Friday, December 28, 2012

Highs and Lows (2012) and A Look Ahead (2013)

In 2012, another sports network officially came to life -- with the launch of NBC Sports Network (rebranded from Versus) on Jan. 2 -- and the year produced many moments when on-air and production types shone during game coverage and related programming.

Of course, there were moments when those same folks were out to lunch as well. One of the most noticeable came during ESPN's coverage of the Notre Dame-USC football game when Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit, as well as two sideline reporters and their supporting production personnel, missed the on-field action when Irish QB Everett Golson lost his helmet and was forced to leave the game or one play.

Without that perspective, the on-air team speculated about irrelevant penalties and unrelated game strategy, neither of which served the viewers who knew more by simply watching what was on the screen.

As usual, it was year filled with that mix of highs and lows. Some of my favorites follow, as well as a quick look ahead at 2013.

Best Studio Show
"College GameDay" -- On Saturday mornings, this show sets the stage for all of the day's college football action, and it does so in an engaging and informative manner. Its weekly on-campus location provides unparalleled atmosphere, as well as the backdrop for some schtick. Still, the show invariably rises above the silly and delivers information, insights and news.

While TNT's NBA studio show comes close, thriving in its own right on the strengths of opinions and personalities, "College GameDay" remains the standard for which all other studio shows should strive.

Best Studio Host
Chris Fowler, ESPN -- The best studio show rests squarely on the shoulders of the best host. Fowler knows college football and always keeps the show on track, across conferences, across newsworthy and across the country. He keeps things comfortable for viewers and his partners, but he's clearly in control.

Close behind would be Ernie Johnson of TNT, in large part because of his ability to keep a show that features Charles Barkley on task but mostly because Johnson is very good at what he does.

Best Play-by-Play Team
Mike Breen/Jeff Van Gundy, ESPN/ABC -- Engaging and entertaining, steady and solid, a true team. Breen never misses the nuts-and-bolts action while offering appropriate moments for Van Gundy to share his expertise and options. They play well together, and play well on TV as a result. They're serious about their work and also provide appropriately lighthearted moments as well.

Many others teams are close, but none are as good.

Best Play-by-Play Man
Joe Buck, Fox Sports -- He's their top guy for baseball and football, and he deserves that spot in both instances. He's simply a pro who relates game action well and allows his color commentators to do their jobs. The few moments when he does not do that, and imposes his own opinion on broadcasts, represent the only glaring downside to his work.

Best Color Commentator
Chris Collinsworth, NBC Sports -- Always prepared and always opinionated, the two best possible traits of a color commentator. He knows what he's talking about and he's not afraid to tell viewers why. Too often, people in his seat offer silliness or the same-old tired approach. That's just not the case with Collinsworth. He makes play-by-play man Al Michaels better, and he always keeps the viewers in mind.

Best Sideline Reporter
Tom Rinaldi, ESPN/ABC and Doris Burke, EPSN/ABC -- In a world of the over-blonde and under-talented, these two stand out because they act and look different. They're serious reporters who share provide context and information, knowing all the while that the show and the segment of the show on which they appear is not about them. Viewers appreciate that approach and the resulting work.

Best Insider/Expert
Peter King, NBC Sports/Sports Illustrated -- During his comparatively brief TV time on Sunday nights as part of "Football Night in America," King shares good, timely information. Like all the best insiders, though, he sets himself apart by contributing to numerous outlets on various platforms, always sharing the kind of information readers/listerners/viewers want and often cannot get anywhere else. His connections seem ot set him apart.

Newcomer of the Year
Adnan Virk, ESPN/ABC -- With several radio hosts, most notably Doug Gottlieb, leaving ESPN Radio for other opportunities, depth could be a slight concern for ESPN Radio moving forward. Plenty of talent exists, it's just not easy for someone who move into a role and quickly make a connection or prove themselves. Virk did that well when filling in for Mike Greenberg on "Mike & Mike in the Morning" and got additional airtime throughout the year. The Canadian-born talent started as a host on ESPNNEWS and seems set for bigger and bigger roles in coming years.

Comeback Talent of the Year
Joe Buck, Fox Sports -- OK, he never really left but after a virus in the laryngeal nerve of his left vocal cord hampered him (and almost ended his career) in 2011, Buck recovered and returned to his usual high level of performance.

Where Have You Gone Award
Erin Andrews, Fox Sports -- Hired as host spot on the network's mostly overlooked college football studio show on Saturday nights, Andrews might not have been seen by any fewer viewers than she was in her role as a sideline reporter for games on ESPN/ABC, but she certainly seemed like a less important part of gamedays. Plus, she has not yet developed the gravitas to be a studio host.

TV Moment of the Year
Game-Winning Touchdown on "Monday Night Football" -- The controversial game-ending play as the Green Bay Packers lost to the Seattle Seahawks was the final game action of the season for the NFL's replacement officials and it was something that would not have happened without TV.

The shared-possession/touchdown call itself would have been problematic for the regular officials but that was really not a primary part of the discussion after viewers saw they play and then flocked in record numbers to watch "SportsCenter" after the game ended.

TV's ability to show the play from all angles fueled debate and quickly prompted league officials to end the dispute with officials. It was a testament to the power of TV.

Four things to watch for in radio/TV during the coming year.
1) The launch of CBS Sports Radio on Jan. 2 provides a challenge on another front for ESPN and ESPN Radio. With talent such as John Feinstein, Jim Rome and Doug Gottlieb -- each of whom hosts consecutive three-hour shows beginning at 9 a.m. -- and important support from CBS and Cumulus Media the sports network's lineup has already supplanted ESPN offerings in some markets.

2) The need for programming for CBS Sports Network and NBC Sports Network as they strive to compete with ESPN will drive rights fees for live events and related programming to even higher levels. Live sports events on TV remain highly desirable programming because viewers generally do not record those events. They watch -- and that's what the fledgling networks need.

3) The launch of a network for the Southeastern Conference should provide even more revenue for programs in that conference.

4) The debut, albeit a one-time-only affair, for Charles Barkley and Dick Vitale as they work a college basketball game together.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Avengers? Nah, The World Really Turns to Sports as Broadcasters Do a Job That's Not Really Theirs

In a time of crisis or need, a time of despair or tragedy, people the world over turn to sports. As an extension, they to sports broadcasts.

It's not just that people seek sporting events as a diversion or something that can bring a sense of normalcy. At its misplaced worst, those seekers want perspective as well.

The understandable need for community, shared perspectives and support drives many to burden sports leagues, teams and especially the sports broadcasters -- whether it's during the games themselves or as part of the associated pre-game and studio shows -- to provide a barometer of concern and some measure of news gathering and reporting about the crisis of the day.

In so many ways, that's like asking a dentist to set a broken leg. The person or persons doing the work might have some sense of how it's done, but it's hardly their job.

This past weekend's reaction to the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., provides the latest example.

Too many people expected networks to lead their NFL pre-game shows and game broadcasts with coverage of the tragedy. The broadcasters did so, and in general they did so in an appropriate manner.

Still, it's really not their job -- and even those in charge know it. Credit NBA commissioner David Stern for admitting as much Tuesday when discussing his league's moments of silence and efforts related to the tragedy with "Mike and Mike in the Morning" on ESPN Radio.

"There is no way to help. When we do those tributes and moments of silence, we're more helping ourselves than anything else," Stern said. "You do the necessary, which is pay tribute of some kind, but the images were so graphic and sad that I just don't think sports adds anything. We all together felt so helpless watching this, that it was more profound than anything we could have done."

Not even such honesty -- which those in charge across broadcast networks and leagues certainly share if they're truly open about it -- can limit expectations, though. Hypersensitive and thin-skinned consumers and critics, often the most vocal of all who listen or watch, always want more. And in this latest instance broadcasters acquiesced.

On ESPN's coverage of the New Mexico Bowl, for example, the on-air tandem of Bob Wischusen and Danny Kanell referred to Nevada's pistol offense as the "Nevada offense" to avoid any reference to guns.

In fairness, some outlets and schools do have a higher level of responsibility in this situation. They have the credibility and proximity to address the situation with as much concern as they would like. That includes ESPN, located just a half hour or so from the site of the shootings, and New York-area professional teams, as well as UConn and other local colleges and universities.

