Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Outstanding Personalities Share Football

The four top individual Sports Emmy Awards, which were announced Monday, all went to on-air professionals whose work includes a large portion of football coverage -- again showing how TV's most popular sport makes commercial and critical stars of those who cover it.

Three of the major individual recipients have been in that category for years, and one rookie winner finally earned hardware to verify his status as one of the best in the business.

Bob Costas of NBC earned his 19th Sports Emmy, recognizing his work as Outstanding Sports Personality-Studio Host for work on "Football Night in America" and horse racing while Jim Nantz of CBS was named Outstanding Sports Personality-Play-by-Play for his work covering the NFL and golf. It was the second consecutive win in that category for Nantz.

Analysts Chris Collinsworth and Kirk Herbstreit completed the quartet with honors as Outstanding Sports Personality-Sports Event Analyst and Outstanding Sports Personality-Studio Analyst, respectively. For Collinsworth, it was his ninth Sports Emmy overall (two as event analyst and seven as studio analyst) while it was the first Sport Emmy for he likable and well-prepared Herbstreit.

John Madden, with a record 16 Sports Emmys for game analysis, was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the event in New York City.

Among networks, HBO earned nine Sports Emmys, followed by CBS and ESPN with seven each. MLB Network earned four.

ESPN's honorees included: "College GameDay," selected as Outstanding Studio Show-Weekly, it's second such honor in the past three years; and "Pardon the Interruption," which earned its first Sports Emmy as Outstanding Sports Show-Daily.

Click here for a complete list of winners.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

CBS Sports Adds Partner, Keeps Tournament

CBS Sports and partner Turner Broadcasting System made the winning bid for an expanded NCAA Tournament beginning in 2011, the NCAA and those broadcast partners announced Thursday.

The 14-year deal worth more than $10.8 million includes TV, Internet and wireless rights through 2024.

As part of the agreement, all games in the tournament -- which would grow from 65 to 68 teams based on a recommendation by the Division I Men's Basketball Committee this week -- will be available live in their entirety on one of four national TV networks. So, instead of CBS providing regional coverage of only a single game to a specific area of the country during a certain broadcast window, viewers with access to the broadcast network and its partner cable channels may choose for themselves which game to watch when games overlap throughout the tournament.

Sixty-eight teams would also mean a play-in (officially "opening round") game in each of the tournament's four regions in the week before the first full weekend of play. And, with several outlets (CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV) those games could be shown on separate channels at the same time or as two doubleheaders on a two channels. Although ESPN has broadcast the lone play-in game for the 65-team tournament in the past, the announcement Thursday indicated that the CBS-Turner deal would include all games in the tournament beginning in 2011.

The deal also moves later-round action in the tournament to cable for the first time, with CBS and Turner splitting coverage of regional semifinal games beginning in 2011.

Through 2015, CBS has exclusive coverage of the regional finals and Final Four, but beginning in 2016 it would split that coverage with Turner -- with the Final Four alternating every year between CBS Sports and TBS.

According to interim NCAA president Jim Isch, the deal provides more than $740 million annually to the organization. Revenue from the tournament provides nearly 96 percent of the NCAA's income.

Many thought the NCAA's quest for more money would lead to a greatly expanded tournament (as many as 96 games) and the possibility that ESPN, with its ability to generate money to pay for rights fees through its cable subscription fees, would emerge as the tournament's home.

Instead, CBS found a capable cable partner with Turner (which can also add cable revenue on a per-subscriber basis from basic cable bills) and held onto an event that has been one of its major sports properties for nearly three decades.

"This agreement with our colleagues at Turner and the NCAA secures CBS's standing as a year-round leader in sports television well into the next decade," said Sean McManus, president of CBS News and Sports. "In this agreement, we have created a new strategic partnership that not only makes this prestigious property an ongoing core asset in our stable of major television events, but a profitable one as well."

For TBS, which just a few weeks ago landed Conan O'Brien as host of a late-night program beginning in the fall, the deal provides more visible programming and more visibility in general. While ratings and viewership for regional semifinal games (and eventually regional finals and the Final Four) that air on TBS should logically be lower than those on CBS during the lifetime of the agreement, the events should draw larger-than-usual numbers for TBS and, again, allow access to cable with viewers who pay for specific channels as part of their monthly cable bills -- a revenue stream not available to broadcast networks such as CBS.

