Best Studio Show
"ESPN College GameDay" -- Led by host Chris Fowler and the most entertaining mix of studio talent on any show, the "GameDay" crew shines every week while doing all other shows do and more, most notably moving from location to location throughout the season. While the NFL studio shows come close, "GameDay" remains the standard. It's able to focus on each week's top stories and somehow still provide a sense of what's happening all over the country every week during college football season. And it's clearly a topic (college football) and personnel (Fowler and Friends) success story, because ESPN's similar efforts for college basketball fail reliably.
Best Studio Host
Chris Fowler -- While several categories on this list could be close, Fowler has developed into a dynasty in this category. He's the New England Patriots of studio hosts. He adapts and succeeds. He sets his fellow hosts up well and serves as the Crown Prince of College Football -- the accepted and respected voice of the game. Best of all, he does it with knowledge and a sense of humor.
Best Play-by-Play Team
Mike Tirico / Jon Gruden / Ron Jaworski, ESPN -- The "Monday Night Football" crew, driven by Tirico's steady skills, Gruden's insights and Jaworski's preparation works well together. It has become (thankfully) a more football-first discussion on Monday nights on recent years, and Gruden has become one of the show's stars. While ESPN officials expect Gruden to remain on the "MNF" team through 2011, his presence will be a key to the team's ongoing success.
Best Play-by-Play Talent
Joe Buck, Fox Sports -- He's strong on baseball and football, the lead talent for Fox Sports on both sports. He's accurate and steady. When he lapses into opinion, something he should defer to his color commentators, he struggles a bit. But he's still the best in the business because of his strength on both sports.
Best Color Commentator
Jon Gruden, ESPN -- Few analysts of made such an obvious impact in such a short time. Gruden was an inspired and logical pick to join "Monday Night Football," on which he shines. His knowledge and sense of humor make the weekly show better, but the best thing about Gruden has been his versatility. He did wonderful work related to teh NFL Draft. He also crafted compelling segments with top NFL players during the season during "film sessions" and one-on-one interviews. He's super on TV -- even if he will be lost when he returns to the NFL sidelines at some point.
Best Sideline Reporter
Suzy Kolber, ESPN -- It's the hardest job in TV sports, the most difficult at which to make a mark and, often, the least respected. Sideline reporters get relatively little time to make their points -- which limits them from making cogent points and gives them little room to build a relationship with viewers. Even with all that going against her, Kolber clearly ranks as the best in the business. She comes across as knowledgeable without trying to hard to impress. She knows her stuff and picks her spots well. It's a shame so other sideline reporters understand the job as well as her.
Peter King, NBC Sports / Sports Illustrated -- With unmatched contacts and credibility, King lives up to his name among NFL experts and insiders. Despite missing some in-person assignments because of his TV work, the ability to monitor all games every week from the network's studios more than make up for that situation. He credits his sources and rarely misses a story. His online columns and TV segments invariably contain important information and news.
Newcomer of the Year
Mike Pereira, Fox Sports -- He was added to offer insights online (and that was nice), but his impact was immediate on TV. After regular segments each week on the NFL Network, he worked in the Los Angeles studio for Fox Sports and was able to keep an eye on every game each week. Then, when needed, he was brought into game broadcasts to explain rules or speculate on the outcome of in-game replay challenges. Such an expert was just what was missing from NFL broadcasts, and other league broadcast partners might try to find their own such expert in the future. Still, it's likely there will be no other Mike Pereira. A former NFL official and vice president of officiating for the league, he knows his stuff. Even when the NFL's rule book does not make sense, he explains it sensibly.
Comeback Talent of the Year
Chuck Wilson, ESPN Radio -- ESPN Radio brought back one of its founding voices just in time for the NCAA Tournament last spring. He helped on college basketball-related work and picked up duties on "SportsCenter Nightly" and other programming throughout the years. Simply put, Wilson is a sports-radio professional. He's diligent, sounds good and works hard. He cares and he prepares. Of all the interviews, conducted for this column during the past year, my time with Wilson was the most anticipated -- and he did not disappoint. He talked about himself, he talked about the business and he never talked just to talk. He's that way on radio as well, and that's what makes him so good.
