Monday, February 10, 2014

Olympics: Win-lose deal for athletes (mostly), NBC

For the U.S. athletes as well as the U.S. broadcast partner, the Olympic Games present pretty much the same opportunity every few years -- and it's not exactly a win-win proposition. It's often a win-lose thing.

For the athletes, that means a small group does well and gets praise and the accompanying set-for-life recognition and sponsorships, or they try hard, lose and get a nice parting gift in the form of good-try kudos and kind words. At least they got some attention for a sport many mainstream fans and viewers pay attention to only occasionally, at best.

For NBC -- which has established itself as the Olympics network in the United States and, as a result, a major financier of the Olympics (including $775 billion for these Winter Games) -- the win-lose situation means hypersensitivity and reaction to each and every action and on-screen moment.

It's a slightly unfair process and standard for the athletes, but not so much for the broadcaster.

That's because NBC has time on its side. And because, for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the network has a nine-hour time difference to use to its benefit. Also any criticism becomes a lot easier to slough off when the network draws its typically huge ratings.

The time difference means almost everything NBC shows in prime time is old news, but it also means its approach and stories should be sharp and solid (so far, they have been) and that when the network misses on something it's worth noting.

Take the Opening Ceremony, for example, preserving the live feel is important for such an event but parade-of-nations coverage lacked consistency and perspective that NBC had the time to improve upon. The network correctly showed what little news there was -- that one of five Olympic rings failed to light properly. Again, it's not huge, but it's at least honest, as opposed to the rehearsal footage that Russian TV used to mask the mistake.

At the same time, NBC missed on things viewers saw -- especially the multi-covered fingers on the gloves of Greek athletes. Curious viewers had to think it was a human-rights protest statement, but the fingers were actually the color of the Olympic rings. So its was an Olympics statement from the country were the movement got its start. Good information either way, and information that was not shared either way. Just silence.

Conversely, host Matt Lauer took time to point out that the multicolored attire for athletes from Germany was not a human-rights statement. Both the colored fingers on the gloves and the bright coats and red pants were obvious to viewers. They should have been obvious to someone from NBC at some point before the broadcast aired all those hours later, too.

Still, that's nitpicking, fair nitpicking but about as high as the criticism of NBC should get during the Olympic Games. The network is there to tell a story and viewers do not care (though some media critics might) that they limited the length of the speech by the International Olympic Committee president.

NBC knows how to approach the event to draw ratings, and at the end of the day that's what most viewers expect -- a snow-covered TV show with some competition and a red-white-and-blue underlying theme to get them through the next couple of weeks of prime-time viewing. It's a delicate balance for NBC as 1) a paid supporter of the Games, 2) an entity there for journalistic purposes and 3) a group of people with tight ties to the IOC and USOC who just want to cover a sporting event.

However, unless there's a catastrophic injury to a U.S. athlete or some terrorist action that shapes the Games in general, NBC's approach should work well. With online results and streaming video, as well as NBC Sports Network, CNBC, MSNBC and USA Network as options, NBC provides live coverage of almost everything. It then reshapes and shares the bet stories in primetime -- and 31.7 million people watched the Opening Ceremony, with 25.1 million tuning in Saturday night.

Advertisers are happy, broadcasters are happy and viewers are happy. Beyond that, specifics matter only slightly.

That said, figure skating analysts Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir have been entertaining and solid on NBC Sports Network. Kudos to Terry Gannon for giving them room and reeling them in at times, too. they sound fresh, honest and unrehearsed. Maybe a little gushy at times, but good. And, hopefully, veteran reporter Andrea Joyce, who handles figure skating interviews, will stop asking skaters during one-on-one interviews to share their feelings "in their own words." Who else could talk for them in such situations?

Monday, February 3, 2014

For Fox Sports a just-steady (and record) Super Bowl

While Peyton Manning might not have cared for the way the post-game question was asked, there's little doubt the Denver Broncos produced an embarrassing performance Sunday in the Super Bowl against the dominant Seattle Seahawks.

From the first play, Denver looked out of sorts while Seattle simply did all sorts of thing well.

In between were the folks from Fox Sports, who produced an above-average broadcast of the most-watched sporting event in the United States without setting some unheard of standard of excellence or really reaching an undisputed champion level themselves. They did a strong job, just not quite super.

The game itself was part of the problem, with the unexpected blowout making the game somewhat less interesting -- even though final viewership reached 111.5 million, making it the most-watched program in U.S. history.

Fox Sports deserves credit for not trotting out silly technology it did not need, specifically infrared looks at body heat from players. With the weather as a non-story, they appropriately treated it as such. Likewise, they did not overdue the non-story of Manning's verbal choices at the line of scrimmage.

Of course, had Denver been able to even gain a first down in any sort of timely manner, that could've changed, and on-field audio was one area where the broadcast seemed inconsistent. Sounds form the field (an area TV broadcasts have been emphasizing more and more in recent seasons) seemed more limited in the first half than the second. (Maybe that had something to do with when Denver finally gained some offensive traction, but it was noticeable.)