"This is landmark deal for Turner Broadcasting and we're extremely pleased to begin a long-term relationship with the NCAA and our partners at CBS and to have a commitment tht extends well into the next decade," said David Levy, president of sales, distribution and sports for Turner Broadcasting System Inc.

Mike and Mike Interview Big Ben's Lawyer

Credit Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic for conducting -- and especially their producers for landing -- an interview Thursday with William Cornwell, the attorney for suspended Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

The interview on "Mike and Mike in the Morning" (listen here) was as insightful and well-done as possible in the situation. Greenberg and Golic asked the right questions. While Cornwell deftly dodged some, he was refreshingly candid regarding some others.

For example, he acknowledged that a suspension of as many as 8 to 10 games was at least discussed by NFL officials. And he started making some correct steps toward helping the troubled athlete rebuild his image.

It will certainly take a long time for that to happen, especially for some in Pittsburgh, but the exchange was good radio all around.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Proximity Impacts Radio Prognosticators

Just a couple of hours after Colin Cowherd spent much of his show Wednesday mostly ranting to a national audience about what a mistake it would be for the Pittsburgh Steelers to trade Ben Roethlisberger, at least one Pittsburgh-based sports talk show was mostly championing a trade of the franchise's star quarterback.

From afar, it was easy (and sounded a little more sensible) for Cowherd on ESPN Radio to stress caution about possible overreactions or possibly overvaluing morals by a professional sports team. He correctly argued that Roethlisberger ranks as one of only a handful of athletes who can do what he does, and he said a trade would impact the team both short term and long term -- damaging hopes for on-field success in 2010 and potentially costing the team more for a high-round pick than Roethlisberger, with no guarantee of a performance payoff.

Conversely, "Seibel and Starkey" on 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh worked to be measured in their comments, but often sounded more like auctioneers for the troubled quarterback during their afternoon drive show. Clearly, the emotional scars were deeper closer to the story.

The Pittsburgh pair were more apt to point out the quarterback's history of problems, while Cowherd acknowledged Roethlisberger's troubles but did not dwell.

From afar, Cowherd argued the team should pull the quarterback closer and provide support systems, if necessary. With a closer view, the Pittsburgh hosts knew more from personal experience (especially Starkey who has been in the market and done a standout job for years) and were not as forgiving.

Often, the reverse happens in controversial situations. Those closer tend to be more parochial, protective and forgiving, while those farther away toss critical darts because they don't know better.

With Roethlisberger, it's interesting that the reactions are almost exactly -- and unanimously (judging by other national shows and other Pittsburgh-based shows) -- opposite.

Monday, April 19, 2010

NFL Draft About Glam and 'Wow'

Some people might tune into the NFL Draft to hear analysts and former players discuss how players selected fit into a specific team's schemes, or even speculate about on-field Xs and Os, but as the draft moves to a prime-time slot Thursday it's clear the NFL and its TV partners believe those people are a minority.

Both ESPN and the NFL Network will cover the proceedings -- and both plan red-carpet shows to start their coverage.

Whiles hard-core fans who wait hours for a seat at Radio City Music Hall comprise most of the live audience in New York City, the draft's producers (and the league) have entertainment on their minds with the first round taking place at night for the first time this year.

Everyone agrees people will be watching, and they want to give them something special -- something that resembles an awards show.

"Just on the ratings, it's going to have a huge impact on Thursday night. It's a largely viewed night in prime time. The promotion leads to all of that awareness," ESPN senior coordinating producer Jay Rothman said during a teleconference last week.

League officials invited more players to be at Radio City Music Hall in person this year, another move designed to boost TV.

"The electricity and abundance of players will make it more of a 'wow' factor," Rothman said. "Increasing from eight to 14 players is a big deal. We've sprinkled more cameras around the theater to have more vantage points to capture that a little bit more. I think it will be pretty electric."

(Unless you're the only one of the 14 players brought to the Big Apple and for some reason your draft stock slides.)

