Thursday, October 2, 2014

Irony, stereotypes hamper initial 'We Need to Talk'

With a starting lineup big enough for a football team (there were 11 women on the set), "We Need to Talk," had a lot going for it.

Unfortunately, it was a little much. 

The hourlong show that made its debut Tuesday had too many voices, which meant not enough time to develop some topics and precious little time to follow up on the compelling information that was shared.

At the same time, even with all those personalities, it was missing something -- most notably some honesty and gravitas. 

Plus, the show was heavy on unintentional irony. (Or, it was a sad commentary on how we treat women in sports broadcasting.)

It's great that CBS Sports Network has launched the show and seems willing to make a commitment to it. It's also great that enough talent exists (notably Dana Jacobson, Andrea Kremer and Amy Trask) to drive the program.

Still, the women were only partially put in a position to succeed during the crowded debut.

It started at the start, when the first face viewers saw was that of Lesley Visser, the deservedly Hall of Fame-caliber reporter and women's broadcasting pioneer. Unfortunately, she no longer looks like the Lesley Visser many viewers know, thanks to an obvious facelift. 

There's nothing wrong with that (just ask Cowboys owner Jerry Jones or any number of women in broadcasting, movies and television). It's ironic, though, that on a show meant to give women a better, deserved platform to discuss topics that the first person viewers really heard from was someone who had shown the work (literally) of trying to look younger to keep her spot on TV.

In terms of content and form, the show will hopefully find a rhythm with fewer participants each week. Along with that should come standing segments and a sense of how it wants to develop.

Among the other initial opening-week ironies was the studio setup itself.

In the first block, all of the women were in their spots at three subsets (table, couch, high-top table), with only one group at work at a time. So, a show designed in part to get women out of the background consistently had women in the background for the first quarter of the broadcast. It just seemed silly.

There was compelling content -- including Lisa Leslie talking about being a victim of domestic abuse and Swin Cash sharing her own story but disagreeing how publicly victims should share their stories. That was probably one of the highlights. It felt honest and unscripted.

Such interaction might be more consistent once the show develops standing segments and, more importantly, finds a host.

All 11 women will not participate from week to week (a good thing) but the show needs someone to direct traffic and keep things moving. That should be a different someone from whomever gets the position as the show-ending commentator or essayist. 

Simply put, the product will get better once the 11 participants find their roles. After all, no football team has 11 quarterbacks, 11 left tackles or 11 tight ends. An ever-changing, free-form approach will not work. Nor will it be good TV.

Finally, the show ended with the biggest piece of silliness that some member of the proven, professional and smart team on-air participants should've known to nix. 

After an OK and timely discussion about the NFL and its annual cancer awareness efforts with players and stadiums adorned with all kinds of pink items to show support, Kremer pointed out that October is also domestic violence awareness month, a cause that uses purple instead of pink ribbons. Maybe, she suggested, the NFL should allow players to wear purple this month, if they want, in order to bring additional attention to the matter.

It was not the most hard-hitting topic, but it did not need to be. Especially for a league so concerned with player appearance and the look of the on-field product, it was at least thought provoking.

Unfortunately, as the show went off the air, all 11 women were back, each with a ribbon in hand and they stood there, side by side, pinning the ribbons on each other. That was pure silliness -- which felt like teenagers getting ready for the high school prom, or sorority members completing a membership rite. 

It just looked juvenile, and the women who earned their spots on the show and have proven themselves during their careers deserved better. 

The shame is at least one of them (several with years of TV experience) should've had a sense of what it would look like. Maybe they did not, which is not a good thing after all those years of work. Or, even worse, maybe they did know and were not able to overrule the director and producer who wanted that specific shot. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Jackson's persistence leads to BTN opportunity

If his broadcasting career continues to mirror that of his playing career, former Penn State defensive lineman Tyoka Jackson might have a long tenure with the Big Ten Network and other outlets.

Jackson, an All-Big Ten selection as a senior for the Nittany Lions, arrived in the NFL undrafted and was cut -- twice -- before landing a job.

He played one year for the Miami Dolphins and then five years each with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and St. Louis Rams before one final season with the Detroit Lions.

He was determined, took every possible lesson from mentors and put together a respectable career.

He also built success off the field, starting his own investment company, which specializes in residential urban redevelopment, and bringing the first and only IHOP franchise to Washington, D.C.