Overall, Fox was fairly football focused. Not an overabundance of silliness (once the game began) and, best of all, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman were honest with viewers. When the game got out of hand, and that happened pretty early, viewers could tell. If they could not tell, Buck and Aikman were professional enough to let them know.

A few replays could have come sooner. More information about injuries a little more quickly. In that way, the game seemed like any other regular season game -- which is not a bad thing. But, with so much talent and technology at hand, the Super Bowl should produce those types of things a little more quickly than a regular season game. To me, that's the difference between standard and super.

Still, the game was without any glaring errors and the absence of Terry Bradshaw (who was in Louisiana for his father's funeral) was handled fairly well during the pre- and post-game shows, when he had the biggest workload. It's a shame emerging Randy Moss did not get more of an opportunity on the air as part of the reworked duties, but he'll eventually earn such a spot.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Weather or not, it's time for the Super Bowl

With weather as a primary concern for the first Super Bowl contested at a traditionally cold-weather site outdoors, percentages have been a big part of the pre-game discussion about the matchup between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks.
Specifically, the chance of bad weather has been addressed endlessly. For the record, the chance of precipitation this evening is less than 30 percent. And if it comes, it'll more likely be rain than snow.
Still, MetLife Stadium (shared by the New York Giants and New York Jets but located in New Jersey) seats fewer than 83,000 people. So only a relative handful of people will be directly impacted by the weather.
More than 130 million people could watch the game on TV. They should be aware of some other percentages. They include:
100 percent chance that Fox Sports at some point uses an infrared camera to show players' body heat during the game. Overall, the game's production team has access to more than 50 cameras (14 of them robotic, the most ever for a broadcast on the network) and they love to show off technology like that.
96 percent chance an ad with animals or humor resonates most with viewers. Watch for strong efforts from Budweiser/Bud Light, Doritos, M&Ms, several automakers and, of course, celebrity cameos. A few film trailers will debut as well. Thirty-seconds of ad time this year cost about $4 million. Count me as a sucker for anything emotional Budweiser trots out that features the Clydesdales.
93 percent chance someone on the lengthy pre-game show - probably former referee Mike Pereira - discusses the importance of officiating and uses a two-letter penalty abbreviation to discuss penalties, such as "PI" for pass interference. Game and league officials use those themselves and broadcasters across networks have been trying to take viewers behind the scenes by using that same jargon this year. It's jargon, though, and sometimes just confusing.
86 percent chance the broadcast tandem of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, working their fourth Super Bowl together as play-by-play man and color commentator, respectively, make reference to Denver QB Peyton Manning's use of "Omaha" as a play-change signal at the line of scrimmage.
56 percent chance Richard Sherman draws as much attention to himself in a post-game interview as he did following the NFC Championship Game. First, Seattle has to win the game for him to talk and, second, the crush of people around him will be even bigger, making it harder for him to rant exclusively. If he talks, though, sideline reporter Pam Oliver will have the interview. She's handling the Seahawks while Erin Andrews has the Broncos.
45 percent chance anything truly newsworthy comes out of the sit-down interview with Bill O'Reilly of Fox News and President Barack Obama. It's a mostly no-news ratings move providing a connection point with the Super Bowl for the chief executive, exposure for O'Reilly and a break from the all-football focus of the four-hour pregame show. It's scheduled to air at 4:30 p.m.
31 percent chance that any fan/reaction shot catches something similar to Alex Rodriguez getting fed popcorn by Cameron Diaz as happened when Fox Sports last had the big game. Producer Richie Zyontz, working his fourth Super Bowl, and director Rich Russo, a Penn State alumnus working his second, got that shot when the Packers played the Steelers in 2011. That game was indoors at Cowboys Stadium, though. Viewers can expect the usual fan/celebrity shots, but it'll be a little harder to tell who's who when people are bundled up or if they're comfortable in their stadium suites.
22 percent chance you've heard of national anthem singer Renee Fleming, an Indiana, Pa., native and soprano opera singer, before this moment. The over-under bet on how long it'll take her to sing the anthem is 2:25. That's one of nearly 500 such prop bets Las Vegas sports books offer around the Super Bowl.
3 percent chance the stadium experiences a power outage similar to what happened last year in New Orleans. Something else might happen, but not that because NFL officials have had a year to prevent it.
0 percent chance - as in nada, none - that the game broadcast will include aerial shots from a blimp. Even though MetLife has its own blimp, the cold weather and potential for rain (or sleet or snow) grounded all lighter-than-air options. Advertising and broadcast officials have known that would be the case since the time the NFL announced the outdoor Super Bowl a couple years ago, but it was not confirmed publicly until a few days ago. And airspace for a plane around the stadium would be limited because of security concerns.