The move away from a football-specific holiday for hard-core fans to a TV show started years ago, with the draft expanding over a series of days and starting later on its first day. With the prime-time move, the league and its TV partners get more opportunities to polish and present the draft as a special event.

It will be interesting to see how coverage evolves, though, because the TV types have promised somewhat contradictory approaches at times.

Specifically, during the teleconference, Rothman said: "The approach this year is less is more, keep it in Radio City, keep it where the action is, keep it where the buzz is and make it more simple and fleet-footed." But, according to USA Today this week, ESPN's arsenal includes cameras in the homes of 25 potential draftees.

Still, expect the Xs and Os and talk about the "best player available" to dominate draft coverage overall. While Thursday night's first round gets glammed up, the heart and soul of draft coverage remains ESPN's Mel Kiper, pick-by-pick speculation and opinions after each and every pick. Plus, the event rarely plays out as expected.

A "reach" for a player earlier than anticipated, another player sliding down board or even an unexpected trade usually shake things up -- and those unplanned things often make a broadcast better than any of the planned, pre-packaged efforts.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Paterno's Role Limited for Spring Game

A nearly three-decade tradition at Penn State will come to an end April 24 when coach Joe Paterno does not work as color commentator for most of the Blue-White Game, the annual scrimmage that marks an end to spring practice.

Paterno, 83, will participate in the broadcast, but only on a limited basis. He'll also appear on TV as ESPN2 broadcasts the game nationally.

The game begins at 2 p.m., and the A-list TV crew for the assignment includes Brent Musburger, Kirk Herbstreit, Desmond Howard and Matt Millen. With a two-hour window for coverage, expect the visit from ESPN2 to focus on college football in Happy Valley in general and on the game itself.

In fact, more of the former would not be a surprise. With Penn State regularly attracting 75,000 fans for its spring game, a focus on the atmosphere and, when Paterno's in the booth, the state of college football would not be a surprise.

On the field, Penn State has a quarterback battle (Kevin Newsome, Matt McGloin, Paul Jones) and one of the nation's best running backs (Evan Royster), and those storylines might merit some focus and prompt some interest. But it's not as if every play (or any play, unless someone gets hurt) matters in a spring football scrimmage.

That's just what makes Paterno's absence on radio a loss, though. He made the spring game entertaining, and he made it matter.

Paterno had worked the radio side of the final spring practice scrimmage annually since the late 1970s. At one time, when his brother George was alive and working as the regular color commentator for the broadcasts, the spring games were must-listen radio.

In fact, many of the media members who cover the team on a regular basis would come to the Blue-White Game prepared with a small radio and ear buds to keep an ear on the broadcast while they watched the scrimmage themselves. The brothers' banter was always entertaining because they were not afraid to contradict or question each other about what was happening or what the on-field action meant.

It might have been difficult at first for non-discerning listeners to tell the difference between the two Brooklyn born and bred brothers, but the comments eventually made it obvious.

Even without his brother at his side in more recent year, Joe Paterno was always the highlight of the Blue-White Game on radio. He was honest in his assessments, insightful and opinionated. Despite his sometimes obvious disdain for the media, Paterno was great as a media member with the once-a-year assignment.

Plus, his presence provided an extra personal connection to both him and the program. Fans and listeners got better insights into the team, because Paterno almost always said what he was thinking -- and you could hear either the appreciation or irritation in his voice, depending on what had happened on the field. Those listeners also got an extra insight into the coach himself, and his personality.

The move comes in part because it's a busy weekend at Penn State, with the kickoff of a major fundraising campaign where Paterno will be front and center as some events. The TV presence also plays a part, because when ESPN2 shows up it expects to have access to the coach. And nearly 1 million people (based on viewership for ESPN2's spring games last year) will tune in to watch the Blue-White Game.

Those who tune in on radio will be at a loss without a full game of the coach's comments, though.

Best: Bradshaw Berates Big Ben

Hall of Fame quarterback and Fox Sports NFL analyst Terry Bradshaw had the best comments, on-the-mark and unfiltered, about Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger this week. And they came early in the week -- before even more allegations about the incident in Georgia involving Roethlisberger, 26, and a college undergraduate became public.

