Sunday, April 27, 2014

Studios shine during Sterling situation

Sometimes an immediate reaction misses the point, but that has not been the case for TV types with their response in regard to a recorded telephone call that allegedly features NBA owner Donald Sterling.

In the conversation, the man TMZ identifies as Sterling makes racist remarks to his girlfriend about minorities and her association with them. There's much more in the painfully inane and shallow conversation, but that's the racist gist.

Reaction from on-air studio teams was swift, strong and specific and strong Saturday. As usual, former player Charles Barkley delivered. A day later, Magic Johnson was similarly strong.

For the NBA to take action, it must prove that the voice on the tape is that of Sterling. And, as reports continue about the team owner, it seems like it might be only a matter of time before some sort of league action happens.

Often, situations like this produce better information and more nuanced reporting as a story progresses. We might get more information, but Barkley, Johnson & Co. have set a high standard for nuance and opinion already.

In fact, it's likely that what will happen instead are more shrill voices and more silly debate about the topic as the week begins. Instead of cumulative reporting, we'll probably get a piling on of useless information.

Clearly, the league has to take action if the tape proves credible, but the race might not become whether it does but instead who are the talking heads who want to rage enough to eventually take credit for making the action occur.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Teamcasts have promise, but network bias already exits

For a first effort the "teamcasts" during the NCAA Tournament national semifinals were good. They came with good production values, logical approaches (a reliance on social media) and proven storylines.

The broadcasts aired on TNT and truTV -- and apparently confused some viewers who did not know the broadcasts were supposed to be a bit biased. With the national broadcasts on TBS for the first time Saturday, it was all-cable, diversified coverage that confused some because of the significant change.

On the teamcasts it was all UConn, all Florida, all Wisconsin or all Kentucky -- pretty much all the time.

It's a model that should, and will, get repeated for big and not-so-big sporting events in the future. Some would argue it already exists with CNN and Fox News, so it's easy to argue in support of the potential business model.

Along with the expected quality, the teamcasts also revealed expected weakness in reporting. It was not about chasing news, but more a matter of an ability to do the job and seem comfortable on camera. In the early game, Swin Cash, who literally made a living on a basketball court, was out of her element just a few steps off the hardwood. But for a rare assignment, that was to be expected.

In the aftermath of the national semifinals, Richard Sandomir of The New York Times wrote that the concept was a success. He believes the approach can work really well if the on-air types go into full homer mode, giving a potentially biased audience more of what it wants.

Still, whatever level of cheerleading happens, viewers (and even those with a strong rooting interest) want information as well. They want access. They want to feel that they're part of a community.

A teamcast can do that, and it might do that with some bias or rooting, but it does not necessarily have to do that alone to be successful. Even fans who bleed whatever color want a bit of credibility. That's why the social media segments were a nice touch, and even why Rex Chapman was appropriate on the UK broadcast.

Still, credibility matters -- and that could be seen, or not, as ESPN covered the national semifinals of the NCAA Women's Tournament on Sunday.

In the second of those broadcasts there was a clear rooting interest in the matchup between UConn and Stanford. ESPN's on-air folks were rooting for a competitive game.

As UConn trailed with five minutes remaining in the first half, they discussed a "possible upset" and offered their most concerned tones. A off-balance, prayerful Stanford three-point shot that banked is as time expired on the shot clock was cited as an example as the "kind of shot that goes in" during an upset.

Meanwhile, viewers as home knew it was too early be talking upset because a media timeout remained before the half … and because it's UConn.

As a result, all the breathless hype sounded just like that, hype. Sure, the statistic that UConn had trailed longer in the first half than they had all season was a nice note. But it was just that, a note. What was missing was any kind of perspective that prevented the on-air types (or at least the director and producer  who had a route to their earpieces) from getting caught up in silliness.

In the end, ESPN also has a rooting interest in hyping undefeated Notre Dame vs. undefeated UConn in the national championship game Tuesday night. As a result, the second women's national semifinal was more a teamcast than any of the four men's broadcasts the night before.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

National semifinals guarantee ratings, change

After setting cable records for ratings and viewership last weekend during the regional finals of the NCAA Tournament, TBS televises the national semifinals tonight with more ratings records guaranteed.

