Sunday, June 23, 2013

Wallenda's Walk Feels, Looks Like Any Other Game

Daredevil Nik Wallenda walked across the Grand Canyon on a high wire Sunday night and the made-for-TV event was just as much sports TV as any baseball, basketball or football game.

In so many ways, including some minor missteps -- by broadcast partner Discovery Channel, not Wallenda, who does not like being called a daredevil -- the broadcast had all the elements of any game broadcast.

Drama was the major player and the fact that Wallenda walked without a net, without a safety tether or even without a parachute was front and center throughout the broadcast. After that key thing -- the part where Wallenda could die if he made a mistake, a big difference as opposed to, say, the consequences of a missed free throw -- the similarities to any other sports broadcast were striking.

There was a nickname. Discovery Channel christened Wallenda the "Superman of Stunts."

There were unique camera angles. Wallenda had cameras strapped to his shirt and his balance pole, while cameras from either ends of the walk captured the action, as did a camera in a hovering helicopter.

There were sideline experts. In this case the Weather Channel's Jim Cantore told viewers about temperatures and wind gusts. And, like any other analyst with a high-tech tools, Cantore had a wealth of bells and whistles, including some of the same devices he trots out for viewers to follow landfall of a tropical storm somewhere on the East Coast.

And social media was ubiquitous, at one point with the event prompting 40,000 Tweets per second, about half of what Usain Bolt drew during the 2012 Olympic Games. Discovery Channel promoted its efforts along those lines, just like "Sunday Night Football" with viewers able to make their own camera selections and web exclusives. The insistence to cite the event and themselves as "trending" gave the broadcast a slight WWE feel, though.

Still, there were appropriate statistics, including news of 300 rescues a year from people visiting the Grand Canyon during the pre-walk show, and necessary references to the distance of the walk (1,400 meters) and Wallenda's height above the floor of the canyon when he was on the wire (1,500 meters).

It was clear Wallenda was nervous throughout much of the walk, which added to the drama, and there was even some unintended action and humor when Wallenda told his constantly talking father that he did not want to talk to anyone else (presumably shooting down a planned in-walk interview with a member of the broadcast team) and when he later told his father not to update him about how long he had been walking on the wire.

Where Discovery Channel faltered was mostly minor. Most notably, before Wallenda stepped on the wire, the storyline consistently teased a countodwn to the action. But there was never an on-screen countdown clock. Of all the sports staples, it's hard to imagine the broadcast without that item.

Beyond that, mistakes were minor, with no reaction shots of Wallenda's wife and family, even though viewers did see televangelist Joel Osteen, and with a bit too much of Wallenda's father's banter, but there were no other options for the broadcast. And almost all such broadcasts have such hiccups. For Discovery Channel was a good effort on what will likely be a big stage once the ratings are finalized. Wallenda's previous walk over Niagra Falls drew about 13 million viewers, and this show could be in the same (though probably slightly lower) range.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Never Mind Game 7, Defending Champs Secure

Mike Breen (left)
and Jeff Van Gundy. (Getty Images)

Forget the outcome of Game 7 of the NBA Finals, the champs are here.

They've been here the whole season -- calling the action while sharing some humor, insights and opinions right there on ESPN.

Play-by-play man Mike Breen and color commentator Jeff Van Gundy are the best on-air team in the NBA and one of the best at what they do in all of sports television.

Breen is smart and steady and Van Gundy can be appropriately funny or gruff. He knows the game and he knows his partner. And, because Breen knows Van Gundy so well, they bring out the best of each other.

Fans who watch on TV benefit as a result.

Likewise, Doris Burke (despite the silly hubbub early in the Finals about she and other sideline reporters having to deal with sometimes unhelpful or unresponsive San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich) ranks as the best in the NBA -- and one of the best sideline reporters on TV.

It's an unforgiving job, with a handful of critics in her ear from the production truck and millions more on the other side of television sets all over the world, but Burke asks the right questions at the right time. Best of all, she comes across as prepared and ready -- something many other such reporters might be but also something difficult to convey in a matter of two or three questions on the court or field.

While the concern she and others expressed about dealing with Popovich probably fell on deaf ears for many viewers, Burke generally does what she does so well that she does not call attention to herself.

Of course, that's not the M.O. of others associated with broadcasting the Finals. Most prominently, Bill Simmons has, at times, made the show (or at least the aftermath of the show on social media) about him, and even about how he can snap at the hand that feed shim.

Make no mistake, Simmons is good. He's the multimedia success story of the past decade by any definition as he has moved form a blogger on the fringe of sports to the moneymaking genius with his online success and the eventual creation of Grantland.

Even though he has room to improve on TV, Simmons sometimes retains an anti-establishment approach that endears him to some and must infuriate his bosses and some coworkers. And, when it becomes more about him than the game (or even if it seems that way) that might not be the best approach.

And while Breen, Van Gundy and Burke highlight the efforts of ESPN/ABC on the Finals -- earning deserved "champion" status, the network might need to address its studio show. There's talent there, including the ever-emerging Jalen Rose as well as Magic Johnson, Simmons and Michael Wilbon.

