Thursday, August 29, 2013

O'Brien gets bigger role in Penn State TV show

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."

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

'Training Days' offers interesting view of Penn State

All access means just that for "Penn State Training Days," which airs at 7 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN. It then re-airs at 10 p.m. on ESPNU.

The hour-long special -- part of the network's All-Access series for college football that has focused on Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma in previous years -- offers an interesting behind-the-scenes look at Penn State's preparations for the start of the season.

An ESPN production team was embedded at Penn State for nearly a week and a half to capture all the footage, and they were editing until the last possible minute Tuesday to make the hour-long special as timely as possible.

The hundreds of hours of footage they compiled at Penn State will also be used for a series of four 30-minute specials on ESPNU. Those shows air air Aug. 21 (6 p.m and 6:30 p.m.), Aug. 22 (6 p.m.) and Aug. 23 (6 p.m.).

Because of it's access and the cooperation of coach Bill O'Brien, the hour-long special begins on a golf course in Cape Cod, Mass., and not a football field in University Park, Pa. Producers were able to follow O'Brien and his father for a round of golf during the family vacation before football season kicked into high gear.

Throughout the opening program and subsequent shows, the personality of coaches and players shows through.

Also, ESPN's team benefited from strong preparation -- getting ready for personalities and stories they might focus on -- but were nimble enough to follow the news. Specifically, the segment of the show that focuses on tight end-turned-offensive tackle Gary Gilliam (in the clip above) grew out of happenings once the production team was on site. They were then able to make that timely storyline interesting.

Overall, the series and segments seem set to provide a positive push for Penn State, giving hard-core fans more access than usual (the kind of thing they crave) and giving casual or non-Penn State fans, if they watch, a sense that the program is much more than they might've heard through national stories in the past 18 months or so.

It's high quality, well done programming that reflects well on ESPN's talented crew and on Penn State.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Fox Sports 1 set to begin in win-win situation

Fox Sports 1 launches at 6 a.m. Saturday, with the all-sports network in a short-term win-win situation.

Any critical acclaim will be good and any criticism will have time to be addressed. Any ratings and viewership success will be good and anything that does not draw eyeballs or interest will have time to be addressed.

Members of the network's PR team -- as they already have -- will laud immediate successes. They will temper things that are not as successful by comparing the rollout of the network to a marathon rather than a sprint. Again, a win-win.

FS1 will launch in 90 million homes through the rebranding of Speed. That presence is huge for a start-up effort. And, on its first prime-time evening of programming, FS1 will provide a solid made-for-TV UFC card topped by a light heavyweight matchup between Chael Sonnen vs. Maurio "Showgun" Rua.

At 11 p.m., the network will present "Fox Sports Live," led by former TSN "SportsCentre" anchors Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole. The three-hour show, which will be divided into several regular segments, includes former tennis champion Andy Roddick and others as FS1 presents a program it hopes can rival ESPN's "SportsCenter" and give viewers a reason to watch the new network.

Even before its launch, FS1 has already seemingly tempered its approach somewhat.

While "fun" was the initial public emphasis for everyone associated with the network, recent features in USA Today, The New York Times and Men's Journal (at least as presented by network officials and on-air types) have moved away from that message a bit. It's becoming more about the programs and the sports -- and that's a hopeful sign for potential viewers. Too much "fun" could lead to silliness or a sophomoric approach. That's not what FS1 needs to succeed.

Expect FS1, over time, to find its niche. Maybe an afternoon talk show with Regis Philbin will not work -- especially against a typically strong block of ESPN programming such as "Around the Horn" and "PTI." But maybe "Fox Sports Live" will connect.

At its best, FS1 will provide sports fans with different options and maybe even a move away from ESPN's approach to "embrace debate," which some TV sports critics and purists dislike. More likely, though, viewers will get a proliferation of talking heads, albeit on a different channel, as success breeds imitation.

Conferences and leagues will find more options and outlets for their games. That's a good thing for them. Pro leagues and organizations will make more money as rights fees grow as a result of competition. That's a good thing for them. Even on-air personalities will make more money as they inevitably move from one outlet to another, or get paid to remain at their current place of employment. That's a good thing for them.

FS1's biggest long-term hurdle remains in cable fees, and how far it starts behind ESPN. While cable subscribers typically subsidized ESPN to the tune of about $5.50 per month, FS1 begins with what Speed was collecting (23 cents/month) and hopes to eventually push it to nearly $1. That lack of compared revenue will provide a big challenge.

