Monday, December 30, 2013

Returns define compelling year of TV sports

A launch and some notable returns defined TV sports in 2013.

Fox Sports 1 became a reality Aug. 17 and the all-sports network has slowly started to create niche for itself. Thankfully, the overdone "fun" promotional approach for FS1 has been toned down and changes and tweaks to the flagship program, "Fox Sports Live," should continue for months to come. It's getting better.

It's good for sports fans to have options and once FS1 builds some consistency and, more importantly, gets better live content -- which could happen a bit more during college basketball season -- the network will become a slightly better rival (as much as it can) for the all-sports standard and cultural icon, ESPN.

Personality returns helped define 2013, with Keith Olbermann going back to ESPN for the nightly "Olbermann," atop the list. ESPN also welcomed back Jason Whitlock and Paul Finebaum returned after a hiatus from sports-talk radio to an even better opportunity -- going to ESPN himself. He got back on satellite radio and landed increased assignments for college football on ESPN and, next season, with the SEC Network. He might've had one of the better years of any sports personality, going from out of work (or at least of the air) to high-profile assignments.

It could more more of the same for Finebaum in 2014, and that might be the case for TV rookie Tim Tebow as well. Despite his lack of experience, ESPN announced Dec. 30 that Tebow would have a prominent role on the SEC Network in 2014. The network also said the former Heisman Trophy winner will work the Jan. 6 national championship game between Auburn and Florida State.

Before 2014 arrives (and in the borderline-sports-but-certainly-ratings-firendly category, expect the coming year to include another highly rated daredevil stunt of some sort by Nick Wallenda on the Discovery Channel), here's a look at the best of 2013:

Best Studio Show: "College GameDay"
For degree of difficulty alone (the show originates from a different college campus each week) "GameDay" deserves credit. But the show is much more than a traveling circus. It comes with a standout host (Chris Fowler, see below) and a strong mix of entertainment and information. Plus, "GameDay" must cover more each week than other programs of its ilk and it does it well. Even adding an hour this year did not seem to bog down the program. Plus, regular behind-the-scenes adjustments and more of a social media presence only helped the show improve.

Best Studio Host: Chris Fowler 
He handles duties on "GameDay" and tennis coverage for ESPN, and does both well. He's intelligent, entertaining and sincere. He makes sure colleagues get a chance to share their insights and makes sure fans get the information they want. His contract with ESPN comes up soon, though, and he wants to get more play-by-play assignments. From a selfish standpoint, here's hoping ESPN somehow keeps him in house -- maybe by passing "GameDay" to clearly capable Rece Davis and giving Fowler some strong college football game assignments. He's young enough, and good enough, to merit a top play-by-play gig.

Best Play-by-Play Team: Mike Breen/Jeff Van Gundy/Doris Burke
They're an engaging and informative trio for ESPN on the NBA, and they make games worth watching. Breen and Van Gundy bring a nice mix of familiarity and fun to broadcasts, providing a "feel" that translates well for viewers. With Burke an ever-prepared reporting presence, broadcasts with the trio never want for anything. While mid-season NBA games might be so-so in terms of meaning, the broadcast team always delivers.

Best Play-by-Play Man: Mike Emrick
He's the voice and energy of the NHL. So much talent exits behind the mic across so many sports that it can be difficult to stand out from the crowd. The distinctive and well-prepared Emrick does that every time he goes to work.

Best Color Commentator: Jon Gruden
Sorry, I buy the schtick and silliness. He's fun to hear and watch on "Monday Night Football" and the other opportunities ESPN has provided for him, especially those film sessions leading up to the NFL Draft. There's no doubt he's well prepared. Sure, he's a personality, maybe the Dick Vitale of the NFL in the eyes of some critics who want someone a little less animated are cartoonish, but he connects with viewers and knows his stuff. That's what matters most.

Best Sideline Reporter: Michelle Tafoya
Less BS or better reporting helped the many professionals in this line of work -- and they have the toughest job in TV sports -- rise above the typically inane, two- or three-questions walkoff interview that typically defines the role. Tafoya had big news moments on "Sunday Night Football" this year, with a big-tme weather delay in Denver and the health of Texans coach Gary Kubiak in Houston, and she consistently did her job well. No surprise there, and those things were enough to put her slightly head of several others in the group.

Best Insider/Expert: Jay Bilas
Not. Even. Close. Not because Bilas consistently broke news or shared strong opinions (he did more of the latter than the former), but because he made a difference. He shared an opinion. He took a stand. And he was right every time he pointed out the NCAA's failings. As well as the failings of NCAA president Mark Emmert. Notably, Bilas, working for ESPN but making guest appearances on other outlets and harnessing the power of social media with his Twitter account, pointed out the hypocrisy of the NCAA selling student-athlete goods on its website. Appropriately, the NCAA pulled those online sales options. Best of all, though, Bilas was correct with his criticisms and the rabbit-eared NCAA president eventually made the criticisms personal. To his credit, Bilas did not get pulled into that and was left looking better as a result. (Of course, he looked better from the start.)