Beyond that, sports media types really should not be expected to weigh in on the matter. They have other jobs to do.

That they do offer perspective, though, provides more insight about their personality, and the humanity of the people producing the shows. It's a good thing for them to do. It's the right thing for them to do. But it's not their job -- especially in regard to the death of 20 young children and six adults in a shooting spree by a disturbed young man.

Broadcasters must cover a murder-suicide involving an NFL player that took place in part at a team's practice facility, which happened three weeks ago. They also must cover the death of an NFL player in a drunk-driving accident when a teammate was driving the vehicle, which happened two weeks ago.

When we have expectations of what happens on TV or radio in regard to coverage of the tragic deaths of elementary school children, though, those expectations should be heaped on newscasts and cable news networks, not outlets that focus on sports. Instead, we should appreciate their work and thank them for providing that community, that forum and that shared place to enjoy (just a little bit) a small bit of normalcy. Anything beyond that is not their job.

Friday, November 30, 2012

A&R: Expect Another Big Number in Birmingham

The outcome of the SEC Championship Game between Alabama and Georgia might be in doubt for much of Saturday, but the biggest certainty related to the game should come in terms of TV ratings.

Expect Birmingham, Ala., to pull the nation's biggest number among TV markets for the game.

That's hardly a surprise, though. Birmingham viewers watch college football, especially Alabama, more passionately and regularly than anyone else in the United States. While the game might be in Atlanta, with Georgia involved, it'll still be Birmingham that moves the needle the most.

Some not-surprising decisions, two mistakes and one bit of appropriate sports PR chutzpah provide other points for this edition of Act & React. Please follow along ...

Act: The San Antonio Spurs take a no-stars-on-the-floor approach for their game against the Miami Heat and NBA commissioner David Stern promises appropriate actions from the league.
React: Some might consider it much ado about nothing because Spurs coach Gregg Popovich can certainly put whomever he wants on the court as he, from his perspective, keeps his eye on an eventual championship at the end of the season as compared to a regular season game in late November. After a series of road games, the Spurs' decision to rest some players might seem logical to some.

But, it was a nationally televised game against the defending champion Heat for a league that likes to promote the star power of its individual standouts.

So, it's much ado about TV -- and a league's relationship with a broadcast partner. With his stance, Stern is protecting an NBA partner that pumps some $400 million a year into the league.

While Popovich's decision is not surprising, neither is that of Stern. But, you have to think the commissioner would feel differently if the game involved other teams with different stars and the game was not on TV. Interestingly, the game still pulled a decent 1.7 overnight rating.

In terms of the protagonists in the little drama, Stern correctly and invariably protects his league -- that's his job, even if he seems like a bully, petty or even pugnacious at times -- while Popovich's strong will sometimes does not get viewed regularly nationally simply because he works in San Antonio. If he'd coached all these years in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, fans would certainly react to/view him in much stronger terms.

Act: TV color commentator Solomon Wolcotts talks about Steelers DB Ryan Smith wearing a larger, supposedly safer helmet and compares him to Great Kazoo.
React: Good idea, but while that might be the name of a some sort of giant musical instrument it's certainly not the correct cultural reference. It should be the Great Gazoo, from "The Flintstones."

Act: The broadcast team for last week's Notre Dame-USC missed an obvious storyline last week.
React: First, it was an inexcusable mistake for a top on-air tandem (Brent Musburger-Kirk Herbstreit) supported by two sideline reporters and a team of production personnel. While viewers clearly saw Nortre Dame quarterback Everett Golson go out of bounds, get hit and lose his helmet -- necessitating, by rule, that he miss at least one play -- the broadcasters only focused on his absence.

They speculated about an injury to Golson. They wondered if a quarterback rotation was part of the game plan.

All the while, cameras had caught the action and the director even had a shot of Golson on the sideline working with an equipment manager to check his helmet.

Still, Musburger and Herbstreit rambled on about the situation. And nobody corrected them. It was a mistake that should not have happened -- especially with that much talent on site and viewers seeing the entire story themselves but being told something else by the folks in the booth.

Act: The wording of choice at Penn State has become "on-field record."
React: Although NCAA sanctions stripped the Penn State football program of 112 victories -- requiring a re-write of record books and, at least officially, changing what happened during games that multiple thousands of people saw in person, listened to on radio or watched on TV -- the athletic department admirably and wisely found a way to refer to those games and the records related to them on social media and outer outlets as the season progressed. On Twitter especially, references were made to the program's "on-field record" in those games, or in series against other teams. That's a nice move, as they follow the letter of the ruling and make changes where necessary but acknowledge reality for fans who care enough to follow the program on social media.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Tough Day for a No. 1 Broadcast Team

Maybe Jim Nantz and Phil Simms were impacted by the effects of Hurricane Sandy in a manner unknown to viewers that left them a little preoccupied. Maybe they were not feeling well. Maybe they just had a bad day.

Whatever the reason, Nantz and Simms, the No. 1 NFL team for CBS Sports, struggled while working the Pittsburgh Steelers-New York Giants game Sunday afternoon.

It's always a challenging assignment to broadcast an NFL game, but a network's top on-air tandem gets the benefit of a superior resources and support. That typically means a few more cameras from a variety of different angles, one of the network's top producer-director tandems and a strong research/reporting team.

Unfortunately for viewers, it never felt like a top-team effort for what was probably the most-watched game Sunday afternoon.

With teams that have won four of the past seven Super Bowls and the backdrop storyline of a major sporting event in the New York City area after the historic storm, the game certainly had abundant interest.

Neither Nantz nor Simms did much to raise their level of effort to match that of the game, though. From the mundane to the most important, they either missed or whiffed.

Something viewers could hear and see for themselves that Simms said did not exist was the first sign the broadcast team was in trouble.

Simms said Steelers fans were not a big part of the crowd at Met Life Stadium, but viewers could hear loud cheers for good plays by the visiting team repeatedly. That included one instance when tight end David Paulson caught a pass and Steelers fans, thinking it was tight end Heath Miller, chanted "Heeath!" Those cheers continued throughout the game, for Miller and every time Pittsburgh did something well.

It was just unsettling -- at least for viewers looking for an accurate feel of the game -- that Simms did not get that sense or felt otherwise.

Along with that, Nantz and Simms seemed like company men for the NFL or were simply wrong early in the game with regard to several poorly officiated plays. While Fox Sports NFL expert Mike Pereira offered tweets citing a personal foul against Pittsburgh and a what was ruled a fumble by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as incorrect calls, Simms was indecisive about the fumble and then later agreed with the call on the field.

The personal foul, whistled in the end zone after Giants receiver Victor Cruz was hit on a pass play, was perhaps the most glaring problem of the afternoon for CBS Sports. Hampered by a commercial break, Nantz and Simms were slow to point out it was a bad call and replays of the play, which led to a New York touchdown, were slow in being shared.

Plus, Simms often seemed uncharacteristically ill-prepared, indecisive or out of sorts. Insights were rare, even though he talked a lot.

In one instance, after Pittsburgh running back/return man Chris Rainey produced several long kickoff returns, Simms said, "that kinda shows you why they want to get the ball in his hands." Kinda? You think? Viewers deserve, and certainly expect, better information and insights.

In another instance, the Steelers attempted a long pass for the end zone on second down from the Giants' 36-yard line. Receiver Antonio Brown was hurt on the play, and CBS and Simms focused on that a bit. Perhaps preoccupied by that, Simms then said, as the Steelers prepared for their third down play from the same spot: "This is the spot on the field where teams usually take a shot (at the end zone." But, they had just done that. The observation was a play late and perplexing as a result.

Likewise, when the Steelers went ahead for good on touchdown pass to Mike Wallace, who crossed the field from right to left, caught the ball and sprinted down the left sideline, Nantz offered over-the-top and somewhat out-of-context praise about Wallace's speed. Sure, he's fast, one of the fastest guys in the league, but Nantz crowed about how Wallace beat "defensive backs who had an angle on him."

In truth, and as the replay showed, only one DB had a shot at Wallace -- whose speed was the difference. It prevented the defender from even attempting a tackle, but it's not as if Wallace outran every defensive back on the Giants' roster to score.

There were just too many examples of that kind of generalization and sloppiness that made the game a sub-par effort for CBS Sports overall.