Still, it remains a win-win situation because FS1 can be the less-established, more brash, we-work-harder all-sports option. Make no mistake, though, they someday wand to be just as big as ESPN.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Gruden Connects Because He's Himself, Good or Bad

He's a character, and sometimes he's a caricature of himself. He knows football, and sometimes he does not know when to stop the silliness.

Still, John Gruden connects with viewers and succeeds on "Monday Night Football" (and with almost everything he does for ESPN) because he always plays the same role: himself. Sure, he's been advised and shaped somewhat by some talent coach, but Gruden's authenticity usually shines through.

A Thursday night preseason game between the Bengals and Falcons provided examples of his both extremes.

As always, the positives centered around his honesty, in this case with information largely unrelated to the game itself. In the second half as Mike Tirico and Gruden welcomed former official and ESPN rules expert Gerry Austin to discuss points of emphasis this year, the "tuck rule" became a brief focus.

That rule cost Gruden, then coach of the Raiders, a chance to reach the Super Bowl when it was applied in a snowy AFC Championship Game to the benefit of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in 2002. As Austin discussed the rule, Gruden chimed in and disagreed about how and when it was used.

In a shot of all three men from the booth, Gruden looked physically ill as the matter was discussed. He was not shy about saying the 2002 ruling impacted him personally and his career significantly. Meanwhile, Austin looked uncomfortable during what should have been just a general conversation on the matter. (It's a shame ESPN cannot find a stronger voice about NFL rules than Austin. It might be one of the weakest spots of their generally good across-the-board NFL coverage.)

But that interaction was Gruden at his best -- airing some complaints, busting some chops and sincerely approaching a topic.

Minutes earlier, he had gone a little past that line (and pulled Tirico with him) when discussing Bengals receiver Dane Sanzenbacher. While the former Ohio State standout made a catch and returned a punt for a touchdown, the on-air team had fun with the pronunciation of his name and Gruden sincerely championed the fact that he liked the way the seemingly undersized receiver played the game.

It was honest emotion and opinon, good stuff, but it got lost a little in the silliness. The broadcast duo was aware of what it was doing, though, as Tirico joked that maybe the receiver should hire Tirico as his publicist. And, in fairness, it was probably a more-than-appropriate TV approach for a preseason game.

Such lighthearted, unfocused moments might provide fodder for some critics of Gruden, and there is some room for those critiques. Still, that's nit-picking, and not something that rubs viewers the wrong way as much as observers of the business. Gruden generally scores with viewers, and his bosses know that. He's not a journalist, and he's not supposed to be. He's not always balanced, and he's not supposed to be.

He's just himself, an emotional, opinionated ex-coach and he works on TV because people respect his expertise and respond to enthusiasm.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Hall of Fame, preseason marks 'holiday' as NFL kicks off

Finally, it's time for the NFL -- the sport that drives TV viewership more than any other and the sport that broadcasters produce as consistently well as any other.

Football, thanks in large part to those broadcast partners, stirs emotions better than any other sport, too. Following the NFL Films template, every network, local TV affiliate and music video producer can provide access and a connection that draws people closer to the game.

For many fans, this time or the year compares to the excitement of the Whos before Christmas. They had a song (thank you Dr. Seuss), and so do football fans (thank you Kenny Chesney).

Action begins this weekend with Hall of Fame inductions. Both ESPN2 and the NFL Network will provide coverage of the induction ceremonies. Although the league has sterilized the program a bit in recent years -- providing a cookie-cutter approach with taped segments and short introductions before inductee speeches -- the inductees themselves can still usually convey the emotion of the moment well.

On Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins meet in the Hall of Fame Game. It's an exciting time for football fans.

Still, something about this year's start and that opening game leaves me with a confused, Grinchy feeling in terms of the broadcast itself.

With the "Sunday Night Football" tandem of Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth working the game, one has to wonder how Michaels has escaped the scrutiny of others associated with the NFL in regard to his DUI earlier this year. While the league puts an emphasis on that and all crimes, Michaels has not been caught in the mix. There has been no apology, and relatively little attention paid to his situation other than from entertainment outlets or TMZ.

Are other sports media members ignoring a story about someone associated with the NFL just because he's one of them? Or how does a broadcaster in such a situation get treated so significantly different from players or team officials. (Remember, two Denver Broncos executives were punished for DUIs this year.)

Welcome football, but some consistent work by the media about another media would be a welcome approach as well.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Costas on Paterno: 'He should have followed up'

Broadcaster Bob Costas, who won an Emmy Award for his work related to the Jerry Sandusky case, tells Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show" that late Penn State coach Joe Paterno seems to have done in terms of the letter of law regarding the controversial and ongoing case.

But, Costas maintains Paterno had a higher moral standard -- or at least that's what was expected of him.