It's the first time both games have been on a cable outlet.

In addition to the cable change, TNT and truTV provide team-specific broadcasts as part of the overall package -- and that change comes with its own challenges and opportunities.

Game coverage on TBS begins at 6 p.m. with Connecticut-Florida, followed by Kentucky-Wisconsin. CBS Sports play-by-play man Jim Nantz leads the on-air team that includes analysts Greg Anthony and Steve Kerr and reporter Tracy Wolfson.

So far, Nantz/Anthony have proven capable if unspectacular during the tournament. Both Anthony and Kerr (who is not joining the top team until this weekend, as he has in previous years) have had their moments of general informativeness without anything especially insightful or timely. They also both struggled at key moments in the regional round. Starting tonight, they can only be better.

Still, hype for tonight's games has been lees about the primary broadcast than two others that will originate from the Final Four at the same time.

After months of hype, these games provide the debut of team-specific broadcasts on TBS and truTV. It's another way for broadcasters to leverage the power of the NCAA Tournament and provide something they think will be well received by viewers.

So, TNT will offer the "teamcasts" for Florida and Kentucky while truTV provides home-grown announcers to call the games for Connecticut and Wisconsin. It'll be interesting to hear and watch what happens.

Some hard-core fans might appreciate being able to turn away from Nantz & Co., and network officials have encouraged the team-specific broadcasters to be highly supportive and team specific. It's an interesting concept. And it would be even better if it were not strongly contrived in this instance … because many of those doing the games are not the team's regular broadcasters.

The on-air pros who would know the teams best, the team's radio broadcasters, were prohibited from participating by their respective rights holders. Still, the personnel working the games does have ties to the programs. At the same time, they should be careful with how much they go into cheerleader mode, or even if they do.

Here's the team-by-team talent:

  • Florida: David Steele, voice of the Orlando Magic who has experience on Florida basketball and football; analyst Mark Wise, who has worked Gators games for 14 years; and reporter James Bates, a former Florida football player.
  • UConn: Erice Frede, a studio host for UConn games on CSN New England; analyst Donny Marshall, a former UConn standout and YES Network NBA analyst; and reporter Swin Cash, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and two-time NCAA women's champ at UConn.
  • Kentucky: Rob Bromley, who has worked for UKTV for more than 30 years; analyst Rex Chapman, a 12-year NBA veteran and all-SEC player at UK; and reporter Dave Baker, who does TV play-by-play for UK.
  • Wisconsin: Wayne Larrivee of the Big Ten Network, who is also the radio voice of the Green Bay Packers; and analyst Mike Kelley, a member of Wisconsin's 2000 team that reached the Final Four.

Here's why they should be careful about what they do:

Fans know and trust these folks (maybe the former athletes, Marshall, Cash and Chapman, even more than the broadcasters) but those same fans want good broadcasts more than some "homers" thrown out there on a national cable outlet. For UK, Bromley and Baker bring years of expertise and familiarity to the job, but there has to be a balance so they do not become caricatures.

Fans and viewers appreciate access, information and insight more than rah-rah silliness, so how that gets balanced in these broadcasts will be interesting to watch.

Individually, Larrivee might be in the most challenging position. Most times when he draws a Wisconsin assignment, he's working a game in which he must not be biased. Tonight, though, he's supposedly being encouraged to do so. He's' really good at what he does. Hopefully that will not change tonight.

No matter who's working, expect the games to be a ratings success. First, they'll be a first-of-their kind approach, so they'll provide a baseline and a way to measure such broadcasts moving forward. Second, they'll probably out-draw whatever TBS or truTV could've done to counter program the tournament.

Still, it seems like an even less expensive and more fan-friendly approach to multiple-outlet broadcasts would be the approach ESPN used for the national championship game in football.

Some real-time analysis, with coaches or their cadre of college basketball analysts CBS/TNT already employs would seem to be just as watchable, and by just as many fans. Unlike football, though, basketball's faster pace might not provide as much time for such analysis. Still, that's exactly how viewers consume games -- often talking together while the action happens -- so a second-guessing-while-it-happens approach might be better, and should be considered in the future.