Even worse, viewers never got an update on Brown's injury, or that of Rainey, who left the game later after carrying the ball, getting tackled and then collapsing near the sideline while trying to leave the field. NFL games are always more TV shows than sporting events, but it's somewhat unusual that the status of impact players would not be updated at some point before the broadcast ended.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Oh My, Oh Mayock -- A True TV Talent

Thank you, NBC Sports and the NFL Network. Thank you for giving Mike Mayock so much work -- because it does it so well.

Too often color commentators working major college football or the NFL make no impression. Or, they try to hard and make the wrong impression. Too many of them live on either clich├ęs or the sports version of "Fifty Shades of Gray," sharing so many words but, ultimately, so little information because they're not prepared enough to capably critique what happens on the field.

With Mayock, it's just the opposite. He picks his spots well, makes points that matter and makes them in a timely manner. He's arguably the best color commentator working on TV because he always does his homework and comes to work ready to share information.

If he worked only college games (focusing on Notre Dame for NBC) or only NFL games, he'd be good in either role. That he does both makes his work even more impressive.

He's always prepared, capably conveying his years of preparation for NFL Draft coverage in the form of player evaluation and explanations of what those on the field do best ... or not very well at all.

He's engaging, honest and informative.

When San Diego Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers threw an interception in the end zone at the end of the first half of Thursday night's game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Mayock did not mince words.

"Can't do that. Can't make that throw," Mayock said. "He threw one in the 10th row two snaps ago, why would you make that throw? Everything was bad about the decision, and then the throw. There's no way in the world you can make that throw."

In fairness, and he was fair to Rivers, Mayock cited the QB's overall work in the first half as "almost perfect" until the interception. Mayock rarely raises his voice, shares silliness or shouts. He's simply solid, setting a standard to which others should aspire.

There's not much better in terms of TV viewing than getting to watch Mayock work twice in a three-day span -- with a Thursday night game on the NFL Network and then a Notre Dame game on Saturday.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Commitment to Late Night Latest Sports TV Move

Not so long ago, businesses actually shut down for the night.

Major retailers closed their doors at 9 p.m., many restaurants stopped serving about that time and radio and TV stations signed off at midnight or sometime in the early morning hours as well.

Round-the-clock service existed at some places, but it was rare. That was also true on radio and TV, where late-night hours were reserved for B movies, reruns and paid programming.

All-sports channels have changed that -- especially in recent years -- with events that start at all times of the day. In addition, ESPN's commitment in recent years to a presence in Los Angeles has allowed the production of live, original episodes of "SportsCenter" much later in the broadcast day.

Overall, as younger generations of viewers have continually extended the typical viewing day, TV programmers have noticed. It's not by accident that ESPNU added a late-night program ("UNite") earlier this year, and that CBS Sports Network does the same starting tonight with "Lead Off."

Of the two, "Lead Off" has the best chance to produce engaging and entertaining -- something worth staying up to watch -- because it has Doug Gottlieb as a co-host. He's clearly the best and most proven of any of the on-air talents involved with either of those two late-night shows.

A former college basketball player with on-air skills honed through assignments on ESPN and ESPN Radio, Gottlieb left the four-letter all-sports network to join CBS Sports Network on radio and TV. His national radio show begins Jan. 2, as launches its lineup of sports-talk radio. He'll also work college basketball games and, of course, "Lead Off."

Such lat-night shows will never draw the viewers and overall interest of their prime-timeor daytime counterparts, but it's good to see an attempt at quality, with a proven, talented host, as opposed to creating something just to fill time.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Even Out of Sight, Beano Cook Mattered on TV

College football fans rarely saw Beano Cook during the final years of his life. At most, he made a weekly appearance on ESPN Radio -- and even that had ended earlier this season as his health took a turn for the worst.

Still, Cook -- who died in his sleep Wednesday at the age of 81 -- was seemingly an ever-present force in the industry. He made an impact on the business and on the people who share college football with millions of fans each week on television.

He was honest, opinionated, irreverent and often impersonated. He was a character, an original, and he clearly cared about college football. His voice was distinctive and his passion was unquestioned.

A former sports information director at Pitt, Cook joined CBS Sports as a publicist and later made his on-air debut for ABC Sports in 1982. He moved to ESPN in 1985 and worked almost exclusively as a studio analyst, although he did do some games despite his aversion to travel.

No matter the network, though, and no matter if it was on TV in front of millions, in the press room at old Pitt Stadium or anyplace else he appeared, Cook was himself.

He was not an expert on Xs and Os, but he understood college football. He knew what it meant in various regions of the country, and he knew the politics involved in athletics and higher education. He was moreso a commentator on that culture -- and the related tug of war -- then he was regarding action on the field.

Cook evaluated and listened, but his best characteristic was that he was simply not afraid to tell you what he thought. Because of that, he made an impact. He was the Pope of College Football, an experienced voice that earned respect of others around him.

Sure, his anecdotes and stories repeated later in his career, and he was years removed from high-profile assignments on a regular basis, but everyone knew Beano Cook.  Coaches, colleagues and fans have shared memories in the days since his death, and all the accolades and respectful recollections have been deserved.

His death is a true loss for college football, because of his impact on the sport in general and on how the sport was presented TV after he helped elevate the role of of on-air analysts.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Profession, Professionalism Hamper Replacements

They're not professionals, and they do not know the profession.

In the end, that's why the NFL's experiment with replacement officials will probably end sooner rather than later. It's really not so much a matter of competency as creating compelling and efficient entertainment.

From afar it seems the replacement officials believe they're just working football games. Aside from the fact that they're doing that inefficiently -- without confidence in their work and with just as little control of the game -- that's just part of the job.

They're also supposed to be keeping the games on time, running the clock for individual, sports-themed TV shows that should fit in a three-hour broadcast window.

Never mind the gaffes (although they have not been as glaring as some anticipated), it's the time-of-game problem -- a function of the officials' indecision -- that might be the biggest strike against them through two weeks of the season.

Competitors and critics who argue about missed calls carry some weight, but not as much as commercial partners and fans.

After an opening week without major problems, the second week of the NFL season exposed some expected problems with the replacement officials. Most notably, though, it has not been things like an incorrect pass interference call (Jets-Steelers), a missed intentional grounding call (Ravens-Eagles) or even poor clock management (Browns-Bengals) that have cost officials -- as well as the league itself and team owners who remain united on keeping the old officials out of work -- the most credibility.

Eventually a mistaken call might decide a game, but that has not happened so far. And critics who argue that some innocuous call early in a game might already have reshaped a game this season are simply silly. Especially because the same could and does happen with the league's regular officials.

Even those who point to the replacements' mistakes are doing so in a somewhat disingenuous manner. What regular officials do best, because they know the job and because they have worked together more regularly, is keep games moving.

It's not that the regular refs are mistake free, or are somehow they only people on the plant capable of working the games. No, with them it's simply that play rarely slows. Again, that's not necessarily a good thing, but it is the accepted thing. And the replacements' inability to keep the show moving along matters.

The NFL built its success by making games TV shows that reliably fit into broadcast schedules. Games aired at 1 and 4 p.m. Sundays, and then again Monday nights. Of course, additions to the schedule include in recent years Sunday and Thursday nights. This year, the NFL pushed back late-afternoon start times to 4:25 p.m. Sunday.

If the replacements have any hope of a better third week of the season, they need to do their on-field work competently and keep the clock moving consistently. That means more control of the teams, more decisiveness when making calls and simply more efficiency.

It sounds simple, but it will not be easy. Expectations are not high for the replacement officials, but competency and a more speedy approach would go a long way toward making things better.

Team owners and representatives from the officials union will eventually find a common ground, a compromise that works for both parties. Just how soon that happens might be determined in large part by what happens in the third week of the season -- and how the officials do will play out on TV, conveniently for everyone to see, beginning Thursday night.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Replacement Refs Fare Well in TV Spotlight

Yes, the NFL trotted out its best-possible crew of replacement officials for the season-opening Cowboys-Giants game on Wednesday night. And, yes, it's just one game with the backup officials at the start of a season that almost assuredly will end with the league's regular referees returning at some point.

Still, the backup group did well -- almost to the chagrin of NBC Sports, which covered the game and seemed poised to point out any errors that happened.