While critics of Bradshaw would argue (and possibly correctly) that Bradshaw, a former Steelers quarterback himself, certainly enjoyed himself off the field during his playing days, that's no reason to dismiss his comments. It's not a matter of the pot calling the kettle black, or Bradshaw forgetting how he conducted himself 30 or 35 years ago during his career.

Bradshaw was asked a question and responded. With age and experience on his side, his criticisms and perspective were valid.

Plus, he was showing midseason form as an NFL studio analyst.

During his career Bradshaw has evolved. He's gone from being called dumb as a player to someone who was goofy and entertaining that crafted a career in movies and on TV. Now, as an elder statesman (or at least the oldest guy on the set) on NFL studio shows, he's becoming more a voice of the game.

Sure, he might come off a bit grumpy or old school, bit it rarely sounds bitter. He remains one of TV's best studio talkers and in this situation -- having played his entire career in Pittsburgh for the Rooney family that owns the Steelers -- he brings an important point of view.

Maybe people feel emboldened to pile on with Roethlisberger facing a growing public relations nightmare (and, it seems, a possible suspension), but Bradshaw was not one of them. What he said was heartfelt, personal and spot-on -- and it came without an ulterior motive. Rarely to TV types provide such insight, whether on air or in a moment like this, but that approach has become what's defined Bradshaw's quality work in general.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

NFL Schedule Coming April 20

After reported delays because of an effort to add more divisional games in the final weeks of the season, the NFL announced it would unveil its 2010 regular season schedule on April 20.

The unveiling of the league's lineup of 256 games -- and, more importantly, which games will appear on Sunday, Monday and Thursday nights in prime-time slots -- ranks as a big day for many NFL fans who wait for the announcement and then fill in dates on their calendars and planners, and then schedule their fall and winter weekends around games.

This year the announcement comes just two days before the NFL Draft, making for a busy week for league officials.

While the NFL no doubt wanted to get the schedule out sooner, some factors beyond the league's control might have played into the delay. For example, a busy offseason featured the move of some big-name players (Donovan McNabb among them) and well-publicized troubles for other big-name players (with Ben Roethlisberger atop that list).

After all, a matchup between the Redskins (McNabb's new team) and the Eagles (his old team) certainly might be of more interest to TV now than it was a month ago. Also, Roethlisberger's troubles almost certainly hurt the chances of the Steelers getting multiple numbers of prime-time games -- as they have in the past -- becuase the NFL certainly does not want to put a troubled player and much-hyped off-field storyline front and center any more than necessary.

Since reshaping the schedule inevitably takes time, the NFL's reactions to those actions might be another reason for the delay in releasing the schedule. We'll find out for sure April 20.

Indecision Produces Solid Sports Talk

Too often sports talk radio thrives only on opinions, reaction and vitriol, with common decency and common sense lost in all the jabber.

Thankfully, though, a sensible island if indecision exists -- and that's why "Mike and Mike in the Morning" on ESPN Radio remains the best sports talk show on radio.

Hosts Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg have opinions, and they're not afraid to share them when appropriate, but they never rant and rave just for reaction. They prefer informed discussion, and when they do not have a strong opinion they're not afraid to share their indecision with listeners.

Greenberg did that again on Wednesday morning's show when the discussion turned to LeBron James and his recent streak of sitting out games late in the season despite being healthy. Some argue the NBA star has a responsibility to play, providing paying customers the on-court presence they expect to see when they purchase a ticket. Some argue it's OK for him to sit out and rest in preparation for the playoffs because he's ultimately there to help the franchise win a championship.

Greenberg had no stomach for an argument on either side, though. He told listeners he could see the situation from both sides, and he and Golic capably and thoughtfully talked about the pros and cons of the situation.

Still, they refused to pick a side just to prompt reaction -- something many other radio hosts would do in a heartbeat -- and that inaction was refreshing. Sports talk radio needs more of that, and it's already good that it exists with "Mike and Mike."

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Masters Ratings/Viewers Up, But Not a Record

According to Neilsen Media Research numbers from CBS Sports, an estimated 46.5 million viewers watched all or part of weekend coverage of The Masters.