Newcomer of the Year: "College GameDay" offered a look -- and standing segment -- for a longtime off-camera talent, Chris Fallica, and those segments with "The Bear" were a hit. Including him helped make the show more personal and connect with viewers. He's been with "GameDay" for 17 years as a senior researcher, so he always came armed with information. It's something that should, and will, continue because it works. As a caution to competitors, though, it's not something easily repeatable because of the man himself. Just as all officiating experts are poor copies of Fox Sports' Mike Pereira, there's only one behind-the-scenes bear.

TV Feature of the Year: "Carry On"
Again, a return story. ESPN revisited a feature it had initially aired in 2009, expanded on the story and produced a compelling, emotional and informative piece that made an impact in so many ways. When it first aired late this past summer, it was the longest feature segment ever on "SportsCenter." It's simply a great piece.

TV Moment of the Year: Alabama-Auburn
CBS Sports delivered on TV with appropriate pictures while play-by-play man Verne Lundquist complemented those shots with his work as a failed Alabama field goal became the decisive Auburn touchdown. It was TV at its best during the most important college football game of the season until that point.

TV Story of the Year NFL: Another power play, along the lines of the work one by Bilas. Television continually exposed poor NFL officiating. From the Week 1 to Week 17, whether it was a game between contenders or just teams going through the motions, officiating was inconsistent and sometimes incomprehensible. Those mistakes were always visible on TV, though. And it would be great if someone the problems that were exposed to could lead to changes ... just as the work of Bilas' prompted changes, too.

Penn State plays public card, and poorly, with O'Brien

Alumni, fans and media members alike have had only rumors and social media to follow the possible fate of Penn State football coach Bill O'Brien in the past week or so as he again ponders a jump to the NFL.

It's often a second- and third-hand process that leads to frustration and silliness. And, whether it's a Penn State or someplace else, the process remains generally the same every time it repeats itself.

Agents work to enhance their client's value and, at the same time, manipulate the media to get some attention for said client. (Making him seem more employable for the next place.) 

Coaches supposedly strive to stay quite, while hopefully having their name among the candidates for jobs and searches that invariably become pretty public. (Again, all in an effort to seem more valuable, but at the same time focused on their current job.) 

Team officials also need things done with some discretion, but are not worried about accompanying attention. (They want a coach that is perceived as a difference maker and a good hire.)

Meanwhile fans and media members react to anything and everything, with patience and perspective lost in the mix. For media members, every tiny bit of information becomes breaking news and the latest update. Those same folks also play the what-if game and seemingly forget about sourcing or a responsible approach to their stories.

All those groups also reliably repeat their roles, no matter the year and no matter the specific job-search situation. 

With Penn State, though, unnamed athletic department officials chimed in a bit earlier than expected and disrupted the typical story arc.

Maybe it's because it's the second year in a row for O'Brien to garner deserved and expected NFL attention. Or maybe it's because leadership remains a problem. Either way, silence would've been the better route for Penn State officials in this instance.

When reports surface that the university is preparing to move ahead if O'Brien leaves, it makes the athletic department look petty and small. Yes, the school must have a plan, but helping things play out in the media and fueling what looks at least a little bit like an internal power-play feud is not the way for it to happen.

Some critics might complain about O'Brien, citing his contract, loyalty and any number of other factors, but an eventual move to the NFL by him would not be a surprise. He has publicly admitted that he would like to test his skills at the highest level of coaching competition. That's the NFL in his mind, and his career goals are not a surprise.

Sure, a little more time at Penn State might lessen the blow when he does depart, but good NFL jobs open only so often. So, he's probably at least listening to any interest. As he should. And, make no mistake, he will not leave what he considers a super college job for a so-so NFL job. If he does, it would speak more about any disfunction he perceives at Penn State than an overwhelming desire to get to the NFL.

The interest in him for the second year in a row comes with good reason, and it represents a welcome-to-the-world change for Penn State alumni and fans.

Eleven months ago, Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner misplayed things in his reaction to O'Brien staying, saying he did not have a list or Plan B had O'Brien decided to leave. Joyner said that he never expected the coach to leave. That approach was borderline incompetent.

This year, though, offering a before-the-coach-leaves declaration that you have a replacement in mind, seems to be jumping the gun a bit. 

