Monday, February 20, 2017

A morning without "Mike & Mike" provides a preview of what's to come for ESPN Radio ... and that's not good

With the Presidents Day holiday, ESPN Radio listeners got a preview, of sorts, of what lies ahead for them in terms of morning drive sports talk. Specifically that's no "Mike & Mike" -- as both had the day off this morning. 

Overall, news (and even new rumors) out of ESPN has been almost nonexistent as the supposed breakup of “Mike & Mike” nears.

Sports Illustrated first reported the program might end, but no timetable has been specified since that initial report weeks ago. Still, the report seems logical and it’s probably just a matter of the all-sports network finding the right timing.

Maybe it’ll happen around the Final Four, or maybe it’ll be in the somewhat slower summer months when a replacement program makes its debut.

Whenever it happens, what’s next for Mike Greenberg might be a New York City-based morning program that airs in ESPN, perhaps a rebranded “SportsCenter” in the way the network turned its late-night show into a vehicle for Scott Van Pelt and, more recently, its approach to the 6 p.m. “SportsCenter” featuring Jemele Hill and Michael Smith.

What’s next for Mike Golic might be another morning partner on radio or some combination of partners.

Greenberg, who recently earned a big contract from ESPN, has seemingly sparked any potential changes to the show. The most recent was an ill-fated move to the Big Apple a couple of years ago. That was to include an additional host, with the show possibly emanating from Times Square. It never happened.

For more than a decade and half, “Mike and Mike” has been the flag bearer for ESPN. The odd couple chemistry of the two hosts might be a bit contrived at times, but it works. Still, with demographics changing, ESPN has been trying to find ways to broaden the show’s audience even while the hosts age a bit.

The show is rarely intentionally controversial and never mean spirited. For the most part, it’s good talk radio.

ESPN often uses “Mike and Mike” to test out talent, too. A good performance by guests in that safe environment can often lead to bigger opportunities.

Here’s the thing, though: “Mike and Mike” might be better as a sum than in individual pieces. Greenberg’s anti-germ sensibilities and lack of athletic experience, despite his journalism chops, still need a personality to play against. He has that in spades with self-deprecating Golic, the former NFL veteran who invariably puts his college career at Notre Dame front and center as well.

Together, they’re fun and informative. Separately, they might be nearly as good.
No matter what happens, they will be missed if the breakup occurs. From a program some thought might not last more than a few months, “Mike and Mike” has grown and earned a spot in the sports media landscape. The hosts and the show have earned respect throughout the industry.

For example, when Rich Russo, the Penn State alum who directed the Super Bowl for Fox Sports (so that’s a pretty heady job), was told his name was mentioned on “Mike and Mike” before the big game he sounded genuinely thrilled.

“Mike and Mike” is not take-a-side talk just for kicks. It’s not a schtick, and that might be the biggest reason it’ll be a loss if the show ends. Its heart is in the fact that it’s genuine -- a rare find in sports-talk related programming anymore.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Fox's final Super Bowl prep includes high school teams

A practice run with a pair of high school teams Thursday will determine, in part, how Super Bowl LI looks Sunday on TV.

Three days before kickoff Fox plans to conduct the annual network run-through for the big game using two Houston area high school teams as stand-ins for the Falcons and Patriots. With players practicing pregame introductions, entering the stadium and some other situations, the network gets a sense of what certain camera angles will look like for viewers.

Think of it as "blocking" for any staged production. While game action is not staged, preparation for what could happen can only lead to a better production.

For the Fox team -- which might the best of any covering the NFL -- a little more preparation can only enhance a season's worth of work.

Every part of the Fox team contributes to its success. From the producer-director combination of Richie Zyontz and Rich Russo to the core on-air duo (Joe Buck, Troy Aikman), a strong supporting cast (rules analyst Mike Pereira is unrivaled in his role) and dozens of camera operators and production personnel, the network has a good plan for how it wants to approach its NFL coverage.

"We focus on visual storytelling, and we've worked together so long that we have a good sense of each other. Sometimes the guys in the booth might start with a story and we follow their lead. Sometimes it's the other way," said Russo, who will be directing his third Super Bowl. He's worked 14 games since making his debut as a broadcast associate with CBS in 1986. He's directed the international broadcast of the Super Bowl six times.

For a normal NFL game Fox uses about a dozen cameras. On Sunday, there will be more than four times that number. Counting small cameras focused on the game clock and embedded in end zone pylons, Fox will have more than 90 cameras in the stadium.

Russo likes close-up reaction shots, often in slow motion if it’s a player who made a mistake, to help tell stories for viewers. He also likes traditional angles for game action. So, high-sideline shots making viewers feel like they have the best seat in the house will be appropriately common.

"You want to give the viewer the best seat in the house," said Russo, who has earned 10 Emmy Awards for his work. Each week before a game he crafts a detailed camera plan that he shares with camera operators. It outlines which cameras focus on which players in specific down-and-distance situations. It also offers numerous if-then options based on game situation -- meaning the TV team enters the game with a storytelling approach specific to the teams involved and players on the field.

While video games have influenced how football games look on TV, especially with camera angles, Russo said the Super Bowl broadcast will use Skycam shots live on some kickoffs and for replays. “We’ve talked about that a lot,” Russo said. “Those shots can be interesting but for game action people expect the sideline shots.”

Russo knows the biggest expectation some viewers bring to this year's game, too. As a result, he promises not to miss it -- if it happens. If the Patriots win, he'll make sure viewers see all of the Lombardi Trophy presentation. The tension between NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the Patriots organization in the wake of the “deflategate” controversy means it could produce compelling interaction.

“I promise I will stay on them and won’t go anywhere else. I know that's a moment people are curious about if New England wins,” Russo said.