Third- and fourth-round coverage of the tournament was the most watched in nine years, when 47.9 million viewers watched Tiger Woods win in 2001. This year's numbers were up 11 percent from last year, when 46.5 million people watched the final two rounds of the event -- which included a two-hole playoff before Angel Cabrera won over Kenny Perry and Chad Campbell.

Numbers for this year were up in large part because of the presence/return to competition of Woods and the storyline involving champion Phil Mickelson.

Still, Woods' first championship at The Masters, in 1997, remains the highest-rated golf tournament ever. Back then, 32 percent of all TVs in the United States were tuned into the action during the final round. This year's final round attracted 24 percent.

On ESPN, the first and second rounds last week (Thursday and Friday) averaged 4.3 million viewers to become the most-viewed two-round golf telecasts in cable history.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Gruden: Compelling, But a Conflict?

We're more than a week away from the NFL Draft with coverage previewing the event in full swing on ESPN and the NFL Network and a shining star has emerged on TV.

Former NFL coach and current "Monday Night Football" analyst John Gruden -- possibly the best analyst to jump from his sport to TV in recent years -- consistently proves his skills in front of the camera, and his pre-draft work provides another testament to that skill.

The first of his one-on-one evaluations/interviews with top quarterbacks in the draft made its debut on ESPN platforms this past weekend and the segment with Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford was great TV.

It's Gruden at his best, as a coach and as a talent adviser. As the two watch film together, fans get some football insights as well as some insights into Gruden's personality. Both make the segment work -- especially when Gruden chides Bradford for his inability to slide when trying to protect himself from a big hit, and then mere minutes later praises the soon-to-be NFL rookie for launching himself into defenders as he nears the end zone on another play.

Even Gruden admits its confusing, but it works and it's compelling.

What's also confusing, though, is Gruden's exact role when working with the quarterbacks who will be featured in the segments. Is he an analyst doing preseason work with a little extra access for his job? Is he a consultant helping the quarterbacks prepare for the draft (albeit one with a full-time gig covering the NFL on TV)?

That's the only things that's unclear, and it's an important distinction. While it's good TV, the how and where of its fit in the overall picture does matter because people who consume/watch the segments should know whether they're watching a guy just talking football as part of a preparation and reporting effort or whether they're watching someone getting paid to help the QBs improve.

ESPNews Live w/Stasburg? A Plausibility Lie

Maybe the folks at ESPN were taking a page from the Olympics -- and the time-tested arguments from NBC Sports that coverage can be presented "plausibly live" -- with their live coverage Sunday of pitching phenom Steven Strasburg's debut in Altoona, Pa.

While ESPNews repeatedly pitched coverage of the half innings with Strasburg on the mound as live, that was not the case.

My column from the Altoona Mirror about the coverage of the event follows ...

Every pitch live?


It was just a pitch of lies.

The promised national television broadcast of a sporting event from Blair County, even if it was only supposed to be live look-ins at the half innings when Steven Strasburg pitched, never happened as expected Sunday.

When mighty ESPN promises every pitch live on ESPNews, that's not an unrealistic expectation. Instead, ESPNews picked up live audio and video from the Altoona Curve for just one inning.

Subsequent innings were aired on tape - even though ESPNews host Ryan Burr repeatedly said the action was live. Apparently ESPNews has no need for credibility or ethics.

Baseball fans got live action for just 11 minutes, from 2:11 p.m. to 2:22 p.m. After that, it was tape time - and it was not a shining moment for ESPN, which continually pitched the action as live.

Before the game started, ESPNews worked to hype the look-ins, using baseball expert Tim Kurkjian to discuss Strasburg's potential with Burr during a six-minute segment that started at 1:43 p.m.

At that time, things were shaping up nicely for a timely Altoona travelogue and a focus on Strasburg. But time constraints intervened, as did coverage of The Masters and the same-day debut of another heavily hyped minor league pitcher, Aroldis Chapman.

ESPNews tried to balance all that and failed.

While all the Strasburg action eventually showed up on TV, anyone who knows baseball and even casual fans had to know the action was canned, just because the time between innings was so long.

