the more stronger.

Greenberg's latest rant, about fans as consumers, was spot-on -- something that provided a sure-fire connection with other fans. Never mind the "unionize fans" message near the end of his comments, that's off base and an unreality that weakens his overall point a bit.

In general, though, Greenberg hits all the right points when discussion why sports matters and why we allow it to matter.