With 17 penalties in the game (nine in the first half and none in the third quarter before a flag frenzy in the final frame), the refs really missed only one call -- the first one of the game when a block in the back was called clipping. Ultimately, the difference because of that call was about three yards. It was nothing major, and certainly nothing that impacted the outcome.

Before Week 1 of the NFL season concludes Sunday night, the replacement officials will make bad calls. And they might even cost some team a game as a result. But the league has apparently decided it can deal with that outcome, as it maintains a tough stance in labor negotiations with the regular refs.

What will be most interesting during the process is now NFL TV partners decide to deal with the topic.

Unfortunately for the replacement refs, if the NBC approach is any indication, the networks will not hesitate to point out mistakes or take a derisive or dismissive view of the refs' work. Conversely, any criticism of the league's stance might be surprising.

On two separate occasions Wednesday night, NBC play-by-play man Al Michaels noted that Joe Core, head referee for the game, was a middle school teacher and athletic director from Boise, Idaho. It's not clear whether that was context or some sort of condemnation -- as if the regular refs themselves are not part-time employees (be they attorneys, school teachers, whatever).

Sure, those regular refs invest hundreds of hours in their work during the season with meetings and video sessions, but to make an argument that the handful of existing crews are the only people on the planet who can work NFL games just seems silly. Replacement refs will struggle with the speed of the game and rules, but many do bring years of football experience to the job. With time, they could be good.

Again, it's hard to image that they'll get that time to develop, and it's not clear the league can afford (at least figuratively) for them to get on-the-job training.

What the replacement refs do not deserve, though, is to become a point of contention for TV or radio broadcast teams. They've been put in a difficult position, and the league and regular referees have a bigger stake in what's let to the replacement refs stepping on the field. Also, for broadcasters to assume or insinuate that regular refs are regularly prefect would be incorrect. Fans of every NFL team and most pro football fans in general can probably cite numerous instances when the regular refs made big mistakes in the past.

If the replacement teams can generally perform anywhere near the level of the season-opening crew, the NFL will be quite happy. And most fans will not notice much of a difference.

What fans might notice are:
1) more discussions among officiating crews,  as they learn to work with each other and strive to get calls correct;
2) maybe a few fewer penalties per game as officials avoid calling attention to themselves or making mistakes by making fewer calls; and
3) perhaps an inconsistent approach to the league's most arbitrary rule -- when a player is/is not tackled in or out of bounds near the sideline in order to keep the clock running and keep the game (and the NFL show in general) on schedule for its broadcast window. With the impact of that rule and more discussion, the length of NFL games could be impacted slightly and the league always worries about time of game because it knows it has stadiums full of fans but more importantly it's producing a series of weekly TV shows.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Preseason Top 10: College Football TV Talent

With less than a week before college football season kicks off, it's time to take a look at the best TV talent in the game.

Dozens of broadcast teams cover college football across multiple networks each fall and the work of hundreds, even thousands, of production personnel make the TV broadcasts of games quality productions.

Still, the play-by-play talents and color commentators inevitably set the tone. Most regular viewers have some favorites. Those same viewers probably have some on-air talents they think are biased or uninformed.

Honestly, there's never been a better time to tune in and watch games on TV, thanks in part to the professionals covering games. They combine to form a pretty deep pool of talent.

Even though those commentators do not drive ratings (millions will watch big games no matter who describes the action), people certainly have opinions about the best.

Here's one viewer's picks as the Top 10 at what they do. The list features five play-by-play men and five color commentators. A shorter list of sideline reporters follows as well. Because of ESPN/ABC's tonnage of game coverage, the rankings have an feel similar to the team poll and the influence of the one conference. Like the SEC in the team poll, ESPN/ABC dominates this list.

Sean McDonough
1. Sean McDonough, ESPN/ABC: Consistent and versatile (he also handles Major League Baseball and college basketball), McDonough describes the on-field action and keeps viewers informed without fail. Best of all, it's never about him when he's in the booth. It's about the game. He's been with ESPN since 2000, and previously worked for the network from 1989 to 1995. This season he gets a new partner (Chris Spielman instead of Matt Millen), but adapting to someone else should not be a problem because he works with so many different partners in various sport over the course of a year. He's just good. Simply solid.
2. Mike Patrick, ESPN/ABC: Maybe a second consecutive surprise pick for some in this category, but Patrick just sounds like college football to me. He brings good energy and excitement to his assignments, too. In different roles with different partners through the years he's been consistent ... and that's all viewers can ask.
3. Brent Musburger, ESPN/ABC: Considered the gold standard by many, and he's very good. One of the best, without question. He's third here simply because it does seem to be more about him than it should be at times. It should always be more about the participants than anything else. You always know it's a big game when he's working it, though.
4. Brad Nessler, ESPN/ABC: He was ABC's top guy until Musburger returned, but Nessler certainly deserves the ESPN prime-time assignments on Saturday nights. At times, he like Musburger, can break into "OK partner" banter with his boothmate, but he generally delivers without making viewers want to turn down the sound. That's always a good thing.
5. Verne Lundquist, CBS: With regular SEC assignments, he has high-profile opportunities and rises to the occasion. Again, another voice that sounds like college football, with perhaps a little more laid-back approach. He never preaches at viewers, either -- another plus.
Just outside the Five: Joe Tessitore (ESPN/ABC), deservedly gets ESPN Saturday prime-time assignments with Matt Millen this fall; Beth Mowins (ESPN/ABC), solid and well prepared, working Saturday afternoons on ESPN2 with Joey Galloway; Gus Johnson (Fox), the No. 1 play-by-play man as Fox Sports moves even more heavily into college football this fall, a solid (albeit excitable) pro.

Kirk Herbstreit
1. Kirk Herbstreit, ESPN/ABC: He's insightful, picks his spots and clearly prepares well. Among a strong group, he's at the top of his game and the top of the pack. Not having him pick the game he works each week during "College GameDay" remains just a little frustrating -- but that's minor. (After all, it should be the game he knows best each week.)
2. Mike Mayock, NBC: Informative, engaging and knowledgable. Stuck only doing Notre Dame games, but one of the best in the business. Plus, because of his duties with the NFL Network, he knows college football overall. Too bad he does not have more opportunities to show that knowledge. He's just barely behind Herbstreit here.
3. Todd Blackledge, ESPN/ABC: Smart, well-prepared and proven. Makes insightful points quickly and works smoothly with Nessler. He's the second of three quarterbacks among the top four in this group.
4. Gary Danielson, CBS: Another QB, who can incite some segments of the SEC fan base. Not everyone across country hears every critique or insight as a criticism though, and with that perspective he's good -- because that's the kind of information he provides.
5. Ed Cunningham, ESPN/ABC: The former Washington and NFL lineman has abundant experience on TV, radio and filmmaking. That's a varied resume that allows him to share expertise and tell a story well -- another combination viewers appreciate.

As a testament to the unimportance of this role, ESPN/ABC announced it's complete lineup of on-air talent for college football season (play-by-play/color commentator/sideline reporter) -- a group of 19 teams -- with TBA for sideline reporter on the No. 1 team. Still, some people think sideline reporters matter. Truthfully, only a couple do. Here they are ...
1. Tom Rinaldi, ESPN/ABC: Actually, he's not even listed in the ESPN/ABC lineup for this role. He might be the No. 1 TBA, though that's unlikely. He'll probably chase the nation's biggest story from week to week and reporter on features during the season. Actually, it would not be surprising to see him draw some Penn State assignments early in the season as a second reporter. Or, instead of the scheduled reporter.
2. Holly Rowe, ESPN/ABC or Shelley Smith, ESPN/ABC: Probably the two best who consistently draw assignments. Both are proven, pick their spots well and seem to know they're sometimes in a no-win situation when asking coaches questions. Still, they do their best without coming off as inane.

Sideline Similarities
After the small group above, pick a name, any name and sideline reporters are mostly interchangeable.

It seems the most unforgiving job in TV sports -- with its brief halftime questions of coaches and an occasional injury update -- comes down to being competent, being able to smile and being female. For example, aside from the unassigned Rinaldi all the sideline reporters listed among the ESPN/ABC corps this season are female, except for Quint Kessenich.