He was happy, but still had a dream. “I always had a fascination with sports broadcasting, even when I was a little kid,” Jackson said. “In the back of my mind, I always wanted to try that one day.”

Jackson applied for the NFL Broadcasting Boot Camp, an annual session to help former players get into the business, and was rejected. Twice.

He persisted, though, and completed the intense camp at NFL Films in Mt. Laurel, N.J., this past year. After working with proven on-air talents like James Brown, Curt Menifee and Ron Jaworski (and with directors and producers from numerous networks in attendance), Jackson eventually earned an opportunity at BTN.

He knows broadcasting can be a fickle industry, but Jackson believes the football lessons that helped him succeed in business can help him in broadcasting as well. He credits his coaches -- especially Joe Paterno, Don Shula and Tony Dungy -- for conveying the importance of details, hard work and leadership.

Additionally, Jackson cites Dick Vitale, Billy Packer, fellow Penn Stater Matt Millen and John Madden as broadcasters who set a high standard with an entertaining approach he hopes to emulate … in some ways.

“I have information to share, and I work every day to be prepared,” Jackson said. “I think I’m pretty good at conveying information in a concise manner. What I need to work on is just getting comfortable with camera shots and being myself.

“Plus, it’s a matter of being authentic. People can see right through you if you’re not being yourself. If you do your homework, know the subject matter and share it in a way that resonates with people you’ll be fine.”

That’s Jackson’s game plan, and its pretty similar to what he’s done as a player and businessman. So, he could be set for similar long-term success -- just on a slightly different stage.

‘Maps’ moments
My viewing habits do not include “Game of Thrones,” so the slight similarities between that show’s opening credits and a Big Ten Conference football/public service commercial airing this season were lost on me.

Still, the cartoon-ish conference commercial, an aerial view across the conference with school landmarks popping into place, resonated for a football reason.

Just five of the 14 Big Ten schools have their stadium shown on the screen. Alphabetically, that’s Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin. It’s easy to argue those are the conference’s clear, or expected, football powers.

Along with Beaver Stadium, Penn State’s identifying facilities are Old Main and the Nittany Lion shrine.

There are two other stadiums shown: the Rose Bowl to start the commercial, as the ultimate goal for conference teams, and Yankee Stadium, as the Big Ten tries to parlay Rutgers into some sort of New York City connection.

Yes, Yankee Stadium hosts the New Era Pinstripe Bowl as well, and a conference team is slated to play there Dec. 27. Still, it’s a reach.

Monday, August 25, 2014

ESPN personnel dominate TV playoff field

Forget speculation about two teams from the SEC qualifying for the inaugural College Football Playoff.

That's an on-field matter -- deserved, likely, or not.

Off the field, and on the television screen where college football really matters, the dominance of the SEC pales in comparison to that of the all-sports, four-letter juggernaut some fans and viewers love to hate and others love to love.

In this, the debut season for the College Football Playoff, all the on-screen players that really matter call ESPN home. With the season set to begin Thursday, here are those top four -- the best at what they do and those truly worth watching -- as well as a few more just outside the championship bracket.

1. Chris Fowler: He's the undisputed champ, having honed his presence as host of the best studio show in sports ("College GameDay"), even though that program never originates from a normal studio. His preparation and presence make him a voice of the game, even though he's never been a regular play-by-play voice. That changes the season, when he takes over Saturday night play-by-play duties for games on ABC. That allows him to start and end the day with college football fans. Expect him to be steady and well prepared. It's a lot of work, but he'll be ready.

2. Kirk Herbstreit: He's handled the double duty Fowler picks up this season for the past several seasons, working as an analyst on "GameDay" and then flying to different sites when necessary to work as a game analyst with Musburger. Herbstreit comes prepared and he's steady. He works hard, has weathered criticism at times through the years and has consistently put himself in position as a multi-talented standout in the sport.

3. Joe Tessitore: He handles the same double-duty as Fowler and Herstreit. Long a respected play-by-play man and a solid storyteller with strong contacts across the sport, Tessitore becomes host of "SEC Nation" on the SEC Network this season. It's the same long day as Fowler and Herbstreit and he brings the same dedication, preparation and talent. There's really not much room between No. 1 and No. 3 on this list.

