Monday, July 13, 2015

Opportunity exits in use of on-screen handles, hashtags

What looks like a missed opportunity to me represents either a best business practice or a small part of a bigger plan for some who work in TV sports.

Still, they just seem wrong -- especially the part-of-a-plan folks.

Here’s the situation: With social media more pervasive every day, it’s surprising that every live sporting event on TV does not include some overt encouragement for viewers to connect by social media.

While only a small percentage of people are actually active on Facebook and Twitter, many do react and watch games as part of a “second-screen experience,” meaning they have a smartphone in hand or are not far from a computer while watching. They might even be streaming the game online.

Despite that, few TV sports types feel the need to keep handles or hashtags on screen throughout a broadcast.

“We always want to have a second-screen experience. Facebook and Twitter are high-traffic places for live events, and we try to be in front of the conversation,” said Josh Baird, director of social media for Fox Sports. He adds a caveat, though. “The assumption that there is a huge overlap that are watching TV and the people on social channels is a bold one.”

Fox Sports concluded high-profile coverage of the U.S. Open and Women’s World Cup in recent weeks. Neither set of broadcasts included overt or regular on-screen social media signals. That’s just the usual plan for Fox Sports. Broadcasts exist as broadcasts, and social media is separate.

To its credit, ESPN takes a slightly more aggressive approach.

Dave Miller, a senior coordinating producer for remote production at ESPN, said his network consistently tries to brand shows or a series on social media. In addition, something like #PSUvsOSU is not unusual for a big game.

Like Baird, Miller framed social media as a complementary place for conversation. He said it can be a challenge for broadcasters to take part in that conversation. Still, ESPN boasts 19.9 million Twitter followers to 1.28 million for Fox Sports, and the approach to share on-screen handles and hastags could be at least a small part of that huge disparity.

It just seems wise to embrace on-screen social media signals, at least as a strong hint about where people should go to conduct their conversations. Miller said broadcast partners (a league or organization) often ask about finding a way to incorporate social media.

And making social media work with a live broadcast is not impossible. ESPN often rotates game locations, broadcaster names and social media in graphics, Miller said. Beyond that, a more engaged approach has been proven to work well, too.

Root Sports has shown that with its Pittsburgh Pirates coverage. Yes, baseball’s slower tempo allows for easier interaction, but Root’s use of #BucsBooth to encourage viewers to ask questions of broadcasters during a game works.

It’s one more thing for someone to do -- after all someone has to weed through individual tweets to see if a good question exits -- but it does unearth some gems, inform some conversation and, at the same time, provide a community, of sorts, for those invested in the game.


In that way, it seems like the people are embracing an opportunity. They’re correct to do so.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Addition to Cowherd's show a rare opportunity

Sports-talk radio listeners across the nation might hear something a little different in a few weeks from ESPN Radio.

Jen Lada
Starting in mid-August, “The Herd with Colin Cowherd,” which airs from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the East Coast, will feature another contributor along with the namesake host.

While Jen Lada will not be a full-fledged co-host, she will hold a regular role. Along with what listeners hear, Lada will contribute on social media, provide some exclusive digital segments and, no doubt, serve as a sounding board for Cowherd. That’s a good thing because Cowherd better engages listeners when he has someone to talk to, as opposed to when he dives into a monologue or offers his opinions about sports and social matters with no context or counterbalance.

Lada, who comes to ESPN Radio from Comcast Sports Net Chicago, becomes a member of a rare group -- women with prominent or regular roles on national sports-talk radio. It’s an extremely small group.

He’s hoping Lada thrives, and opens the door for a few more similar voices on sports-talk radio.

And, to be clear, it’s not hope simply for hope’s sake. Sports-talk listeners want quality sports talk -- compelling, interesting information -- no matter the gender of the host. As we eventually move toward more of that, it’s reassuring that a woman who has both been on air nationally and who brings strong doses of common sense and professional responsibility to her job has a role in selecting who gets on air and who does not.

Amanda Gifford, who started as an intern at ESPN Radio, commuting on weekends from Penn State to Bristol, Connecticut, and back when she was a student, believes sports-talk radio has changed during her time with the company. Still, the medium remains young. The first acknowledged all-sports station, WFAN in New York City, launched July 1, 1987.

