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.