4. Tim Tebow: OK, it might be early for this comparative upstart to get this spot, but he made an impressive mark during the final Bowl Championship Series last season. He was spot-on with some predictions and clearly comfortable on TV. Thankfully, it seems the silliness of his potential return to the field as a pro quarterback has been forgotten. All viewers might bring opinion of Tebow to Saturdays (and other times they watch) but coaches and players respect his accomplishments and know him as genuine, and as prepared in his current position with the SEC Network. Consider him the solid team the finds a way into the playoff field.

Now, if they expanded the field, which college football itself will do sooner rather than later, here are some other likely TV playoff contenders. They're in alphabetical order, and there's still a hefty ESPN feel. Of course, that pretty much seems obvious when your network carries 450 games with teams from all 10 major conference during the season.

Rece Davis: See Fowler and Tessitore, and see another man similarly busy and talented. Davis bring the same skill set to his work as a play-by-play man and studio host. And, he might do it a little more regularly with daily studio duties. He's good, and depending on how long Fowler wants to shoulder the studio and play-by-play duties could be eventually end up on "GameDay" himself.

Bruce Feldman: Fox Sports has gone to real reporters to bring information to its college football shows, and Feldman gives them a proven pro in that spot. He's respected and well connected. Although he will not be seen by as many people as watch his ESPN counterparts, if Feldman's on TV he's worth watching.

Stewart Mandel: He moved from Sports Ilustrated to Fox Sports, giving the network (along with Feldman) a much stronger presence on college football than it had just six months ago. Another connected, solid pro. A print-to-TV transition invariably takes some time, but it could be relatively quick in this case and what viewers Fox Sports gets for studio programming should benefit as a result.

Brent Musburger: Bounced to the SEC Network, he immediately gives the outlet gravitas as play-by-play man on the biggest games of the week. Viewers know his voice, and he knows the game. Still, it was time for the move:

Gus Johnson: Other critics do not clamor for him on football as they do on basketball, and he's been spending a fair amount of time trying to enhance is soccer chops and cred, but he's solid on college football -- and a little big of energy never hurt.

Tom Rinaldi: He'll make you cry. He'll whisper his questions. And he'll write the heck out of his broadcast pieces. A solid, super TV reporter. When teases for his pieces air, it's my job to get whatever distractions could occur out of the way and get ready to watch.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Analyst Spears takes inDirec route to SEC Network

Marcus Spears
With all the attention on his partners as the SEC Network readies for its debut Thursday, analyst Marcus Spears could get lost in the mix -- which would be a first for the 6-foot-4, 315-pound defensive tackle who played eight-plus seasons in the NFL and earned a national championship at LSU.

He's really not worried about being seen, though. He's focused on doing his job, and if he does it well he knows things will be fine -- even if his path to the job was somewhat unusual.

At this time last year, Spears was preparing for his first season with the Baltimore Ravens. He had spent the previous eight seasons with the Dallas Cowboys after being selected in the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft and the Ravens offered an opportunity to extend his playing career.

Unfortunately for him, that opportunity lasted only into the seventh week of the season before he was cut and returned to his home in Dallas.

Then, for the next chapter of his life, he was initially more worried about what to watch on TV than finding a job on TV.

"When I first heard about the SEC Network, I was just trying to find out if DirecTV would pick it," Spears said. "I called them to find out, but nothing was set at that point." Not long after that, his perspective about the network changed. Instead of just trying to find the channel, he wanted to find out about an on-air job.

Spears reached out to Stephanie Druly on Twitter and the SEC Network vice president responded. He knew the approach was unconventional,  even "a shot in the dark," but he pitched himself for a job and asked for an interview.

The network requested samples of Spears's work (he had done local shows in Dallas during his playing career) and he received a phone call two weeks after that. Then there was a trip to Bristol, Conn., another three-week wait and a trip to Austin, Texas, for more interviews and auditions at the studios of the Longhorn Network, also owned by ESPN.

Spears was pleased with the Bristol audition, conducted with Brock Huard ("A great guy, he made everything comfortable," Spears said.) and he was even more upbeat after the second audition. Spears said the consistent, intense media attention the Cowboys received during his playing career enabled him to regularly hone his on-air skills and gave him an advantage as he worked to make the transition from a playing career to a broadcasting career.

His move to the SEC Network, as a member of "SEC Nation" on Saturday mornings and with regular studio duties, became official in early April. Among a quartet that includes Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and SEC firebrand Paul Finebaum, Spears could easily be overlooked. Host Joe Tessitore has earned the respect of college football fans with his work through the years, too.