“I do feel there’s more opportunity,” said Gifford, senior director of daytime programming. In that role, she’s in charge of Cowherd’s show, “Mike and Mike,” “The Rusillo Show” and “The Dan Le Batard Show.” Within arms reach of her office desk are two lists -- one with the show schedules and regular hosts’ vacations and another of ESPN talent who serve as replacement hosts. Clearly, she plays a big role in who gets on the air for ESPN Radio. She knows what resonates with listeners, and what impacts ratings.

“Sports talk itself has changed,” Gifford said. “It’s not as much about games, stats and what happened. There are bigger discussions, things that are relatable to life.”

A few months ago, ESPN Radio seemed set to add another woman, Molly Qerim, to a prominent role -- joining “Mike and Mike” as that show itself changed greatly, moving from Bristol to New York City. All that changed in the past few weeks, though, when the NYC move was dumped. As a result, Qerim gets a different opportunity at ESPN.

She’ll host “First Take” on ESPN2 -- so more visibility on TV, but a fairly familiar role for women in general as a moderator amidst the rants of Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith. It’s officially and interim position, but do not be surprised if Qerim stretches it farther.

Those host or moderator positions seem to be the major safe haven for women in sports, and for those who hire women. But, while they’re prominent, they sometimes seem overly gender-specific -- with the women serving as on-air moderators or moms. Qerim follows Cari Champion, who is moving on to host “SportsCenter.” Before her, Dana Jacobson was a “First Take” host, and any number of studio shows or update segments are handled by women.

Driving a sports-talk show requires a different skill set, and maybe that’s part of why finding quality hosts provides such a challenge. Beyond Jemele Hill and Sarah Spain, it’s not a long list of people who’ve proven themselves on radio in recent years.

Still, Gifford continually seeks out talent.

“Finding a host, male or female, is the same. It’s about the content they produce. Is it thought provoking? Is it original?” Gifford said. “In terms of women, it comes down to the individual person. Can she hold her own with her male counterparts? And, most of all, it cannot be ‘Hey, I’m female, but I can also talk sports.’ They just need to talk. Doing it the other way they marginalize themselves.”

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Women's World Cup game plan for Fox Sports does not include presence of on-screen social media indicators

With the first part of the Women’s World Cup as proof, expect tonight’s U.S.-Germany semifinal to deliver on almost every level.

It’ll be compelling TV that attracts viewers (some 5.7 million people watched the quarterfinal victory over Japan), and it’ll be a quality broadcast, because the Fox Sports on-air and production team has been pitch perfect so far, delivering access and information with criticism and insight when appropriate.

Still, one thing tonight’s match might not deliver -- at least overtly and regularly -- is an on-screen social media connection. And that’s not an oversight.

While Fox Sports takes pride in its social media efforts, the network’s plan does not include a consistent on-screen presence for handles and hashtags for Facebook and Twitter during live broadcasts.

That’s really not unusual for any sports broadcaster. While it seems like a missed opportunity, those who conduct social media research and engage users on a regular basis insist the plan has merit. That’s because an often-referenced “second-screen experience” for sporting events -- an interaction by users or viewers with both the TV and a computer or smartphone -- is not necessarily a reality.

“We always want to have a second-screen experience. Facebook and Twitter are high-traffic places for live events, and we try to be in front of the conversation,” said Josh Baird, director of social media for Fox Sports. He adds a caveat, though. “The assumption that there is a huge overlap that are watching TV and the people on social channels is a bold one.”

Baird thinks an opportunity exists to drive viewers from broadcasts to social media channels. However, that’s not his overriding goal, or that of his team.

For the Women’s World Cup, the Fox Sports social media team includes two people embedded in Canada, one with the network's studio crew in Vancouver and the other traveling with the U.S. women’s national team. An editorial and social team at the network’s headquarters in Los Angeles complements and oversees the work of the two staff members in Canada.