Still, the lack of a host hampers the studio segments somewhat. Because TNT has a studio anchor (Ernie Johnson) amidst an even stronger studio crew of commentators, that group ranks as the best covering the NBA in that regard.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Sprinter-Turned-Bobsletter Lolo Jones Misses Power of Sarcasm, Social Media with Video

Lolo Jones (AP Photo)
Mark this down as latest example of an athlete who makes a fool of themselves on social media. And afterward -- after the reaction that anyone with even a tad of common sense could predict -- any amount of clarification and positive spin does not help.

Lolo Jones, the Olympic caliber hurdler best known for her good looks, close-but-not-quite finishes on the biggest stages for simply being well known, spent the past seven months working the the U.S. bobsled team, attempting to transfer her athleticism and speed into a spot with the team at the Winter Olympics. She helped the U.S. team win three medals in her first season.

Still, her recent foray into social media put a damper on what's been a somewhat positive story when she posted a video about what she considered her paltry paycheck ($741.84) for seven months of work with the team. Of course, she's much better off than many members of the team because of her numerous sponsorships.

So, the video was in poor taste and poorly timed.

Other members of the bobsled team complained, including U.S. gold medalist Steven Holcomb. He told USA Today, "It wasn't very well taken. People were really kind of insulted. You just make $741, more than most athletes in the sport. So what are you complaining about?"

While Jones later issued a statement to clarify she was trying to point out the lack of monetary support for bobsled competitors and teams, it was too little and too late.

Sarcasm never plays on social media, and rarely plays much better on video. Trying to salvage it afterward did not make her look like a champion for her fellow competitors or the sport. It just made her look like someone trying to stop the bleeding, maintain her other sponsorships and perhaps even keep a spot on the bobsled team going forward.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Bloggers, Commentators and Social Media Types A-Twitter About Ombudsman, But There's More

Robert Lipsyte
One man rarely garners general support (let alone a majority) from the strong pool of critics, reporters and writers who cover sports media on a regular basis.

With so much passion and talent, those commentators have deeply rooted opinions and they're not afraid to share what they think.

In the case of ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte, though, there has been unusual unanimity -- and almost a giddiness. It seems everyone with a blog or word processor wants someone to critique the work of ESPN. Or they at least want validation of their own critiques of the all-sports network.

They clearly think that's coming with the naming of Lipsyte, the accomplished author and journalist, formerly of The New York Times. A longtime critic of the "jock culture" of TV sports, Lipsyte will write his first column for ESPN later this month.

Still, at 75 and an admitted observer of many things other than ESPN, Lipsyte's 18-month tenure could be interesting -- both for what it produces that makes the cadre of critics happy and, perhaps, for what it does not produce or any results that the supporters find unsatisfying.

Sports Illustrated standout Richard Deitsch provided a quality question-and-answer session with Lipsyte as part of a recent column, and almost cheerleader-type support has come from folks such as Josh Koblin of Deadspin and Ed Sherman of the Sherman Report on recent weeks.

After the SI interview, Koblin and Sherman used the Q-and-A session as a source for additional insights about Lipsyte, and perhaps some slightly cautionary hints about what they expect and what Lipsyte might deliver.

Because of ESPN's impact and sheer size, an ombudsman that critiques the company's work fills a necessary role. After all, an organization can get too big and overstep its bounds. And, along with the broadcasts and on-air action, ESPN's many business relationships inevitably muddy the waters that shape what viewers watch.

In fact, that's one area that might eventually provide a point of conflict for commentators and Lipsyte.

In so many ways, sports business and sports media overlap and even rely on each other. Beyond observing and reporting about what happens on air, Lipsyte will need to bring an understanding of the business (as well as the many factors and people that influence it) in order to do his job to the satisfaction of other commentators.

At the same time, he told Deitsch he plans to derive a decent amount of his direction from the comments of ESPN viewers.

Well, what if it turns out those fellow commentators are worried about different things than ESPN's viewers? How will the former react when Lipsyte serves the latter first and foremost?

No doubt, it's a good move, a journalistic tradition, for ESPN to have an in-house advocate for viewers and a critic for itself, but the largely positive initial support for Lipsyte by other commentators seems to indicate ESPN has an abundance of reasons to apologize for its work. That's just not necessarily the case. And there's no reason other sports media outlets -- especially those quite similar to ESPN -- have not been scrutinized for their lack of an ombudsman or viewer advocate.

Along with the joy of ESPN adding Lipsyte, there should also be a clamor for Fox Sports 1, NBC Sports Network and even CBS Sports Network to find someone for a similar role. The opportunity for those outlets (which range from less-proven challengers to start ups when compared to ESPN) to bend journalistic rules or conduct themselves poorly exists just as much -- and maybe more -- than at the "worldwide leader."

Holding ESPN to a different standard because of its impact and size makes sense, but not holding its rivals (even if that's a charitable term in this case) to any standard makes no sense at all.