Still, Spears brings the same team-first approach to the SEC Network that he did as a member of the Cowboys and Ravens.

"The most challenging thing is the amount of information you have, and how well you have to be prepared," Spears said. "The information it takes to be successful from an analyst's standpoint is totally different. It's not just one team you're playing against that you study, it's every team in the conference. That's OK, though. I want to be prepared. I want people to know I know the game and respect my work."

Along with his experience in the conference and week-to-week preparation, Spears plans to bring something more -- some fun. He appreciates Tebow as a "rock star" and Finebaum for his deserved and practiced skills to create discussion and reaction. Together with Tessitore, Spears think the quartet can engage and entertain SEC Network viewers.

They started building their chemistry during a three-hour dinner at a Bristol restaurant after a promotional photo shoot. Since then, there have been almost daily conversations among the starting lineup for the SEC Network's flagship show.

As a result, Spears believes the network and show are well positioned to do their jobs. "We can be a fixture in this conference and college football," he said.

And that's something that would certainly be hard to miss.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

No guarantee of score on Penn State scoreboards

Some die-hard Penn State fans probably anticipate seeing two huge scoreboards in use for the team’s first home game Sept. 6 at Beaver Stadium.

They’ll get more than two scoreboards, though. They’ll get four — and what they see might be a little unexpected.

Along with the eco-friendly, high-tech and well-publicized boards mounted over the north and sound end zones (the existing boards were retrofitted with state-of-the-art technology), two simple, smaller scoreboards hang under the front edge of both the north and south decks at the stadium.

Those smaller boards will always feature game score, down and distance because the “videoboards” — and that’s the more accurate term — will not always display the game score.

So, the frequency, size and quality of videos available might increase from what has been seen in the stadium in the past, but there’s no guarantee the score will be on the boards.

Honest.

That’s why the smaller scoreboards, visible behind the goalposts at each end of the stadium, were installed to make sure the basics were handled on a regular basis.

Penn State officials plan to put updated statistics on the videoboards and there’s almost no doubt what ends up on the screens might be some compelling and interesting images. Game information will be on the screens between videos as well.

Hopefully, though, as things shake out during the season and Penn State puts the boards through their paces, someone will find a way to fit all the information on the screen together. From a customer-service, user-friendly standpoint, people are accustomed to seeing video and at least a score/time logo on a sports broadcast.


It just seems something like that could be done with the videoboards as well.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

CBS, McManus fail on-air talent with Redskins approach

So much for help from the boss. Or, in NFL terms any protection from the front line.

CBS Sports president Sean McManus effectively tossed the network's on-air NFL talent into the crazy, politically correct wilderness all by themselves this week when he told The Hollywood Reporter for its sports issue that the network does not have a policy, nor would it provide a top-down directive for use of the Washington Redskins nickname on broadcasts this season.

Here's the exchange from the Q-and-A piece:

There is a lot of pressure on the Washington Redskins to change their name. How will CBS analysts address that controversy this fall?
We haven't talked to them yet. Generally speaking, we do not tell our announcers what to say or not say. Up to this point, it has not been a big issue for us. Last year, it was simmering; now it's reaching a hotter level. But we probably will not end up dictating to our announcers whether they say Redskins or don't say Redskins. We leave that up to them and our production team. There are times when something becomes important enough that we talk to them, and between now and the start of football season we'll decide what is the right thing to do.  LINK TO COMPLETE INTERVIEW
That sounds like it's providing leeway for the professionals that work the games, in the broadcast booth as well as the production truck, to adapt and do their jobs. So it sounds good, even empowering. But it really just shifts responsibility form CBS Sports, the network's leadership and McManus to others lower in the pecking order if someone wants to complain.

McManus' answer was a practical PR perspective, the right thing to keep him from getting involved in any form of controversy. But, if critics are to complain about Washington team leadership and NFL leadership for being what they consider tone deaf in this situation, then the network partners have to be responsible as well. They have to face criticism and pressure for using the nickname, too.

While it's my perspective that Redskins is the team's nickname and it should be used until it gets changed (if it ever does), the broadcast partners should not be able to sidestep the issue. The lack of outcry about McManus's approach was surprising. Anyone and everyone who has touched the topic has been vilified if they believe Redskins should remain and, to a lesser degree, they have at least faced hefty indication for not chiming in on the topic.