Unfortunately for viewers, no network and no single reporter, male or female, has found a way to guarantee weekly quality or reinvent the position in a manner that consistently serves viewers. But, maybe this will be the year that changes.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

NBC, Some Penn State Critics Lack Focus, Honesty

The two biggest ongoing sports/sports media stories the week (maybe even the year) share a shameful amount of inconsistency.

It's a lack of focus in regard to the Olympics and apparently a lack of honesty (at best) or sheer stupidity on the part of some commentators regarding the Penn State scandal. Unfortunately for listeners and viewers, both approaches fall short as a result.

Tumbling Tenses

Through the first week of competition at the Olympic Games in London, an inordinate amount of attention has been placed on NBC's plan for prime-time coverage.

While the network has wisely delayed the broadcast of major events that attract millions of viewers until prime time, some critics have consistently complained about the approach. Even though the network streams everything live online, gymnastics, swimming and beach volleyball have been the focus of the network's nighttime coverage -- even though the respective competitions were completed hours earlier and many people can and do know the outcome of the events.

Some critics have consistently panned NBC for not televising more events live, never mind that it has been good business and a proven ratings draw. Rival network executives have said they would practice the same approach if they were covering the Games.

Where NBC has faltered, though, has been in waffling between providing the coverage as a rebroadcast of what happened or trying to acknowledge that the events were completed long ago and add context.

That was clear during women's gymnastics coverage Tuesday night. At one point, NBC provided coverage seemingly in chronological order, showing action that had happened earlier as it was called at the time. A little later in the broadcast, though, as women's teams moved through competition on individual apparatus, the NBC broadcast crew with Al Trautwig, Elfi Schlegel and Tim Daggett critiqued a weak floor routine for a gymnast from Russia and hinted strongly that more good things would come for the team. That's because they knew what would happen, because it had already happened.

Either approach -- with as-it-happened calls simply broadcast later in the day, or some bigger-picture coverage that adds context and hints about what's to come -- could work for the coverage, but flip-flopping between the two approaches just provides unnecessary inconsistency.

Maybe NBC waffles between the approaches in reaction to the criticism, which would be a shame -- because the network's process works. It's not producing a sporting event, or even a series of sporting events. It's producing a TV show with a sports theme.

Viewers have proven they'll tune in just because it's the Olympics, and because they're willing to suspend some disbelief and let NBC tell the story of he Games the way it wants. For that to really work at its best, though, the network has to stick with one approach or the other.

Failing Facts ... Fake It

So many critics, near and far, have chimed in on the Penn State scandal and offered a mix of on-the-mark insights as well as uninformed rants.

Not surprisingly, those farther from the story (even some considered among the best reporters and storytellers on the globe) often struggle with appropriate context because of their unfamiliarity with parts of the story. And rather than flesh out their opinions with information, they just keep ranting.

A perplexing example came last week from John Feinstein on Sirius/XM Radio.

As he supported his premise that the NCAA should have shut down the Penn State football program, Feinstein addressed those who would be impacted by such an approach. When discussion with a caller moved toward business and economic impacts, Feinstein said businesses that typically benefitted as a result of football Saturdays in Happy Valley would not necessarily have been punished if games were cancelled.

He suggested the university could have make them whole by simply tapping its endowment to help cover the business losses.

Amazingly, it sounded as if he thought that was a logical option. Never mind that Feinstein is smart enough to know how an endowment works, that universities across the nation and globe maintain such monetary resources -- comprised of monies earmarked for specific purposes -- in order to use the earnings from the fund to support programs, scholarships or other specific endeavors.

In fact, with his profile and relationships in higher education, Feinstein has no doubt been solicited for endowed gifts.

Because he knows enough about the topic, or should, suggesting otherwise fell on a scale that ranged from just ill-informed or uninformed to mean-spirited and feeding an irresponsible shock-jock mentality.

He's hardly alone with that approach to that story in recent weeks. But he's better than that. And with a little more context all such commentators could form more engaging and informative opinions.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Special Clearly Shows Where 'Lines' Are Drawn By Media, Loyalists Regarding Penn State Scandal

Thirty-five hours after the NCAA announced its sanctions against Penn State, ESPN offered an "Outside the Lines" special Tuesday night that represented some of the network's most balanced and engaging programming about the scandal.

As expected from "OTL" and almost anything that involves host Bob Ley, the show was fair, honest and informative.

For viewers fully engaged in the story, there were hardly any revelations, but the hour-long program featured two panel discussions and a one-on-one interview with NCAA president Mark Emmert conducted by Ley that were interesting and never disintegrated into (much) baseless opinion or shouting.

All of the segments produced something good. Of course, certain portions of the show also probably left some viewers frustrated. None of that was Ley's fault, though.

A general line

An initial panel with Jeremy Schaap, Tom Rinaldi and Don Van Natta Jr. provided moments some viewers -- at least those located in central Pennsylvania and most familiar with the situation -- probably found most frustrating.

Specifically, generalizations, the kind of things some national media members have utilized far too often with this story, were troublesome. At one point, Schaap mentioned the power of former coach Joe Paterno and said campus leaders were clearly the coach's underlings. "Any president that took measures probably would fail and might be fired."

Now, that sounds compelling, but it's also the kind of sweeping generalization that makes national media members sound disconnected. While Paterno's rebuff of an attempt by then university president Graham Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley to oust him in 2003 has been well documented, there was only one such attempt. It's not as if multiple Penn State leaders challenged Paterno and lost through the years.

Similarly, even with three standout reporting talents like Schaap, Rinaldi and Van Natta, some important context for the scandal was lacking during the first part of the show.

Everything, in terms of individuals, remained focused on Paterno. The name of his ultimate boss, and Penn State's overall leader when the scandal arose, Spanier, was never mentioned until 20 minutes into the show. As the NCAA discusses the "culture" of intercollegiate athletics and an emphasis on things other than academics, it was interesting that the folks covering the story focused more on the sports side than those responsible at the highest level.

At one point, Van Natta noted that the Freeh Report was a "damning document" for everyone, including administrators and the Board of Trustees.

Still, no reporting was dedicated to what would happen, or has not happened, to those two groups of people. While that information might still play out, and is not as easy to unearth, or as easy to hear as the clear public outcry against Paterno (which are among the reasons the media has had trouble or simply has not tracked down the information), it remains the kind of hole in reporting on the overall story that some people notice. As a result, people sometimes then generalize that as media bias.

Power line propels story

Lines of bias and inaction work on both sides for the media and in terms of media perception with the scandal, too. For those consuming the story, especially some of those who support Penn State, the program's traditionally clean reputation might be part of the problem. Where those people saw something to tout and share their pride, others on the outside perceived as a holier-than-thou approach. Of course, that made tracking the story all the more engaging for some media members. It has also allowed some to sense a bit of bias by the media. Neither outlook might be true, but both sides have certainly given the other fodder to believe they're correct.

Still, the most powerful factor in the Penn State scandal was confirmed during the 'OTL' special -- and that's been public opinion. During the Q-and-A session with Ley, Emmert said public influence was a factor almost immediately. When the NCAA sent a letter to Penn State last November, it made the letter public, as opposed to doing so in a typically private manner with such matters. Ley asked about the change in tactics. "Well, because everybody was wondering" if the NCAA had a role or would take action, Emmert said.

Later in the interview, Ley appropriately questioned Emmert about NCAA-influenced perceptions that Penn State was somehow failing or at fault academically as a result of a "culture" on campus or the scandal. Ley compared the culture in Happy Valley with that at any major college football school, cited Penn State's previous poster-child status and wondered aloud if the case was really not so much about a culture but moreso about four men at the top of that making faulty decisions over a period of 10 years.

"It could well be," replied Emmert -- which would seem to contradict the entire need or reason for sanctions, and it was not a question that had been asked -- or answered -- in that manner during the first day and a half after the NCAA's actions. But, there was, by that point, even more of a public outcy that necessitated NCAA action. Emmert indicated as much, as the result of appropriate questions and follow-up by Ley.

A final panel on the show -- with Chris Fowler,  Rece Davis and Rod Gilmore (a nice opportunity for him after usually falling lower in ESPN's college football pecking order) -- addressed the uphill battle Penn State faces on the field in the coming years, reiterating the likely impact of the lost scholarships on the team's win-loss record in coming seasons. As always, they expressed concern for the children Jerry Sandusky assaulted and victimized.