Overall, Baird sees handles and hashtags as keywords, a way to curate content and engage a community. He does not see them as necessary standing elements of a live broadcast -- and that’s apparently standard convention across most networks with live sports, because viewers watching closely will invariably not see any on-screen social media indicators or signals for action.

Baird is proud of the network’s social media footprint. On Twitter that includes 1.28 million followers for Fox Sports and 538,000 for Fox Soccer. He said measuring viewership as a result of social media remains the “toughest nut to crack” for social media.

Still, if the women’s soccer game tonight draws nearly 6 million viewers, and if a broadcast can make some impact in terms of awareness or impact for social media channel, a consistent on-screen presence for handles and hashtags would seem beneficial.

If even a small portion of those millions of viewers would give social media a chance, the number of people for whom Baird curates content, and with whom his team engages, would seemingly increase. And that would be an added delivery of impact and value for Fox Sports.


Friday, May 15, 2015

A winning game plan for B1G -- stay with ESPN

As ESPN and other networks start pointing toward college football season by announcing game times for the fall already, fans of Big Ten Conference football need to be looking farther down the road than that.

Just two seasons remain on the Big Ten contract with ESPN that expires after the 2016-17 academic year, and every day until the conference decides whether to remain with ESPN or enter a potentially profitable partnership with another suitor (Fox Sports 1) provides important time for an exploration of the conference’s options.

It’s rather simple, though, the decision boils down to either money or exposure. 

Specifically, it’s a matter of great money and unrivaled exposure -- that’d be available by staying with ESPN -- or maybe even better money and much more limited exposure, which represents the best Fox Sports 1 has to offer.

Rights to Big Ten programming have become a hot property because they’re the last commodity on the market. Broadcast deals for major pro sports leagues and all other high-profile college conferences have been finalized long ago. With live sporting events among the most-watched programs on TV, that makes the upcoming Big Ten deal extremely valuable.

Most informed estimates put the potential windfall at as much as $45 million per conference member per year for the lifetime of the next TV deal.

During this and other high-profile sports negotiations, someone almost invariably utters the phrase, “it’s not about the money,” and it’s always untrue. In the case of the Big Ten and this deal, though, that should be the overriding mantra. It should not be about the money.

While there might be a slight financial difference by partnering with Fox Sports 1 (and remember parent Fox Sports own 51 percent of the Big Ten Network, so that could influence what happens), what ESPN provides in terms of exposure more than makes up for any additional income available with a different partner.

To be clear, the ESPN brand resonates across media platforms and across the globe. Even with a retreat in cable TV viewership, which recently pushed ESPN’s presence under 100 million homes for the first time in years, ESPN matters. Viewers know it, and know where to find it. It’s also the broadcast home of the College Football Playoff.

Fox Sports and FS1 have none of that cachet. But, Fox Sports 1 needs programming -- so much so that it might be willing to overpay for Big Ten rights. Still, a conference move to FS1 would be shortsighted and ultimately unproductive.

Additionally, while fans might not get a look at the negotiation process (ESPN has declined comment for this and all stories about the process), the outcome should prove informative about who holds the most power in the Big Ten. If some people in the conference only want money, that would point to a different partnership than the one championed by those who appreciate the power of a broader exposure.

No matter the partner, Big Ten schools will make more money than they’re getting in their current contract. It’s easy for me to write, and perhaps hard for athletic and school officials to justify with their budgets, but that should be enough.

Without getting into specifics, Phil Esten, the deputy director of athletics at Penn State, told regional sports editors last month that he does not expect the next TV deal to go backward. He also said Penn State’s business-minded approach to intercollegiate athletics was that “profit is a result, not a purpose.”

If that mind-set in any way transfers to TV rights deals for the entire conference -- and it should -- staying with ESPN would seem to be the right deal.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Another weekend, another role for Anderson

Brian Anderson
What difference does a week make?

College basketball viewers get to find out Saturday, when Brian Anderson handles play-by-play duties at the Final Four -- at least part of the Final Four.

It was just a week ago when Anderson drew deserved accolades and praise while working the NCAA Tournament as a fill-in for Marv Albert. Despite drawing the assignment on short notice, Anderson produced a top-notch performance.

Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch provided details about all that went into Anderson's assignment.