There would be nothing wrong -- and, in fact, it would be a preferable approach -- for Penn State officials to consistently tell the media that they have a coach under contract, would be prepared to move forward if necessary, but hope that's not the case. 

Again, anything less is irresponsible. But, anything more seems more petty than prepared.

Monday, December 23, 2013

NFL's TV power not a problem ... for now

Despite the fact that pro football games look less and less like they did just five seasons ago, and despite the fact that generally strong coverage from network partners consistently reveals problems with officiating, the NFL sits on solid ground.

It remains (frustratingly so at times) the be all and end all for TV sports. And, with the final week of the regular season and playoffs ahead, more strong ratings and viewership trends -- especially for the Feb. 2 Super Bowl at Met Life Stadium in New Jersey -- seem likely.

Despite protest from media members. Despite a limit on tailgating for fans. Despite potential (seemingly likely) weather-related storylines. The Super Bowl will perform strongly, probably at record levels.

It seems like the NFL can do no wrong, and that's pretty much the case.

Still, there are problems. And, ironically, as much as television money funds the sport TV coverage reveals the flaws. League officials have long known they are producing television shows moreso than sporting contests. During the regular season, that means 256 episodes of professional football, and league officials prefer that those games fit in three-hour broadcast windows.

That's why team timeouts  late in the first or second half of a game become "30 second timeouts" -- it's a nod to a team's right to stop play, and an even bigger nod to the fact that all commercials for the respective half have been played so game action will not be stopped for a regular-leength timeout.

Plays along the sideline, when officials decide to stop the game clock or not, provide an regular example of efforts to make games into TV shows. In those instances officials are consistently inconsistent in how they enforce what's out of play and what's not -- especially in regard to which actions prompt the game clock to stop and which do not.

For the all-powerful NFL, though, these matters and others (inconsistent work with replay remains the biggest problem) have not hampered ratings or the sport's popularity. Sure, they're problematic and troublesome, but the frustration they prompt just seems to become part of the emotional investment fans make on gameday.

Worst of all, we're still a significant way away from the point where the league's changes, TV-motiveate moves and updates really hurt ratings and viewership. Football has not gotten so powerful that it hurts itself as a TV product. At least not yet.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Historic Iron Bowl Brings Out Best in Media, Too

From the moment it happened and through the hours (and hours) afterward, broadcast media on all sides of the historic Iron Bowl that reshaped this year's national championship and provided cultural fodder in the South for years to come did a generally good job.

When Auburn beat Alabama with a 109-yard field goal return for a touchdown as time expired -- capping a game that included the longest play in Alabama history as well as abundant drama and memorable moments -- CBS Sports had things covered from start to finish. Afterward, those in charge of the broadcast shared their reactions with Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated. It was the second part of his weekly Media Circus.

Kudos as well to the CBS on-air tandem of Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson, who mixed insight with an appropriate deference to the pictures and replays the production team provided. (There were nine replays of the play on the broadcast.) Still, Danielson correctly made a point about Alabama's inability to defend on the final play because "There are no athletes on the field for Alabama. They got all fat guys."

The network TV's as-it-happened excellence was matched by radio broadcasters from Alabama and Auburn as well. The link at the top features the call from the Tigers' team of Rod Bramblett and Stan White, and Eli Gold was just as strong -- albeit it much more reserved -- on Alabama's radio network.

While traveling home, satellite radio enabled me to listen to both as the play happened and afterward and they certainly encapsulated the moment for their respective fan bases.

Immediately after the game, ESPN's Tom Rinaldi had a straightforward, tight interview (conducted in tight quarters as well) with Auburn's Chris Davis, and that was good, expected work from Rinalidi.

Still, he was at his sheer, unrivaled best with a piece that got abundant airtime across numerous ESPN outlets Monday. The essay included the final play, key moments of the game, perspectives and, mostly, Rinaldi at his best telling a story about the difference one second can make. Of course, Alabama's failed  57-yard field goal that allowed the game-ending return to happen started with just one second on the game clock.

From start to finish, the memorable game was marked by standout coverage. Not surprisingly, only disconnected talking heads whiffed (and even then it was just occasionally).

Those that made that category, though, were ESPN's Tim Hasselbeck, who sounded silly on on "Mike and Mike in the Morning." Even in the face of great statistics from ESPN researchers -- who armed their on-air folks with information that 25% of long field goals in such situations typically work, compared to just 2% of Hail Mary passes -- Hasselbeck blasted Alabama's late-game approach. He just sounded tone deaf to what was happening around him, though.

Likewise, media critics who took shots at the work of the Auburn radio crew for talking too much during the deciding play and aftermath were guilty of over-thinking the process. It's radio. Those guys have to talk. And, yes, it's their job to be homers because they're listeners are all Auburn fans.