They separated that part of the story and also wondered about the sanctions themselves and the role the public (and the NCAA's desire for a strong PR move) played in the decision. It was a perspective not given much time on ESPN or many other outlets in recent days, and the balance and consideration of different angles to the multifaceted story made the show stronger, without leaving the host and panelists perceived as Penn State apologists or somehow out of touch. They were exactly the opposite -- just doing their jobs. And doing them rather well.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Silence on Scandal Serves Blackledge Best

When the Freeh Report was released last week, ESPN officials put former Penn State All-American and longtime NFL and college football analyst Matt Millen front and center to react.

It was a difficult assignment because Millen was put on the spot immediately after the release of the report and because he was clearly conflicted -- wrestling with what he experienced during his Penn State career and believed and thought he knew, and what the report concluded.

Instead of that honesty and internal conflict drawing praise, though, his indecision or unwillingness to produce a loud anti-Penn State perspective prompted criticism from media and TV pundits. Meanwhile, ESPN executives and officials were more at fault. Millen was doing the best he could in a clearly emotional situation while another expert or experts might have produced better, smarter TV.

Still, another longtime college football analyst and former Penn State All-American has proven to be the most savvy, smartest expert regarding the scandal. That's Todd Blackledge, like Millen a member of the ESPN/ABC family but unlike Millen completely unavailable for comment in the wake of the report.

Maybe that's why Blackledge was an Academic All-American. He knows how and when to do his job.

In the past week, it has been to not do his job -- not to put himself in a position, as a former team captain for Joe Paterno and the quarterback of Paterno's first national championship team, to be critical of the program and be criticized for his work as a result. Whatever the reason (coaching his children, family vacation, something else), it's a smart approach. Silence has served Blackledge well, as it might many others in regard to the scandal.

That's because informative, quality analysis about the situation probably exists between what some see as the apologist approach practiced by Millen or local media in central Pennsylvnia and the extreme generalizations and shrill reactions of many who have national platforms for discussion. Both groups of media members have things that impact their ability to do the best work. For those closer to the situation, it's an overabundance of emotion and familiarity. For those farther away, it's a lack of context -- just not knowing what they do not know in some instances.

Also, in terms of criticizing Millen, it's interesting that some who complained and cited his work as flawed or not opinionated enough are the same folks who consistently and justifiably knock shows like ESPN's "First Take" for being one-dimensional, thoughtless displays of personality, ranting and style over substance. Again, really good TV rests somewhere in between those extremes -- with a little patience and perspective as well as some strong, thoughtful opinions. (Of course, if you're silent neither the good nor the bad can happen.)

Friday, July 6, 2012

Fox Sports Gets (Some) Credibility w/Erin Andrews

It's hard to imagine anyone has ever used "credible" as the first word to describe Erin Andrews -- and that's not going to happen here either -- but her debut as host of the Fox Sports college football studio show in 56 days does brings some credibility to the network's college football efforts.

Even before that first show begins, she has more big-time college football experience than almost any other on-air personality in the network stable. She comes with an ESPN pedigree and she should know what makes a strong pre-game show after contributing to one of the best of that genre for the past several years.

It might not be an easy transition to the host of such a show, though.

She proved how ready -- or mostly not -- she was for such an assignment on ESPNU when "College GameDay" expanded and she was supposed to host the first hour. Even during that less-watched first hour, she was OK, at best, and ESPN brass eventually altered the segments and style of the show to take Andrews off center stage.

At Fox Sports, she'll certainly be center stage. And, as networks jockey to position themselves to bid for TV rights to the upcoming Division I playoff system, Andrews could be in a position to become an even more prominent face in college football.

Her challenge remains moving past style and engaging viewers with substance.

She has improved as a sideline reporter, getting more information and asking better questions. At the same time, her biggest career boost was not an interaction with a coach or even her much publicized problems with a stalker. It was a stint on "Dancing with the Stars" that propelled her to a higher Q rating and seemingly more important assignments, such as hosting that first hour of "GameDay."

Unfortunately, she was not stellar in that role, missing the necessary gravitas to carry the show or serve as an adept traffic cop for others. That has to be of some concern for the folks at Fox Sports. If she did not dazzle on Saturday mornings, someone has to be asking how she'll do in prime time with even more exposure and pressure.

Then again, exposure might be the wrong word to ever use with Andrews. She's seems like a connected and knowledgable college football voice, but she's also a TV star, an attractive woman some critics and fans will never see her as more than a pretty face. In fact, Los Angeles Daily news columnist Tom Hoffarth this week offered some of the harshest criticism ever of Andrews.

He might be unfair at spots, but he's not entirely wrong. While critics and fans consistently send inconsistent messages about TV personalities, they often agree that they appreciate people who engage viewers and share information. Andrews can be engaging and informative at times.

To succeed as the face of a network team, though, she might most importantly need to seem more mature, and that's such a tough balance on TV for a woman -- and probably especially so while covering a youthful endeavor such as college football.

Viewers want vibrant and young, but Andrews is 34, so we're probably past the point where bubbly/laughter works. It's still sports and still fun and games, but successful studio hosts usually set an entertaining and strong tone for their broadcasts. Sure, things can be fun, but they're also seriously focused on what's about to follow or what's happening in college football overall.

We'll see Andrews on Fox Sports as soon as this week's All-Star Game (in a more familiar sideline reporting role from the American League dugout), but we'll have to wait until Sept. 1 to find out how she'll do as a host. We'll also find out if network officials really put her in a position to succeed or if they have something else in mind by reworking the typical pre-game show approach.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Bashing Berman an Exercise in Futiltiy

Since the rumor was first leaked earlier this week and confirmed not long after that, the Internet has been a-Twitter (and more) with some fans, sports media commentators and reliable contrarians complaining about Chris Berman's assignment to cover the second game of the "Monday Night Football" doubleheader Sept. 10 on ESPN.

He'll call the Chargers-Raiders matchup -- his first NFL play-by-play assignment -- with Trent Dilfer as the color commentator.

Because of his bombast, Berman has become a caricature of himself through the years. For example, his work on the mostly made-for-TV home run derby at the All-Star Game always draws criticism and his passion for the NFL invariably comes through on his studio work. Passion should not be confused with perspective, though.

Still, the rants about Berman remain somewhat without perspective as well.

Officials at ESPN have experimented with the on-air assignments for the second game of season-opening "MNF" doubleheader since its inception. Because of its late start, it's typically one of the least-watched NFL games of the season for ESPN, so cross promotion and experimentation have been the typical approach.

Others in the booth have included Mike Greenburg and Mike Golic, part of abundant cross promotion on ESPN Radio for a couple of years, and the on-air team has at times included two members and at times three.

Also, like almost every other NFL game -- or any sporting event on TV -- who's working the game does not drive viewership nearly as much as the importance or quality of the matchup.

So, while Berman might be exactly what certain critics claim -- a "disservice" or "insult" to hard-core football fans and fans of the Chargers and Raiders in particular -- he might be just what that particular 'MNF' game needs. Sure, he can be clownish, loud and unfocused but dozens of other potential play-by-play talents can bring those things to the booth as well.

Berman's presence might amp up interest in the game a little bit, which cannot hurt form the perspective of either ESPN or the league. Plus, the balanced, insightful and opinionated Dilfer should keep the broadcast from going far from football. With ESPN's talent in the directing and producing seats, the broadcast will be of expected quality there as well.

Berman, Dilfer and the production team will get a practice assignment. They'll complete a test run during the Aug. 23 Cardinals-Titans preseason game.

Complaints about Berman just seem to be much ado about nothing. He will work the game, unless he's stricken with some illness or injury before Sept. 10. He will be criticized. And he will (most likely) not impact the number of viewers in any significant manner.

So why should network officials care about the assignment or the criticism? Maybe they're giving Berman a chance he appreciates without it coming in a venue that will hurt the brand much at all.

Really, the worst-case scenario for those who dislike the assignment has to be the "what if" that more people watch the game. If Berman's debut, on a game featuring "the Raiders" (and you can hear him drawing the pronunciation of that game out right now), somehow attracts more viewers, the result might be something critics would really dislike -- another play-by-play assignment for Boomer.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Passion, Profit Make Sports Talk Appealing

Twenty-five years ago when one all-sports radio station launched in New York City, it seemed like a laughable endeavor to some. These days, with several all-sports radio networks and their affiliates across the country, the only laughter might be coming from management and ownership as they make their way to the bank.

