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.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Wonderful Week for Sports TV

Three of the most powerful players in sports television shared the spotlight the past several days, making the next-to-last weekend in March interesting and meaningful.

First, meet the "players": the athlete, Tiger Woods; the league, the NFL; and an event that has had more impact on the U.S. sports landscape than any other in the past two decades, the NCAA Tournament.

Woods recorded his first PGA Tour victory in two-and-a-half years Sunday, capturing the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, and pulling TV ratings to heights that matched his spot atop the leaderboard. Ratings were up 53 percent over coverage of last season's tournament, which went off without Woods.

If he's ready to again compete at a high level on a regular basis, golf broadcasters -- especially CBS Sports, which covers The Masters in two weeks, when Woods will return to action -- justifiably have reason for enthusiasm. Without Woods, golf ratings were OK, at best. With him, those numbers often double, because his presence and success give people a reason to watch the sport on TV.

When it comes to the NFL, almost everything translates to must-see TV. The combine and draft have become TV staples, and this week league meetings moved to that level, too.

With fallout from the league's punishment of the New Orleans Saints still unsettled, viewers got often unfiltered access to suspended Saints coach Sean Payton. Every possible sports TV show provided a hefty focus on the ongoing situation. And even that coverage was muted compared to the focus on Tim Timbow's arrival in New York as the Jets' backup quarterback.

Just as important, the league unleashed its usual approach to off-season news, building anticipation and creating discussion by parsing out information with its own coordinated, fits-and-starts approach. That means scheduling details, including that the defending champion New York Giants would open the season Wednesday, Sept. 5, vs. the Dallas Cowboys.

As we move into April, fans are just a couple weeks away from knowing the full NFL schedule -- which will merit its own live TV shows on NFL Network and ESPN. And, of course, another testament to the league's power.

Powerful brands with a plan can pretty much set the schedule when it comes to sports television, and the NCAA Tournament does that quite well, too. We're at end of the tournament, and that leads to its most important moments at the Final Four. As tournament tradition merits, things will end with "One Shining Moment" late Monday night, but the tournament's structure and terminology mean just as much to the sports landscape.

As a result of the tournament's presence as a cultural happening the past two decades, the men's basketball championship has made tournament action important in every other sport. Years ago, baseball had its postseason leading to the World Series, the NBA had playoffs and even the mighty NFL simply referred to its postseason as the playoffs.

In recent years, though, media members who cover those leagues have regularly referred to those respective postseasons as tournaments. Or even discussed how team have "made the field." When one sporting even impacts how others go about their business, that's true power.

Monday, March 12, 2012

First Fan's Interest Drives TV Appearances

President Barack Obama gets multiple network March Madness visibility Tuesday night as ESPN shares his national semifinal predictions for the men's and women's basketball tournaments, and truTV airs an interview with Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

With the president and prime minister in Dayton, Ohio, CBS Sports analyst Clark Kellogg will conduct the interview with the two heads of state at halftime of the Mississippi Valley State-Western Kentucky game, which tips off at 6:40 p.m.

Obama's appearance with Andy Katz and Doris Burke on ESPN marks the fourth consecutive year he has filled out brackets for the all-sports network. His interview with Katz will air Wednesday, when his national championship pick is revealed, and his women's picks will air on Friday.

The joint interview with Kellogg marks the only such appearance for the heads of state during Cameron's visit stateside. It is Kellogg's third exclusive opportunity to interview/work with Obama, though. Obama sat in on game coverage of a 2010 Duke-Georgetown game and the president was the focus of a feature segment when he played H-O-R-S-E with Kellogg during the 2010 Final Four.

With college basketball at the forefront of U.S. cultural conscience at this point, the appearances make political sense for Obama.

Still, it's more about his fandom than exposure to any large number of viewers or voters. After all, last year's First Four games averaged 1.2 and 1.35 million fans, respectively. They're certainly an interested and passionate group, but they pale in comparison to the 37.75 million fans who watched the State of the Union Address across 14 broadcast and cable networks in January.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Oh, the Voices: ESPN Analysts, 'Announcement' and a Really Good Play-by-Play Talent

With a basketball-dominated menu of sports on TV in the next few days, the highlights include many important and interesting voices.

That includes: analysts and experts who will voice their opinions about which teams make the NCAA Tournament and which do not; one somewhat overlooked and talented play-by-play voice who gets an another deserved big-stage opportunity; and a voice from the past that continues to resonate. There's even one voice that might go missing after this week (at least in terms of college basketball), but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

All those voices are part of the latest Act and React.

Act: Conference tournaments and then an NCAA committee shape and set the field for the NCAA Tournament.
React: Oh, everyone will react. This is the weekend when it's all about the reaction. That reaction comes after every game as viewers get speculation and updates on which teams are on the bubble, or the latest from Joe Lunardi on ESPN regarding the "last four in" and "first four out" for the tournament.