Two Face Award
Matt Millen, ESPN/ABC and NFL Network, and Beth Mowins, ESPN/ABC -- Some talents work well in certain situations and not so well in others. Both Millen and Mowins proved that with their performances this year. First, Millen was decent, even good at times, on college football assignments. Even when he worked Michigan games and some fans complained (especially after his ill-fated stint at GM of the Detroit Lions), he was usually capable or insightful. Conversely, when he worked NFL games, in a three-person booth with Bob Papa and Joe Theisman, Millen sounded silly. He would try to be funny instead of sharing his expertise -- and that was a shame, because he knows a lot about football (even if some Detroit Lions fans would argue otherwise).
In the case of Mowins, solid play-by-play skills on many different assignments just did not transfer to at least one brief stint as a sideline reporter. She's clearly capable and strong on play-by-play but in rare duties as a sideline reporter for a Penn State-Iowa college football game in late September, she failed when she missed an opportunity to ask obvious questions to Penn State coach Joe Paterno at the end of the first half. The Nittany Lions had faltered on a late-half drive, with communication as an obvious problem, but Mowins did not address the situation -- which was clearly the topic of the first half.
Where Have You Gone Award
Three honorees in this category, for different reasons. One member of our trio (Jay Mariotti) justifiably lost his job in 2010, leaving little impact on "Around the Horn," a show for which he thought he was an invaluable member but the show's continues success in his absence proved otehrwise. Another (Jim Gray), got all kinds of attention for his role in "The Decision" but with that as the sad high-note of his year, it's probably been nice that he's had a low profile at the start of the NBA season. Finally, Erin Andrews, fresh off her "Dancing with the Stars" success and a contract renewal with ESPN, was set for a bigger role during college football season but she did little with it. Maybe more will come her way in 2011, but the duties as first-hour host for "College GameDay" seemed more highly hyped than what actually happened.
Next-on-the Horizon Award
After a tryout last week, ESPN officials have already contacted former Florida coach Urban Meyer about an on-air gig. It would not be a surprise for him to show up again, at least in some role, during bowl season -- and he's almost certain to find a role in 2011. A two-time national championship coach who seems able to translate his expertise well to TV, he could emerge as another strong addition for ESPN. And with so many outlets, ESPN would almost certainly find a role for Meyer. But ... it would be interesting to hear the coach (who is apparently leaving the sideline to spend more time with his family and/or for health reasons) justify taking a job that might make him spend even more time away from home and travel even more.
In terms of personnel, the idea to add an official (Mike Pereira, Fox Sports) would be the obvious winner. However, several networks have added an on-field play clock as part of their down-and-distance logo. That's a good thing, but it is redundant with the clock/scoreboard already as part of broadcasts. If networks can figure a way to avoid the redundancy, the play clock would be an even better addition. With both it's just hard for people to know where to look.
TV Moment of the Year
“The Decision” -- Despite the most-viewed Super Bowl in history (106.5 million viewers), the move of the NFL Draft to prime time (drawing more than 45.4 milllion viewers to ESPN, ESPN2 and the NFL Network), the ratings success of the World Cup and so much more, the hour-long infomercial with LeBron James as the featured attraction announcing his move to the Miami Heat was clearly the most important TV moment of the year. It simultaneously damaged ESPN's journalistic credibility (at least what remained) and James' general goodwill. (Although he is rebounding in terms of marketing, with a recently announced children's furniture line.) Still, millions of people watched -- more than tuned into most NBA games during the previous season. And they continue to follow James, with ratings for the Miami Heat's season opener against the Boston Celtics and the Heat's first visit to play the Cleveland Cavaliers both drawing big ratings. But, best of all, the show provides a cautionary tale and a what-not-to-do blueprint for future announcement/reality programming. If TV types can learn from "The Decision," that would be the best thing to come from the broadcast.