That's at least part of the reason CBS Sports Radio plans to join the crowded field of sports-talk radio as soon as this fall. A full-fledged launch of the network will come in January 2013.

The seemingly saturated market of syndicated sports talk includes ESPN Radio, Fox Sports Radio, Dial Global, Westwood One and many others. Along with CBS, NBC recently announced its own plans to move into sports-talk radio.

It's an exciting time for on-air talent because more networks mean more opportunities and more suitors for their work.

So, while ESPN Radio typically boasts great depth in terms of it's talent, the quality of people behind the network's main on-air teams might drop in the future -- especially if certain folks depart for other networks to showcase their work and earn a bigger paycheck and more prominent role.

Unfortunately, more sports-talk radio does not mean better sports-talk radio.

While many hosts and programs have crafted a national niche with loyal listeners (and while sports-talk radio success seems systematic at points), not all find the same support. Also, having a host move from one network or station to the next does does not guarantee listeners will follow. Putting a microphone in front of a host who has had success as a regular replacement does not always work, either.

Unfortunately, when hosts and networks start searching for a way to make an impact and remain viable, style and substance often take a backseat to entertainment and information. So, instead of commentary and context, listeners could get less than they expect as sports-talk outlets continue to grow across the county. That means less thoughtful discussion and more contrived debates, rants or uninhibited callers.

Sports-talk radio has grown because it can be profitable. People -- at least a fairly large male subset of the population -- listen. They're passionate. Plus, sports, and sports talk especially, can be cheap to produce. At the local level, that means a singe board operator might be one of the station's biggest personnel expenses. And that's not a bad option for a small station that can then rely on network shows to keep people the ad revenue of its larger counterparts.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Unfairly Stern, Paul's Power and More

Why does one of the most powerful men in sports, and probably one of the smartest men in sports,  consistently display the thinnest skin and worst sense of timing in all of sports?

Maybe it's an ego thing. Maybe it's a never-ending need to be right.

No matter the reason, NBA commissioner David Stern almost invariably goes beyond explaining what's happening with his league or providing context -- especially in regard to potentially controversial topics -- when he deals with the media. As a result, he sounds mean and it reflects poorly on the league.

The most recent example came Wednesday during an appearance on "The Jim Rome Show" when the show's sometimes combative host asked Stern about rumors that the NBA Draft Lottery had been fixed in favor of the New Orleans Hornets, which had been owned by the league.

With all the rumors and speculation about the outcome of the NBA Draft Lottery since its inception, and especially so with this year's top pick going to the Hornets, the question had to be expected. It was not unfair, either. As is typical, Stern answered the question and then chastised the person asking it. It's his usual approach no matter the network or questioner in such situations.

Of course, because Rome has built is career in part on asking at least combative-sounding questions and portraying himself as edgy, the stage was set for something stupid to happen. Plus, Rome and Stern conduct this dog-and-pony show on at least an annual basis for the benefit of Rome's listeners.

Still, as Stern grew frustrated with the draft question, he tried to show what he believed to be the hypocrisy of Rome's line of questioning with a question of his own. So, Stern asked, "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?"

Unfortunately, Stern's example of an poisonous question about a matter that's clearly not true was just mean-spirited. It made him -- again, a powerful and smart man -- seem small. With the league in the midst of the NBA Finals, and additionally with NBA TV showing "The Dream Team," what should've been a great day for the league was marred in part because of its top administrator.

Stern's actions were just one example of some

Act: U.S. Open offers A-list pairing of Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson and Tiger Woods for first two rounds.
React: TV partner ESPN must anticipate the ratings bonanza this should produce during weekday early afternoon hours. It's probably good for the sport, just because it should generate some buzz during the first two rounds. At the same time, though, any added emphasis on this threesome could come at the expense of anyone else making an early run in the tournament.

Act: Friend of man accused in Auburn shootings calls the Paul Finebaum Show.
React: Only on the Finebaum Show. Seriously, only on that slice of Americana with a strong tinge of SEC partisanship could a nation of sports fans get a true taste of the fan-next-door, small-town vibe that pervades that region of the country. Only on show with such a deep cultural impact would someone so close to such a situation actually decide to call in and share his perspectives. Best of all, Finebaum provides a wonderful mix of deadpan inquisitiveness and honesty that sometimes make it hard to know if he cares or if it's part of his shtick. For all the inherent flaws in that approach, it does produce good radio.

Act: BCS partners consider several postseason options for college football, including a four-team playoff.
React: A playoff might be closer than ever before, powered in large part by potentially hefty payouts from TV partners as the BCS revamps its system. Still, on-air college football types rarely call out those involved -- especially when they utter silly generalizations. One of the most prevalent comes when BCS supporters talk about the benefit/importance of the existing system for student-athletes. In reality, it's the college presidents and other university bigwigs who benefit most from bowl-game related junkets but media members never point out that oh-so-evident contradiction.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Words for Ward Miss What Matters

In the week since Pam Ward's demotion became public, sports media commentators and all those who consider themselves smarter than everyone else (and several people fit in both categories) have taken the opportunity to point out all that's wrong with ESPN's decision to pull Ward off play-by-play duties on college football.

At least they've tackled the issue in general, one-sided terms.

Without using the exact words, it can be surmised that most consider Ward's demotion an affront, an outrage, even a problem for sports on TV in general because it closes the door on an opportunity for women at high levels of sports media.

That's a possible argument, certainly one with merit. At the same time, it's also a generalization and an overstatement.

Ward's work was consistently solid. She was not spectacular on play-by-play of college football, but she was inevitably prepared and mostly mistake-free. With dozens of games televised every week, that's not always the kind of performance viewers get from the professionals in the booth -- and her work was appreciated as a result.

While Ward addressed her situation with several leading national columnists, and did so well, comments from higher ups at ESPN about the move have been generally limited.

According to the preferred message, though, Ward was done a disservice and there's no good reason for taking her off play-by-play duties of major college football.

Ward was one of just two women who held such a role, and her departure leaves only Beth Mowins in the male-dominated field. Ward will remain at ESPN, covering other sports and hoping for another chance to return to college football.

Here's the rub, though, it really does not matter who handles play-by-play of most games.

Aside from people who watch games to comment on them, and die-hard fans who listen for every possible perceived slight against their team, few people really care who's in the booth. On-air talent itself does not drive ratings for games. Those folks might generate reaction, but they do not necessarily "move the needle" in terms of viewership. That's especially true for regular season college football games -- even moreso for games that start at midday or early afternoon on ESPN.

So, an argument could follow that Ward should remain, because it does not matter if it's her or some other supposedly play-by-play talent. Plus, with Ward as one of the lone women as her level, coverage and games are more likely to get comment from media commentators and smart people.

Still, with people in Ward's position so generally interchangeable, her demotion might just simply be a business decision. That's the other side of the argument -- the unspoken part so far.

If on-air talent does not matter -- aside from some clearly A-list assignments -- then it's only reasonable that networks and those who handle assignments might try different things from time to time. Maybe they're looking for a different sound. Maybe they want to try another pairing just to hear and see what happens.

Without Ward, college football fans lose a solid professional. Hopefully she'll get a chance to return. However, her loss is not a loss for the sport in general, nor a loss for women. Many opportunities and on-air assignments remain for hard-working and talented women to get on-air assignments, and to make an impact those that will follow them.

Ward has certainly done that in her role, but to burden her with even more responsibility than simply doing a good job seems unfair.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Draft Format Makes Show a TV Success

As a TV show, the NFL Draft has everything it needs for success and there's no mystery why a sports-related show without on-field competition or a final score perennially produces hefty ratings.

First and foremost, the draft provides something of interest for fans of every team in the most popular sports league in the United States.

It has a larger built-in audience than any regular season game. That sets a strong foundation for interest, ratings and viewership.

Last year, draft coverage on ESPN drew ratings that topped almost everything else on the all-sports network except regular season NFL games.

Beyond that, the show's format, with a pick every few minutes,  provides exactly what sports fans love -- bursts of action followed by several minutes to analyze and speculate about what just happened. It's the kind of program people can consume completely, or use as background noise and pay attention in bits and pieces and still feel informed.