ESPNews failed to deliver what it promised because it knowingly and repeatedly fibbed about the timeline as it provided updates from The Masters and provided look-ins at Chapman's debut vs. the Toledo Mud Hens.

Fans frustrated by the lack of live action featuring the Altoona Curve and Harrisburg Senators either found Strasburg coverage live online at ESPN3.com or waited through the afternoon to see what made TV when ESPNews had time to squeeze in the taped action.

Still, the time-shifting approach was the fault of ESPNews and not the hometown host Curve - who handled their duties during the day fairly well.

Play-by-plan man Dan Zangrilli was good, capably dropping in info about team history and the region without sounding like a shill. He covered nuts-and-bolts action and hit high notes when appropriate - raising his voice for "A top-shelf defensive gem!" by Curve second baseman Jose De Los Santos, for example.

Plus, the Curve was prepared. Their consistent on-screen graphics from the center-field camera view promoted "Curve, Pa." and partner Atlantic Broadband. Likewise, Zangrilli put Altoona on the map early by providing anyone listening or watching with information that Altoona sits about 90 miles east of Pittsburgh and 35 miles southwest of State College.

Additionally, the team had prepared on-screen graphics that showed a usual runs-hits-and-errors scoreboard and included notes about former players now in the major leagues and the city as the home of Sheetz. Curve video guru John Foreman directed a team that got all the necessary shots, and the cuts between them were appropriate and big league.

All that was missing - and they were surprising omissions - were some type of on-screen pitch speed indicator and references to Strasburg's pitch count. Zangrilli continually needed to note the pitch speed when Strasburg was on the mound, and that happened only after the ballpark's speed screen endured a first-inning hiccup and then started working.

Not having Strasburg's pitch count maximum and his progress toward that number mentioned was simply frustrating. After all, those two numbers (pitch speed and pitch count) were arguably the most important of the afternoon, and they were somehow overlooked. Doubly frustrating, analyst Stan Belinda was no help.

Strasburg's final total, 82 pitches, was eventually noted. That came, live, as part of the online coverage, at 3:51 p.m.

Still, from Burr's mention of the roller coaster beyond the outfield fence before the coverage began to Zangrilli's down-time discussion and information about the history of the Horseshoe Curve and the team itself, the exposure for the franchise and the region was positive. From the team's perspective, it was well done, too.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A, B, C ... Woods for Hype at Masters

It's subtle, but it's wrong -- and it's another a part of the unnecessary hype for The Masters by CBS Sports and ESPN.

As the first major of the year, and as a result of the loving treatment the golf tournament has always earned from its broadcast partners, The Masters has an unrivaled role as the best and most well-known tournament on U.S. soil -- and possibly the world.

Even casual fans know the characters and storylines, especially this year with Tiger Woods returning to competition.

Sometimes the hype by CBS Sports and ESPN goes beyond reason, though, and the nontraditional and unethical and use of on-screen graphics showing the leaders provides a tangible example.

In any sport's standings, whether it's golf or a team sport, individuals or teams with idential records are typically listed alphabetically. So, if four golfers were minus-4 at a tournament, they would be listed in order by their last names -- Bronson, Mulder, Parker and Smith, for example.

At The Masters, Woods always comes first when he's tied with other golfers. It happens with live coverage from CBS Sports and on "SportsCenter" segments or updates on ESPN.

It's a subtle move that puts Woods higher on the leaderboard. Logically, the TV types could argue that the lists are accurate becuase all players tied have the same score, but it's most striking when Woods is one of three golfers standing on a number. He's then listed first, followed by two golfers listed in alphabetical order.

In fairness, almost every broadcast entity follows the "Woods Alphabet" when the world's best golfer is involved and they're covering an event. It's all about the hype, pushing the sport's most TV-friendly name to the top of the leaderboard whenever possible. That's just it, though, it's hype ... pushing ... and it's wrong -- because it shows the broadcasters obvious bias.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Cordial, Successful ... What Did They Expect?

Golf voice Jim Nantz wondered aloud about the reception for Tiger Woods as he walked up the fairway on No. 18 during his first round Thursday at The Masters. (It was golf claps all around, maybe even loud golf claps.)