This week, Anderson's back in a similar and strikingly different role. He'll the the play-by-play man for the Michigan State "team stream" that airs on truTV from the Final Four.

His assignment, along with color commentator Mateen Cleaves and reporter Shireen Saski, will be to focus on Michigan State exclusively during the game. According to the "Team Stream Presented by Bleacher Report" model, the team-specific broadcasters are there to provide "local flavor including comprehensive team and player storylines."

Last year's initial rollout of team-specific broadcasts -- then called "teamcast" because there was no presenting sponsor -- was a success on almost all levels. With the main broadcast on one channel and two other feeds of the same game on two other channels, the Final Four games were seemingly everywhere. That meant some additional revenue, and it also came with generally positive response from critics and fans.

There was some confusion because some viewers mistakenly confused a team-specific broadcast with the lead broadcast on CBS, but that was minor.

This year, the confusion could be heightened a bit because CBS has no role with the national semifinals Saturday night. TBS will carry the games with broadcasters Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery and Grant Hill. Michigan State-Duke tips off at 6:09 p.m. and Wisconsin-Kentucky at 8:49 p.m.

At the same time, TNT has broadcasters focused on Duke and Kentucky while truTV gets on-air teams focused on Michigan State and Wisconsin. (It's kind of a BTN affiliate for the night.)

One of the best things about last year's team-specific broadcasts was that they were different. Not overly in cheerleader mode -- though they had their moments -- they just gave another side or sense. For fans of team involved in the game, it was probably a welcome option. For those of us without a rooting interest, it was just interesting to watch how colors, nicknames and tone were treated during the game.

For Anderson, that's where it becomes interesting. A week after a stellar, national-level job, he's asked to be similarly stellar but, in fairness, a bit biased. He's supposed to be the Michigan State voice Saturday night, just as Tom Werme will be the Duke guy, Dave Baker the Kentucky guy and Wayne Larivee the Wisconsin guy.

It's just a different challenge, and it'll be interesting to see how he handles it.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Everyone loses in Penn State-Olbermann saga

First and foremost, without a doubt and without question, Keith Olbermann was wrong for his mean-spirited, misguided Twitter war in regard to Penn State and the university's annual student-driven dance marathon conducted to battle pediatric cancer.

Olbermann's deep-seeded hatred of all things Penn State, combined with his perpetual ability to think more of himself than anyone else and his proven ability to at some point self destruct, all came together earlier this week. Egged on by a Penn State alumna who had to know she was picking a fight (or at least poking a lion) by contacting Olbermann to begin with, the loudmouth sports host took the bait and then took things too far.

His ability to bully overtook his ability to seek any information or nuance.

Olbermann's approach led to an appropriate suspension, taking him off his namesake show for the week. He'll apparently return Monday, even though the show's ratings spiked in his absence.

Still, in many ways, his actions were predictable, even understandable. It's not hard to argue that he was simply doing his job -- creating controversy -- before he went to far.

Of course, he went to far with his first word, his very first response tweet, but Olbermann has long since ceased being a sports journalist and he was never an unbiased source of information. He's a sports commentator, a clearly talented if high-maintenance and just-plain-mean man. His show exists to create discussion and stir reaction.

Unfortunately, the efforts of a portion of Penn Staters have been just as predictable as the week has progressed. Getting Olbermann off the air temporarily was not enough for them. And, just as the egotistical host could not stop himself when unfairly lambasting Penn State, those who relish his suspension cannot help themselves from piling onto someone they've already seemingly vanquished. Petitions for him to be permanently fired have dotted the Internet and social media in recent days.

Clearly, there's nothing wrong with fans and viewers expressing their opinion. They should flex their muscle and complain when something or someone is wrong. In the media world, though, there's nothing more powerful for those seeking change -- and eviscerating for those at the brunt of an attack -- than irrelevance or silence.

More powerful than petitions would simply be not watching Olbermann's show. Ironically, those looking for him to lose his job probably rarely watched anyway (even though the show has been decent, at times, and seemingly found a niche in the late afternoons after bouncing around air times when it started). Still, like the host, they cannot help themselves and want more.