Passing the buck by not having a policy (and the logic of the business agreement would seem to hint that CBS Sports would use the nickname of a team in a league from whom it receives money) just puts on-air talent in a vulnerable position. They're effectively standing in front of the politically correct bus, waiting to get run over if some vocal interest group complains about them using Redskins too much during a broadcast.

However, there could be another reason for not having a policy or top-down directive. Maybe the use of Redskins really is not a big deal to CBS Sports.

After all, the network most assuredly has a policy against profanity -- against saying things it knows the public does not accept or would be offensive. In the case of the Redskins, CBS Sports simply might be displaying its agreement with (or at least appreciation of) public opinion polls that skew heavily in favor of keeping the nickname, or at least not seeing it as a slur. 

Of course, directly stating that would not have been a good PR move for McManus. So we're left waiting for a decision to happen -- and it will, based on pressure from vocal groups before the season begins or sometime after the discussion happens in the middle of the season and an unprotected and unsuspecting on-air talent utters "Redskins" once too often for someone.

It's too bad the boss (like a quality left tackle for a top-notch quarterback) did not have their back before the hit.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Count me in (grudgingly) for World Cup as media mostly plays homer role without perspective for tournament

If it's an international sporting event, with the red, white and blue competing, it peaks my interest and it's probably worth watching.

That's the case with the World Cup this year, especially because it's a comparatively slow summer month with my baseball team struggling to remain in contention before the All-Star break. Plus, my football teams remain months away from kickoff and the World Cup -- to be clear, the U.S. team -- has some good story lines. Better yet, the match times work for my personal viewing schedule.

So, add me to the bandwagon and count me among the masses who will watch Sunday (6 p.m., ESPN) when the United States plays Portugal in a match that could produce a record-setting TV audience here in the United States.

Still, my sense is the hard-core soccer folks, the long-time fans, the international (and national) athletic intellgencia, do not want me watching. Or, if casual fans like me do tune in, they'd prefer us to just sit there. Silently.

Part of me feels that's fair because every knowledgeable fan despises the loudmouth who knows nothing but never fails to offer an opinion while watching a sporting event. So, point taken.

Unfortunately, the soccer folks take it to another level. They also bring misguided arrogance and pomposity that come from wherever it is they're sitting for the conversation.

Even worse, parts of the sports media are diving that mindset because they fail to bring a balanced approach to their work. Apparently nobody's listening to or watching what's happening. Or, if they are, they're just so caught up in boosterism that they miss the point.

They're missing the type of breathless hype that would be frowned upon by broadcasters working any other major sporting event. They're missing the overuse of cliches and jargon that would get an analyst fired working any other major sport. (A drinking game in which "wounded animal" as reference to Portugal prompted a drink would empty a lot of alcohol bottles this week.)

Plus, some media critics and those who support soccer have morphed into social scientists as World Cup fever has hit, citing the "maturation" of many U.S. fans as the reason for an increased soccer affinity. C'mon, it's just as much (and probably more) demographic changes and convenient start times that account for the increased interest. It's not as if sports fans have to possess higher sensibilities to process the intricacies of soccer compared to another sport. It's the "beautiful game," not the "most complicated" game.

None of what's happening has been an ESPN problem. Even in a lame duck year, broadcasting its last World Cup before Fox Sports takes over in four years, ESPN has been strong with its coverage. All the games and all the news have been there. Good, professional work from Bob Ley and folks in the on-site studio to most on-air talent for matches.

Some individual analysts have been over the top, though, especially in regard to the U.S. team, and that's been accepted as A-OK for what would typically be critics of the sports media.

In addition, the irony of who has not been overly critical is rich. All-time U.S. soccer standout Landon Donovan, cut from the team roster in the weeks before the tournament in a move that surprised some, has been balanced and informative during his segments on ESPN. If anyone had reason to be bitter, it's him. But he has not come across that way on TV. Or, if anyone could've been perceived as too connected to the team and thereby overly supportive, it was also Donovan. But he's been down the middle and solid with his work.

Likewise (and its a certainty the soccer know-it-alls would disagree, otherwise he'd have a TV assignment), Tommy Smyth did a strong job on ESPN Radio during the first U.S. match.

If some others could just bring the same embracing form of expertise to their work, the World Cup and U.S. soccer in general would be even more successful this summer and beyond.