Nantz then said the reception for the world's No. 1 golfer had been kind all day long.

After Woods' round, Mike Tirico did the obligatory interview in Butler Cabin at Augusta National and asked Woods the necessary questions about his nerves and the way he was treated on the course.

Both Nantz and Woods did what they had to do but, really, honestly, was anyone expecting anything but a cordial, even warm, reception for Woods at The Masters? And, really, honestly, was anyone expecting him to struggle after his layoff?

While we repeatedly heard that Woods had endured 20 weeks without golf, it's not as if he was unable to practice during that time. In fact, he told Tirico that focused practice sessions were the key to his strong performance -- his first sub-70 opening round at The Masters.

What people saw Thursday -- and they saw every possible shot from the time ESPN began its coverage at 4 p.m. until it concluded around 7:35 p.m. with the Tirico-Woods interview -- was a more focused Woods. And that means a productive golfer, as always.

Still, what's most surprising about the coverage was all the surprise from TV commentators -- the experts and our supposed on-site eyes and ears on site at the tournament, and on the tour itself. They're supposed to know the golfers, the tour and all the subplots we do not.

With Woods immediately in contention, just two shots back after the first round, and the on-air types seemingly surprised by what had happened, those at home knew just as much as those working the hallowed grounds in Georgia. Hopefully, we'll get more insights, some quality insights, in succeeding rounds of the tournament.

Ad Allows Nike, Woods to Do It

Nobody expected Tiger Woods and the business partners and sponsors who stood beside him during his much-publicized off-course problems to never return to the business of making money -- and the first ad unveiled for The Masters proved Nike and Woods were not above addressing the issue directly in order to capitalize.

The ad uses the voice of Woods' late father to ask the golfer questions as he looks directly into the camera.

It's certainly a striking and well-constructed commercial, and it's already generating both positive and negative reaction -- a goal for any sports marketer.

What's troubling, though, is that while Woods professes to want to put the off-course character/marital issues behind him and change, we get a commercial (controlled by him and his handlers) that takes advantage of the issue in a manner that only he can. It almost seems like an in-your-face swing at those who've questioned him, again putting him clearly in charge.

Granted, any commercial that was just golf-related would draw criticism as avoiding the issue, but this approach almost seems too strong.

As The Masters Begins, It's (Correctly) Just Golf

When Tiger Woods tees off at 1:42 p.m. Thursday, ESPN will have the shot live.

Then, at 4 p.m., as the all-sports network begins its first-round coverage of The Masters and the world's best and most-talked-about golfer completes his round, almost all his other shots will be show live as well.

Judging by the comments of on-air talent and behind-the-scenes folks for both ESPN, which carries the tournament's first and second rounds Thursday and Friday, and CBS Sports, which carries the third and fourth rounds on Saturday and Sunday, it will be golf on TV and nothing more with Woods this weekend.

While ESPN gets the first opportunity at the story of Woods' return to competition (and it could be the only opportunity of he were to somehow miss the cut and miss weekend action, although that's unlikely), there's no sense of urgency to share that story. They certainly will not dwell on the infidelity, stint in sex rahab or much else.

In a teleconference earlier this week, ESPN host said "no one's bigger than The Masters" and ESPN executive vice president John Wildhack said the tournament is "THE story line, and we're here to cover The Masters tournament."

Likewise, in an separate teleconference earlier this week, Jim Nantz said nearly a half dozen times in the span of a half-hour phone call with CBS Sports talent and production staff that they would be in Augusta, Ga., to cover a golf tournament, not conduct a "studio show."

Both Nantz and Tirico are correct. At this point, the Woods story should move to his performance on the golf course. While some critics want background, context or perspective about Woods' off-course life and what happened last fall that cost him millions of dollars in sponsorship and possibly his marriage, to dwell on those aspects would be irresponsible and wrong.

Sure, they need mentioned, probably when we viewers first meet Woods again on a telecast. After that, though, it would be overkill. Most viewers no longer care about the specifics -- they either know they'll never know or have finally come to the realization that there's no need for him to know.