The show comes with known characters, too. That begins with the players who have spent a few seasons building name recognition playing college football and includes the on-air talent in the form of ESPN and NFL Network commentators who capably analyze the action.

An always opinionated and vocal audience at Radio City Music Hall should not be overlooked either. Those die-hard fans provide additional color.

Plus, the event almost annually comes with news (five trades reshaped the draft lineup in just the first 23 picks Thursday night) that generates action and reaction. And that's before teams like the Seattle Seahawks reach on a pick that drives even more angst among the analysts.

Finally, hhanks to savvy scheduling by the NFL, draft coverage can win ratings Thursday night (with the first round), Friday night (with second and third rounds) and even pull big numbers Saturday (with the fourth through seventh rounds).

It's simply solid programming, and it has earned its spot as one of the best and most-anticipated TV sports events of the season.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Big Names Find Some Anonymity on TV

Two hypothetical sports media questions found similar, real-life answers this week:
  • What one of the more distinctive voices of a generation conducted his labor of love in relative anonymity?
  • What if well-known personality someone produced a sports-talk program on TV and nobody watched?
Veteran Bob Costas has relaunched "Costas Tonight," his usually insightful and top-notch sports-talk show on NBC Sports Network (NBCSN), but it continues to go unnoticed by the masses.

The first show as part of the relaunch happened in conjunction with the Super Bowl months ago in Indianapolis. That live show attracted A-list guests (as Costas always does) and it evoked some good information. Even if some segments at the end were rushed, it was still a solid start for a show NBCSN no-doubt hoped would provide something of a regular programing presence.

While Costas has done the show and done it well -- this week's episode focused on the state of college sports from a variety of angles -- it does not seemed destined to become must-see TV.

With NBCSN lost among the high numbers on most cable systems, the show can be hard to find. At the same time, the short attention span of viewers does not match well with the thoughtful work Costas regularly produces.

It's good TV, something that can hopefully survive. With Costas' gravitas, as well as the ability to parse the show afterward for excerpts or online audiences, it probably can survive for a while. It's just not something that many people might watch, and that's a shame. It's good TV.

Much like Costas, another big sports name returned to TV this week -- albeit in an even more obscure role. Radio and TV veteran Jim Rome launch his self-named program on CBS Sports Network (CBSSN) following ample promotion while CBS carried the NCAA Tournament and before the network's coverage of The Masters.

With CBSSN still not rated, although company officials have said it's available in 99 million homes, Rome's initial work has gone unnoticed. In fairness to Costas, the work of the two men differs greatly, but they both have legions of fans.

For me, missing Rome is not as concerning as missing Costas and how the respective networks treat the two shows could be interesting. Neither program should be expensive to produce, but sports networks typically thrive on live programming. Without that option, finding a show hosted by a personality could be helpful, and either network would like its show to become a popular staple with viewers.

Still, neither show seems destined for a consistent prime-time spot, either. After all, if sports programming becomes available, most games or matches would play out in prime time and bouncing a talk show could be an easy decision.

In the end, sports typically matters more than sports-talk for TV networks. So, while Costas and Rome are certainly valuable for the respective network brands games matter most. If games become available and viewers remain sparse, it'll be interesting to see how well the commitment of the networks to the shows holds up.

Monday, April 2, 2012

One Reason, Two Gaffes, Two Sports

Two different networks carrying major sporting events over the weekend forgot to simply serve viewers and stumbled as a result.

First up was CBS Sports, which lost its handle on the Final Four game between Kansas and Ohio State on Saturday night by using an inconsistent approach that led to missed action and non-existent context.

The problems started on consecutive trips down the floor for Kansas -- when an apparent foul by Ohio State forward Jared Sullinger was left alone on one trip and a different foul, which appeared a little less harmful than the first, drew the attention of game officials. Unfortunately, even with a stoppage in play CBS did not provide a replay of either incident.

It was in interesting choice because the broadcast team had done such a good job earlier in the game of detailing how a Kansas foul was whistled on the wrong player, and then detailed that the use of video to correct the mistake was not allowed under NCAA rules.

That seemed like an interesting and strong start to the broadcast. Unfortunately, the end of the game did not live up to those standards.

Most egregiously, the confusing final seconds of the game were totally whiffed. As OSU guard Aaron Craft committed a lane violation when trying to quickly launch and rebound a free throw, CBS went to a replay of what happened rather than sticking with live action as KU inbounded the ball and ran out the clock.

There was no controversy on the floor -- the referees made the correct call in that instance -- but CBS missed the action. There was plenty of time for a replay and some context about what happened after the game ended. It's a shame that's not how it happened for viewers.

Context was where another TV partner failed Sunday afternoon. Fox Sports provided coverage of the Sprint Cup Series race in Martinsville, Va., and it got ratings and viewership gold with a competitive short-track race until the final laps.

When Clint Boyer drove hard into the bottom of the first turn and got underneath leaders Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson during a late-race restart, the outcome seemed obvious -- an ugly wreck was about to happen. That's exactly what followed, cars were all over the track, and Ryan Newman eventually survived after another restart to get the victory.

Still, an earlier incident, when David Reutimann stopped on the front stretch, forcing the restart when Boyer made his calamitous move, was where Fox Sports failed.

The network's commentators offered all kinds of opinions, even ''oohs" and "aahs," regarding the accident. That might not have been good work, but it was certainly expected.

Conversely, even with Reutimann's team owner (Michael Waltrip) as part of the broadcast crew, any insights about what happened with that car were missing. Waltrip told viewers it's never clear or easy to know what might be happening in a car during a race, but that was not enough. C'mon, he's the team owner. It was interesting that he did not vehemently defend his driver while some speculated what could've happened. Even if he was not in the pits or on the radio, he's the owner, he's a proven driver in the series, something more was expected.

Thankfully, Fox did get a post-race interview with an emotional and defensive Reutimann who said he had hoped to get his car off the track, but that it broke before he could. Best of all, he provided the necessary context, that he was still running, even nearly 60 laps down, in an effort to gain points and remain among the top 35 in series points -- a cutoff point that guarantees a team a starting spot from week to week.

You'd have thought that context would've crossed the mind of Waltrip, who was already sitting in the broadcast booth. It's a shame that viewers could not have gotten that sooner.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Jeff Van Gundy: An Analyst with an Opinion

As a coach in New York, he had to be strong and tough but from afar Jeff Van Gundy often looked like droopy dog.

Sure, he was successful, but it was difficult to gauge his passion and personality, perhaps because he worked so hard and guided the Knicks teams under his tutelage as far as they could go. Maybe farther.

He looked like a basketball lifer who had no time for fun. Or anything funny.

As a TV analyst, though, Van Gundy's opinions and personality resonate. He's often funny. He's regularly insightful. And when he has something to say, he's not afraid to share it.

The latest came Wednesday night during a matchup between Orlando Magic and New York Knicks and Madison Square Garden. When Magic star Dwight Howard remained in his seat on the bench during a timeout. Neither he nor Jameer Nelson ever joined their teammates and coach Stan Van Gundy (Jeff's brother, so the criticism of Howard must be kept in some perspective) during the break. The opinions that followed were clear and pointed.

Said Jeff Van Gundy:
"When did it become alright, I was watching the Magic at that timeout where Howard and Nelson didn’t join the huddle. Last night (the Lakers) Andrew Bynum doesn’t join the huddle. When did it become acceptable that you just aren’t a part of it when it’s not going well, and you separate yourself like, 'This is not my problem' or you don’t support your teammate. The least you can do is just get up. I don’t understand. I read that (Lakers coach ) Mike Brown said he didn’t have a rule that Bynum has to get up. Should you need a rule?"

Accurate and on the point. And exactly what a game analyst should provide. Sure, it's beyond Xs and Os, but it was what viewers saw themselves. Additionally, the game's producer and director complemented his work with appropriate camera shots.

It was good, albeit typical, moment for the solid analyst, made even better by the effort of the entire broadcast team.

Best of all, Van Gundy did not paint it as only a Magic problem -- so that helped limit possible complaints that he was protecting his brother. (Although it does seem a lot of his more public moments do relate to the Magic.) Still, his ability to frame such disinterest as a league-wide situation made the matter more appropriate.