Penn State has revamped its weekly coach's TV show to be just that -- a show that features the coach more prominently. And, Bill O'Brien is clearly ready for the role.
"Penn State Football: The Next Chapter" makes its debut at 8:30 p.m. Thursday on WPSU (Channel 3), the PBS affiliate based on campus that serves much of central Pennsylvania. The show also has clearances in markets across the state, as well as important regional sports networks, before the Nittany Lions start the season Saturday against Syracuse (3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2).
For decades the show had been a post-game project, usually airing Sundays on network affiliates across Pennsylvania and on regional sports networks Sunday or even Monday. It provided game highlights and player features.
As recently as two years ago, it was known as "The Penn State Football Story," and shaping a message about the program and storytelling became much more of the focus -- especially on weeks when things did not go well on the field Saturday.
Still, it was not a coach's show. It was a Penn State football show, a program show. It provided access, but not much personality -- at least in terms of the man leading the program.
That was due in part to the fact that the late Joe Paterno did not need such exposure and he pushed for assistant coaches and players to be featured. That spread the attention around and also provided him with a way to cross the show off his list of things do to. After all, by the late 1980s, he already had plenty of attention and he had done the coach's show thing (and done it well) with "TV Quarterbacks" and "Joe Paterno's TV Quarterbacks" in the 1970s and early 1980s. Those programs aired throughout Pennsylvania during the week.
According to research by Penn State faculty member Mike Poorman, who taught COMM 497G: Paterno Communications and the Media in the College of Communications at Penn State for several years (the class examined Paterno's relationship with the media and related issues), Paterno's presence on the show was significant in the early years and diminished later. In 1975, he was part of 32 percent of an hour-long program and by 1984 his presence accounted for 38 percent of a half-hour show.
By 2011, though, he was much less visible. According to numbers for a half-hour episode in 2011, Paterno was on screen for just 13 percent of the show.
When Penn State Public Media took over production of the show last year (then titled "Penn State Football 2012: The Next Chapter"), the limited-coach model mostly remained. Still, the power of O'Brien's personality shone through during the season and the situations Penn State was facing necessitated a focus. That focus often became the coach. Last year's first edition of the show with a different production team also provided better behind-the-scenes access to the program. (In large part because the coach allowed it.)
So this year represents a logical extension of both those things from last season -- more O'Brien and more "fly on the wall" treatment for viewers.
Mini film sessions with O'Brien will probably be the most popular segments with viewers this year.
"We're not reinventing the wheel. It's still a storytelling show, but it's more about preparation and thats's the thing that’s going to be different," said executive producer Bill Amin. "The big thing on the show is coach doing some breakdown segment, which is something he does well. There's probably not going to be specific strategies and Xs and Os, but he does a great job of teaching and sharing his philosophies on the game.
"I think viewers will find that very interesting, to find coach basically teaching and coaching -- in his element. That’s a big part of the show."
Amin compared the show's altered approach the HBO's "Hard Knocks" and ESPN "All-Access" shows. Fans of teams certainly appreciate such an approach and by the time the show airs (and even when it did so the day after the game) those viewers will know the result and will probably have seen the important highlights a couple of times.
With the updated format, "The Next Chapter" will start with the previous week's game but will mostly be a matter of looking ahead -- and doing so guided in large part by O'Brien's perspective. During a recent session with the production crew, he spent 19 consecutive and clean (just one take) minutes talking though tape breakdown. That type of interaction should provide plenty of fodder for weekly shows.
And WPSU does not plan to back away from highlights. It will produce a separate highlight package from each game that will be available exclusively online -- thereby giving the show a presence online and a way to cross promote what will then air before the next week's game.
Oh, and that looking-ahead-to-the-next game approach comes with the benefit of, possibly, encouraging or exciting people to attend games and buy tickets, which ranks as the highest priority for the Penn State athletic department. So the change in approach seemingly serves all involved -- from administrators and the personable coach to fans.
"I know Saturday morning is populated with pregame shows and 'College GameDay' on ESPN, but if you’re a Penn State fan and you can watch or hear about your team that’s probably more valuable," Amin said. "It’s almost your own exclusive preview."