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.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Pinstripe Bowl prep personal, practical for Millen

Nine days before the Pinstripe Bowl, the game’s color commentator was deep into preparation for the assignment.

He’d worked games featuring both Boston College and Penn State during the regular season, was familiar with both coaching staffs and had even requested the assignment (long before the matchup was set, more on that later), but his preparation was important.

So, Matt Millen arrived at the Lasch Football Building at Penn State at 10:27 a.m. Dec. 18. He was wearing a black Under Armour ballcap and an unzipped black ESPN College Football jacket over an untucked blue flannel shirt and gray T-shirt. In dark blue jeans and sneakers, he was comfortable and ready to work.

After renewing acquaintances with Penn State video coordinator Jevin Stone, Millen was set up in the wide receivers’ meeting room and ready to get started.

A nearly hour-long meeting with coach James Franklin happened first, though, as they talked about the bowl game, the season and more.

Still, by noon Millen was seated, remote control in hand and ready to watch game films from Penn State and Boston College. He was reviewing both teams on the same day as part of a meticulous process that invariably follows the same pattern.

“I watch home team offense, home team defense, then visiting team offense and visiting team defense,” Millen said. Why? “Because you have to start somewhere, and that’s how John Madden said he did it when I first started doing this. That’s good enough for me.”

Millen will serve as the color commentator for the Pinstripe Bowl on ESPN with play-by-play man Bob Wischusen and sideline reporter Quint Kessenich.

At one time, years ago, Millen was generally recognized as the second-best TV analyst in the business behind Madden. After his stint as general manager of the Detroit Lions and over time, he has proven himself among the upper echelon of college analysts, even as the prominence of assignments has slipped a bit in recent years.

Still, he’s honest and opinionated -- something Penn State fans got a taste of when Wischusen, Millen and Kessenich worked the Penn State-Illinois game near the end of the regular season.

Millen brings the same forthright approach to watching film that he practices on gameday. He usually watches film with his partners as well as the game’s producer and director, a process that produces banter and interaction that eventually helps inform and shape a broadcast. On, Dec. 18, though, he was stuck with me.

Having worked the Illinois game (“One of the worst Penn State games in years,” he said.), Millen watched Penn State against UCF, Ohio State and Michigan State -- getting a taste of the team from the beginning, middle and end of the season.

He said he focuses on a team’s schemes as well as who coaches are trying to “hide” and they trust. By reviewing every play of each game a couple times, he learns a lot. “Coaches tell you anything,” Millen said. “The tape doesn’t lie.”

In Penn State’s case, that includes bunch sets for receivers, something Millen said a team can because its receivers generally do not separate well from defenders when running routes.

Mostly, the film revealed the obvious for Penn State, with an almost porous and unpredictable offensive line at the center of the team’s problems. Millen said a team can hide one weak offensive lineman, often at right guard, but a team with more liabilities than that will struggle to find consistency.

Also, Millen focused on schemes, wondering aloud whether coaches were adapting to the personnel available or simply focusing on their scheme. Like many, Millen sees the Pinstripe Bowl as an important part of Penn State’s development.

“They have problems, but I expect to see some changes and progress,” Millen said. “They should be better with a chance to get healthy, get more coaching and practice a little more.”

Still, he knows some things will not change and fully expects the Boston College to bring repeated blitzes to test Penn State’s offensive line and quarterback Christian Hackenberg.

On “Hack,” as Millen invariably refers to him, the former NFL GM sees untapped potential and a few problems for the quarterback. “He’s made some mistakes, maybe more this year than the year before, and that’s on him,” Millen said. “But, he still has a great arm and potential. He’ll get a chance in the NFL. Put him behind a decent line, and he can be good.”

After Penn State, Millen’s film review process moved to Boston College. His approach -- watch, rewind, watch, rewind, watch, rewind, next play, repeat -- was interrupted only by an occasional call or text, when he would pull the flip phone from his right sleeve and respond, if necessary.

He was in the building until 7:30 p.m., when “my wife made me leave” and before a late dinner with good friend and teammate Dr. Paul Suhey in State College.

At times, Millen pointed out “soft” or “undisciplined” players who lazily tried to block or complete and assignment. In what amounted to his most critical comments, he would flatly state, “my daughter could do better than that.”

And mentions of his family define Millen as much as anything.

He asked ESPN officials to work the Pinstripe Bowl so he could spend the holidays with his family, getting as much time with all of them and especially his West Point-educated son Marcus, who will be deployed to the Middle East on Dec. 27.


“I wanted to do the game long before Penn State was in it,” Millen said. “It’s nice that they’re playing, but it was really more about having time to see my family.”

Sunday, November 30, 2014

'Finebaum's Film Room' a glimpse at future

If you missed the Iron Bowl last night, you missed the future.

More specifically, if you missed the secondary broadcast of the Alabama-Auburn game that was carried on the SEC Network, you missed the future of sports broadcasting.

The game itself aired on ESPN, with Brent Musburger brought back from exile on the SEC Network to handle play-by-play duties. He had long been the lead voice of college football but was shoved toward the door and the football-crazed SEC this season to make room for Chris Fowler in the lead to TV spot and to ostensibly give the start-up SEC Network a bit more gravitas.

Musburger did that, albeit in relative obscurity -- especially in areas far away from the South, such as central Pennsylvania.

Still, he was not the story last night.

What really mattered happened on the SEC Network as a simulcast, of sorts, followed along with the Alabama-Auburn matchup. Because of the intense interest in the game, and because it could, ESPN used its SEC Network platform and put radio and TV host Paul Finebaum front and center.

While the game played on ESPN, “Finebaum Film Room: Iron Bowl Live” aired on the SEC Network. It was a live call-in show happening as the game played out. With Finebaum’s legendary listenership and reputation in the SEC -- and especially so in Alabama as the Crimson Tide-Tigers rivalry pretty much drives his show 365 days a year -- the move was logical. It should pay off in decent ratings, too.

More importantly, though, it was a glimpse at what fans could expect (and many apparently want) these days with the proliferation of sports networks and a shrinking inventory of major sporting events.

Fans first saw such an approach with the national championship game last season, when supporting ESPN channels focused on different aspects of the game, producing a popular option to watch college coaches as they watched the game and analyzed the action.

Viewers got more of the same from CBS and Turner Sports during the Final Four as national semifinal games were broadcast live three different places on TV. Along with the overall broadcast, there were team-specific feeds for each game.

For the broadcasters it makes sense because they utilize the same inventory (in this case Alabama-Auburn) and existing resources (Finebaum, his studio and production team) to produce additional “content.” Following along the “content” path with the live show, what happens during the game and call-in show -- emotional callers, heated exchanges or even, possibly, interesting insights -- becomes fair game to get repurposed online or some other format.


It might seem like overkill to some, but it’s an easy route to attention and revenue for the broadcasters -- and that’s what it’s all about.

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.