Wednesday, June 29, 2011

'Difference Makers' Should be Worth the Wait

Everything about "Difference Makers" -- the 90-minute special that airs Thursday night on ESPN and ESPNU featuring college coaching legends Joe Paterno and Mike Krzyzewski -- took time.

An offer for a Coach K visit to Happy Valley came five years ago.

Ideas about this specific show were then nurtured on the respective campuses (and with input from ESPN) for months. Finding a date, some single time when the two coaches did not have commitments for their respective sports or conflicts with charity and family activities, added more time.

Then, on the day of the taping (June 20) people in the live audience at Penn State discovered that a 90-minute TV show actually takes more than two hours to tape. And that came after three days of on-site preparation at the venue.

Still, all the time will prove worthwhile when the show makes its debut at 8 p.m. on ESPN. It continues at 9 p.m. on ESPN.

Energetic, informative efforts by the coaches provide the centerpiece of the show. A solid hosting effort by Rece Davis moves the program along. And a strong commitment by the ESPN production team shows in pre-packaged pieces and the overall format of the program that make "Difference Makers: Life Lessons with Paterno and Krzyzewski" and fast-moving and satisfying program.

Abundant effort and time were the key. ESPN's behind-the-scenes team --led by senior coordinating producer Ed Placey, senior coordinating director Linda Wilhite, producer Jonathan Labovich and director Tom Lucas -- capably met the many challenges associated with the program because of ample planning and preparation. While the show was different for all involved (a studio-type show not in a typical studio, conducted in a venue that rarely host TV shows), all those who worked outside their typical level of comfort did so with a greater purpose in mind.

They knew what "Difference Makers" could be, and their tireless efforts will help it be just that. While viewers will not see all the hard work, they will see the final product.

It's a good TV program. And it's different. It's talking, but without arguing and self-aggrandizing. It's informative, without being preachy. It's old-school (with an 84-year-old coach and a 64-year-old coach it has to be), but it seems state-of-the-art.

It's just good sports TV, the kind of thing that rarely occurs and probably not cannot be repeated (at least with the gravitas these two coaches provide).

All of that makes it worth watching.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

DirecTV, Mannings on Target with 'Football Cops'

Want a little bit of tongue-in-cheek fun while waiting for the NFL lockout to end?

DirecTV provides it -- thanks to the Manning family -- with its online series, "Football Cops." Here's the show's site, and the first season trailer.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Big TV Deals Guarantee Change, Not Stability

Milestone deals become memories pretty quickly in the world of TV sports, and that might be most true with regard to college sports. Especially the past few years.

After all, what were once eye-opening, slightly surprising and even set-for-life deals seemingly get surpassed the next time another conference reaches an agreement with a broadcast partner. Being first simply sets the standard that others use as a reference point. And that point rarely represents a negotiating ceiling for those that follow.

That's why the Southeastern Conference -- just three years into its deals with ESPN/ABC and CBS -- has made noise recently about talking with its partners about altering or updating its broadcast agreements. While SEC officials have said that they're comfortable with the escalator clauses in the deals, the news that the growing Pac-12 Conference had landed a big deal with ESPN and Fox did not play as well in the South as it did on the West Coast.

Also, unlike the Pac-12 and Big Ten Conference, the SEC remains without the ability to create its own channel, which would provide another revenue stream for the conference.

That's a revenue stream the University of Texas, with its Longhorn Network, hopes to tap exclusively starting this fall. With the help of ESPN, the UT-specific channel hopes to get as much as 40 cents per subscriber per month from cable operators who would carry the channel.

Like the Big Ten Network, which draws some of its revenue from that approach, that dual revenue stream changes the game for college sports on TV.

That's part of the reason the Big Ten Network remains the biggest cash cow in college sports TV. It's deals -- with ESPN/ABC, CBS and as majority owner of the BTN (51 percent, compared with Fox's 49 percent) -- generate more than $250 million annually, according to Sports Business Journal.

Next are:
-- the Pac-12 ($250M through deals with ESPN/ABC and Fox);
-- the SEC ($205M with ESPN/ABC and CBS;
-- the Atlantic Coast Conference ($155M with ESPN/ABC); and
-- The Big 12 Conference ($150M with ESPN/ABC and Fox).

That's the end of the cash cows, though. After those major conferences, TV revenues drop off significantly. The Big East Conference collects an average of $36 million each year from ESPN/ABC while CBS College Sports pays less than $16 million and more than $11.7 million to Conference USA and the Mountain West, respectively.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Preseason Games, Revenue Loom for NFL

With the NFL lockout at nearly 100 days, a not-so-surprising reason might account for the possible thaw in relations between owners and players and the recent spate of high-level meetings during the past week.

