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.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Scott was simply stellar for ESPN, and far beyond

Dozens of people who worked with him at ESPN have had the chance to offer fitting remembrances and tributes to Stuart Scott since his death on Sunday -- and all have hit the mark.

He was revolutionary and talented, entertaining and informative. He was simply super at his job, and his impact went far beyond any program to which he contributed.

Scott's success opened the doors for many others to follow him, and many did. He helped make "SportsCenter" worth watching in its heyday. And, even as the show has become slightly less appointment viewing as the sports TV landscape has changed, Scott kept it relevant whenever he worked.

Whether it was behind a studio desk or on location for the NBA, NFL or any assignment, Scott brought attention to the event because of his style and because of his work ethic. Although he lost his well-chronicled battle with cancer, sports viewers were better because he had a job, and a prominent job, on TV. He made those he worked with better. He made sports better for fans. And he made the world a better place. He will be missed.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Awards show status quo, significant change

Change sometimes comes slowly to sports, with strong programs and teams remaining successful for several years -- and that’s the case for TV sports, too.

A look at the best TV sports individuals and teams from the past year looks strikingly similar to the list from last year, but there have been changes. There have also been efforts that will reshape the way viewers get sports for years to come.

Here’s a look:

Best Studio Show: "College GameDay" (ESPN)
At some point, this show might not be the best of its ilk on TV but that’s simply not the case now. With a strong mix of talent (in front of the camera and behind), “GameDay” entertains, informs and thrives. Plus, it does so from a different location every week. So much gets squeezed into the show each week, and it rarely feels overwhelming. Best of all, camaraderie and preparation seem to define the work of those on the program. There are no contrived or forced humor segments. That’s a credit to those who produce the show and a sign of respect for fans and viewers. (Those NFL studio shows that utilize such schlock could learn a lesson from that approach.) Simply put, “GameDay” makes game days special and it’s invariably worth watching.

Best Studio Host: Chris Fowler (ESPN)
He’s the biggest reason “GameDay works. Fowler directs traffic and brings an important and obvious level of preparation that provides a foundation for the show. So many people handle similar roles, and do so well across sports and networks, but Fowler sets the standard.

Best Play-by-Play Team: Mike Breen/Mark Jackson/Jeff Van Gundy (ESPN)
Again, camaraderie comes to mind with this group. While Breen rarely misses a beat during the game, it’s apparent he Jackson and Van Gundy apparent get along. They can critique and offer information while proving their connection to the league and with each other. Because of that, they connect with viewers.

Best Play-by-Play Man: Mike Emrick (NBC Sports)
Few broadcasters make an event worth watching. It’s usually the event itself that provides the reason people watch. In Emrick’s case, though, that feels different. Clearly viewers are not tuning into NHL games for Emrick in a manner that reshapes ratings, but they should. He’s smart, smooth and worth hearing and watching.

Best Color Commentator: Jay Bilas (ESPN)
He’s somewhat of a multi-tool talent, strong covering games as a color commentator and just as strong in a studio role. Additionally, he’s opinionated and not afraid to share that opinion and challenge those in power, especially the NCAA.

Best Sideline Reporter: Doris Burke (ESPN)
It’s the toughest job in TV sports and few do it as well as the multi-talented Burke. She rarely traffics in silliness or softballs and has earned the respect of those she covers as well as viewers.

Best Insider/Expert: Tim Tebow (ESPN)
He’s part color commentator, part expert and pretty much a complete success story in terms of his broadcasting career. Tebow, the former Heisman Trophy winner, went from a brief, over-hyped and under-appreciated NFL career to an expected role at ESPN. Many wondered how the nicest guy in the sports would could survive as an analyst, but he conveyed his expertise well. He shone through during Bowl Championship Series coverage early in the year and than landed a key role with the fledgling SEC Network. He also got an opportunity with “Good Morning America.” It’s been a quick climb, thanks to his name and the relationship he has with viewers and so far he’s done quite well.

Newcomer(s) of the Year: Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir (NBC Sports)
Maybe they should not get the nod because figure skating gets so little attention compared to other major televised sports, but they’re certainly something different. Their work during the Winter Olympics quickly established them as breakout stars -- and not just because they were different. They were able to convey their on-ice experience as competitors and they made competition more entertaining.

TV Feature of the Year: "Lauren Hill: One More Game" (ESPN)
Once again, Tom Rinaldi found a wonderful story and told it wonderfully. A cancer-stricken women’s college basketball player hoping to play just one game before she dies sounds like a made-for-TV movie, but it was certainly real life and the story was certainly delivered well by Rinaldi, producer Ben Webber and editor Josh Drake. Through their work, the story of 19-year-old Lauren Hill of Mt. St. Joseph became even more compelling. The family provided important access and Rinaldi and Co. clearly appreciated what they got and respected the family while telling a tough story.

TV Moment/Story of the Year: “BCS Megacast” and “Teamcast”
With its coverage of the last BCS championship game, ESPN provided one template, and with their coverage of the Final Four, CBS Sports, TBS and TNT provided a similarly successful example of the same approach. Apparently, more is better -- especially for big events. Those events showed multiple channels focusing in different ways on the same event could resonate with advertisers and viewers, drawing attention and ratings while helping connect people to the contests. Such an approach is clearly the future of sports on TV, and that's a good thing.