Things then heighten Sunday with the tournament selection show at 6 p.m. The CBS Sports team for that includes Greg Gumbel, Greg Anthony and Seth Davis. At 7 p.m., those three, plus Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith, move to truTV and go head to head with ESPN's full studio of basketball analysts -- plus many at locations across the country -- to discuss which teams made the field and which did not.

No doubt, some expert will assert that one or another poor team got left out of the now-68 team field. And, while they will be wrong (because a team that low in the pecking order should not be a factor in the national championship chase), it'll probably still produce some entertaining TV moments.

Count on Barkley for the potential to create one of those moments. Count on ESPN's deeper roster of talent, with folks like Jay Bilas and Doug Gottlieb, to produce a little more insight.

Act: Veteran Sean McDonough serves as play-by-play voice of Big East Tournament.
React: Thank you ESPN for putting McDonough behind the microphone for what's almost annually the best conference tournament. His produced solid play-by-play calls while offering room for his partners (Bilas and Bill Raftery) to make appropriate points.

Opening rounds of the tournament earlier this week also included the on-air team of Dave Pasch, Doris Burke and Beth Mowins -- and that's a good group -- but McDonough and his crew deserve the lead assignment they have with the concluding rounds of the tournament. They always rise the level of big games.

Best of all, McDonough always knows it's not about him. He's distinctive and talented, but he's there to present a game, not present himself. He makes sure the appropriate storylines get addressed without unnecessary hype. That's become a rare skill, and it's appreciated.

Act: ESPN presents "The Announcement," about Magic Johnson, at 9 p.m. Sunday.
React: It's hard to imagine a documentary can capture the cultural impact and shock that resulted when Earvin "Magic" Johnson announced he was HIV positive on Nov. 7, 1991, but the master movie makers from ESPN Films, in conjunction with NBA entertainment, have a good chance to do just that.

After surviving the onslaught of voices about college basketball and the NCAA Tournament, this should be another proud addition to the documentary tradition ESPN has established.

Act: College basketball season curtain call for Gus Johnson
React: Emotional and energetic Gus Johnson, a favorite of at least a vocal minority of college basketball fans, might work his final games of the season Friday night during the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals. He will not be working the NCAA Tournament, something that became official last May.

While he has worked all of this past season for the Big Ten Network, and also called college football and NFL games for Fox Sports, Johnson is best known for his emotion-packed, end-of-game calls for college basketball -- especially during the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament. That's an appropriate and fair legacy, with a downside coming with sometimes a bit too much emotion early in a game. Still, there's no denying he's good, clearly of the best at what he does.

He will be missed, but his absence probably will not impact ratings or viewership of the early round tournament games he regularly worked.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

An Earful as MLB Network Stresses Sound

With Wednesday's spring training game between the Indians and Diamondbacks, MLB Network promises to mine the "untapped" resource of on-field sound and bring TV viewers a different perspective on baseball coverage.

As many as a half dozen players, as well as coaches, will wear microphones that will be activated once they step on the field.

A single on-air talent, Matt Vasgersian, will handle the play-by-play duties, leaving ample room for what the microphones pick up (everything from the crack of the bat and the sound of the ball in the catcher's mitt to brief conversations between players) to be heard by viewers. In order to avoid profanities reaching the airwaves, the broadcast will operate on a 14-second delay.

The sounds-of-the-game approach will no doubt be repeated, by both MLB Network and other baseball TV partners, this season. It will also be successful. After all, in the course of a nine-inning game something interesting invariably has to get picked up by an ever-present ear.

Still, it's hardly the oh-so-necessary or revolutionary upgrade that MLB Network promises and that some seem to expect.

MLB Network proved as much with a test run of the approach Tuesday during a game between the Rangers and Diamondbacks. Along with players and coaches, even umpires wore microphones.

The result was good, if unremarkable. There were some interesting behind-the-scenes moments, even though they were hardly behind the scenes because they played out in front of everyone in the ballpark. At the same time, the game was probably a bit less talkative and a bit more quiet than some would expect.

Still, it's an overdue step for baseball broadcasts, which only in recent seasons added in-game interviews from team dugouts on a regular basis on TV broadcasts.

It's also a potentially big moment for sound on sports broadcasts because of the commitment to utilize the sound in an almost-live approach. As a result, baseball's enhanced approach could increase the regularity with which telecasts in general use sound as part of live broadcasts.

For example, while NFL Films and the NFL Network have a long track record of using sound to make its films and TV shows better, they have not done so on live or nearly live broadcasts. The sounds of legendary Kansas City Chiefs coach Hank Stram encouraging his team to "matriculate the ball down the field" and questioning refereed from Super Bowl IV were not at all live. And, more recently and regularly, shows such as "Sounds of the Game" on NFL Network often come at least a week behind -- just as "wired for sound" segments do with partners such as ESPN.

Sound almost always sells, and sounds good. It brings fans closer to the game, enabling them to make a more personal connection. While one game on MLB Network might not be a watershed moment for sound on TV broadcasts (both college and pro football have been working to increase their ambient and on-field sound the past few seasons) it will certainly play a role in reshaping sports broadcast in general. And that's a good thing.