Through what seems to be a highly emotional process, everyone has lost a little bit.

Olbermann lost more of his credibility (if there was much left) and his job, and those launching complaints have lost their focus, and even a sense (if they had one) of the limits of their responsibility. Yes, he was wrong in so many ways and showed, again, that he's a bully -- just not a good guy. At the same time, getting him pulled because a vocal contingent does not agree with what he said is not a good model. Sincerely expressing those concerns and then simply changing the channel could be even more powerful.


Friday, January 30, 2015

Simplicity should be key for NBC at Super Bowl

It’s the big game, but if NBC Sports wants to deliver on its coverage of the Super Bowl it needs to treat it as just another game -- albeit one that also ranks as the most-viewed television event of the year and one that requires the broadcast team to not miss a moment of the action.

That’s a delicate balance and a lot of pressure and responsibility, but it can be done.

Thankfully for viewers, NBC clearly has a team capable of making it work. From the on-air team (Al Michaels, Chris Collinsworth, Michelle Tafoya) to the producer and director (Fred Gaudelli and Drew Esocoff, respectively), NBC’s team has an important mix of experience and talent -- perhaps the best in the business.

That does not mean the broadcast has to be flawless or perfect, though. Just like the team that wins the game, the production can have hiccups and still deliver. And, just like the teams in the game, NBC has a game plan for its coverage.

In this case, that means a regular-game approach with super-sized support.

So, Michaels and Collinsworth will focus on the action as usual, but they’ll have bells and whistles that include 15 extra cameras (40 total) from a regular game and access to the NFL’s director of officiating to explain controversial calls.

The pre-game show, hosted by Bob Costas, begins at noon, and that’s when the Super Bowl silliness typically hits its height with a mix of entertainment and special guests. This season, that includes an interview with halftime performer Katy Perry, an abundance of football related interviews and talking heads, and the seemingly mandatory with President Barack Obama.

Plus, just about any on-air sports type employed by the Peacock Network has a role in the pre-game coverage. That’s everyone from heir-apparent host Josh Elliott to ice skating analysts Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski, who have spent time this week with wives of members of each participating team. That segment could be funny -- either intentionally or unintentionally -- and interesting.

Here’s the thing, though, once the game begins, it’s all about the game.

There might be some ah-ha or interesting moments during those first six-and-a-half hours of coverage, but it’s what happens when the game kicks off that really matters and that fans will remember.

In that situation, Michaels and Co. have consistently proven they can deliver.

Clearly, Michaels is a steady and strong play-by-play man, one of the best in the business, but Collinsworth holds the key to success each time they work a game together and especially during the Super Bowl. He needs to make points, share insights and toss out opinions in a way that’s comfortable and honest. Again, luckily for viewers, he does that well.

While Michaels has the ability to hamper a broadcast by getting preachy or offering too much context (which feels like he’s talking down to viewers), Collinsworth can only elevate what happens. He might’ve been a “possession receiver” during his career, but he can “stretch the field” as an analyst.

Additionally, just like the Patriots and Seahawks, the NBC team has conducted its own preparation and scouting reports in advance of the game. They’ve had practice sessions, and they’ve discussed an innumerable amount of if-then situations -- everything from down-and-distance play selections and typical team player groupings to injuries and even possible technical problems.

The network will not suffer for a lack of preparation. It’s just a matter of delivering when the moment arises -- and that’s especially true for on-screen graphics or timely statistics. Too soon for some things, and it might feel like they’re using what they’ve done just to show off. Too late and, well, it’s too late.

o, if NBC can simply make the big game feel like another game, and not miss the big or controversial plays when they happen, it will do well.

Screen shots
One thing no network that covers sports does well (including NBC) is to consistently and reliably integrate social media hashtags on screen during coverage to encourage consistent interaction with viewers.

NBC has provided a presence for Tafoya online during regular “Sunday Night Football” games, but an on-screen graphic consistently promoting how to find her work, or enable viewers to post things remains lacking.

If NBC could commit to that during the Super Bowl, it would be important for the broadcast and, because of the record viewership expected (north of 113 million), it could also be a game changer for the combination of televised sports and social media overall.