As always, it's about TV revenue.

Credit Peter King of Sports Illustrated for pointing out some important facts in a recent "Monday Morning Quarterback" column online. Specifically, King referenced the NFL's 11 nationally televised preseason games, which each include 60 advertising buys at 30 seconds apiece.

That's 660 potential ads, and the corresponding revenue -- combined with ticket sales and other income -- means the preseason usually produces around $700 million for the league.

Without a preseason, that money would be lost to all parties involved.

Lost money, and who can survive the longest without an income stream the longest, always rests at the core of any labor dispute. In that respect, the NFL, it's owners and players are no different.

They are different, though, because they have a sure-fire solution to regain revenue.

They just need to play the games, which are scheduled to begin Aug. 7 with the Hall of Fame Game featruing the Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams on NBC.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Regarding Rece ... He's Really, Really Good

My list of all-time sports TV studio hosts begins and ends with Chris Fowler.

Every year -- in a different location every week as "College GameDay" treks across the country for appreciative on-site audiences and ESPN viewers during college football season -- Fowler sets a standard few can match.

He's the perfect foil/traffic cop/voice of reason on a show that often includes a wide range of voices, most notably analysts Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit.

While an older generation of NFL fans grew up with Brent Musburger telling us "You are looking live ..." and helping a show with Phyllis George and Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder move along reasonably, Fowler remains better. At the same time, Bob Costas did steady studio work for NBC. Still, Fowler is better.

My belief was that Fowler stood head and shoulders above those before him -- and even among the current crop of TV sports hosts. Turns out I was a little wrong.

Fowler has company in the form of his ESPN colleague Rece Davis, who handles "GameDay" duties for college basketball.

This week, during a taping for an ESPN show with Penn State football coach Joe Paterno and Duke men's basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski ("Difference Makers: Life Lessons with Paterno and Krzyzewski" will air at 8 p.m. June 30 on ESPN and 9 p.m. on ESPNU), Davis flashed his skill and talent repeatedly.

He artfully interrupted the coaches and helped make points when necessary. He balanced all the challenges of a taping before a live audience well. He helped create an enjoyable atmosphere and evoke information while doing so with a deft touch. He was pitch perfect from start to finish, even mixing in some jabs at "GameDay" partner Jay Bilas who was working the show as well.

While Davis's performance was not enough to nudge Fowler from the top of my studio-host list, he did more than enough to show that Fowler has company. And, in the case of this taped show, that's before any editing, which means Davis's performance should come off as even more polished and professional.

Friday, June 10, 2011

'OTL' Tackles Payments to OSU's Pryor

The award-winning "Outside the Lines," which airs at 9 a.m. Sunday on ESPN, offers more information about former Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor earning money for his autographs this week.

As part of an investigation, Tom Farrey found a source who revealed details about regular payments (multiple times each week) of at least $500 to Pryor for signing his autograph.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Book's Biggest Bad Guy? Bascially 'Boomer'

Before the ESPN book -- "Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside the World of ESPN" (2011, Little, Brown and Company) -- hit shelves a week ago, much of the preliminary chatter about the 745-page oral history was that it would provide an inside look at the all-sports network in Bristol, Conn.

According to some, chauvinism, partying and sex were common. Some called it a fraternity culture.

The book reveals some of those things, just as it hits most of the highs and lows of the growth of the fledgling cable channel to the "worldwide leader," but it's reading between the lines that provided two of the more striking insights.

First, and least important, were references to Brad Nessler's failed stint as ESPN's lead NBA play-by-play announcer, including the admission from executives that having him in that role was a mistake. That cannot be good news for the NFL Network, which plans (if the season happens this fall) to use Nessler as its lead play-by-play man.

Sure, NFL viewers might flock to games and be less turned off by an announcer than their NBA counterparts (and Nessler certainly has more strength with football than basketball), but his failed stint has to be a cautionary tale.

Most striking, and least surprising, from the ESPN book was the fact that ESPN original Chris "Boomer" Berman, would be portrayed so universally poorly. In the words of others -- and the book is all an oral history, which makes it at times fabulous and at times laborious -- Berman comes off as self-centered, uncooperative and vain.

Those might be requirements for a talented, on-air TV type, but he's not also referred to as talented, which would seem to be a requirement. Instead, Berman is portrayed as a shill -- especially in regard to the NFL.

While he rates as an top-tier star for the ESPN, a network that for a long time tried to prevent its anchors from being stars, you get a sense that others in the business (everyone except Tom Jackson) endure rather than enjoy him and his work.

While time has proven that ESPN and TV need stars, they draw viewers, especially in a loyal niche market, Berman in many ways has "jumped the shark." And the fact that he was consistently referred to in that manner in the book might be the most striking element of the big tome.