Still, Woods will be front and center Thursday and Friday -- as least as much as ESPN can put him front and center in a responsible manner -- because he remains golf's overriding personality and story. His news conference from Augusta National on Monday drew higher TV ratings than all the tournaments on the Golf Channel last year.

People -- that's patrons if you're watching The Masters -- want the golf story, though. And both ESPN and CBS Sports seem more than happy to oblige.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Championship Game Scores for CBS Sports

Underdog Butler and proven TV power Duke drove ratings for Monday night's championship game of the NCAA Tournament 34 percent higher than last year's championship game.

Butler-Duke pulled a 16.0 household rating and a 25 share -- up from 11.9/19 for North Carolina-Michigan State in 2009.

According to CBS Sports, the Butler-Duke numbers tied 2005 (North Carolina-Illinois) as the highest-rated game in metered markets since 1999 (UConn-Duke).

Not surprisingly, Butler-Duke drew its highest ratings from 11:30 to 11:45 p.m., with 20.3/35.

With the championship game, the average overnight ratings for the tournament was 6.6/14, a 5 percent increase over last year. That makes the just-completed tournament the highest rated overall since 2005, which averaged 6.9/15.

In terms of the national championship telecast itself, CBS Sports provided accurate and enjoyable coverage. Analyst Clark Kellogg has seemingly developed more of a comfort level being critical on a big stage (although he rarely disagreed with any fouls called) and the production stayed away from any easy and lazy "Hoosiers" or Cinderella/underdog storylines.

Yes, there was one bit of "Hoosiers" music and collage of images late in the game, but it was not over the top.

While play-by-play man Jim Nantz and Kellogg talked about the atmosphere in Lucas Oil Stadium a couple of times -- with Nantz asking his partner "Have you ever seen as scene like this?" -- the atmosphere did not transfer well to viewers at home. It seemed no more loud or raucous than any other championship basketball game.

Later, Kellogg guessed wrong when he suggested that Duke would shoot early in a possession late in the game. At the time the Blue Devils were up, so it seemed to make sense that they'd hold the ball a bit before shooting. That was one of the few missteps during the telecast, though.

Technically, the only problem seemed to be an overuse of high overhead cameras that provided an unfamiliar angle on game action. While the typical sideline shot was slightly higher because of camera placement in the stadium, it was hard to tell any difference by what showed up on screen. Too often, though, the production team selected shots from even higher cameras that hung over the court.

They seemed like something that would be a fine selection for diagramming a play or providing a slow motion recap of action that had happened, but for live action the angle was just different enough that it seemed uncomfortable. It was not a bad view, just something not typical of a basketball game and trotting it out during the national championship game seemed that it was more a matter of utilizing bells and whistles as opposed to providing a comfortable or familier viewing experience for fans at home.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Slight Ratings Rise Rare for Tournament

Ratings for Saturday's national semifinals doubleheader on CBS Sports were their highest in several years, and ratings for the entire NCAA Tournament are up slightly, according for information from the network.

The combined numbers for both games Saturday drew a 9.7 rating and a 19 share, up 8 percent from last year and the highest for those games since 2005. Both games were up 8 percent from last year.

Coverage of the tournament overall is up 2 percent for CBS Sports, drawing an average rating of 6.2 and a viewing share of 13 percent.

If the overall numbers hold up -- and they certainly should with initial interest in tonight's matchup between underdog Butler and TV favorite Duke, unless the Blue Devils somehow take control of the game and viewers become less interested late in the game -- the tournament would finish as the highest-rated for CBS Sports since 2005.

Still, ratings for the event have generally been on a slide the past half decade. In the decade after CBS Sports started televising the tournament in 1982, ratings were usually in the 9s with shares in the low 20s.

Since 1994, final average ratings have never been higher than 8.3 (and that happened only in 1994) with shares of 19 (again, that high-water mark was in 1994). The tournament has instead trended down, thanks to changing viewing habits and the proliferation and splintering of U.S. television viewing options.

Ratings have slippped from 7s and 6s to 5.7 last year while shares have slid from 17s to 15s and a 12 last year.

This season's numbers would represent an important, albeit rare, uptick -- coming at an interesting time, because this could be the final championship game on CBS Sports if a much-rumored change in the tournament format happens. According to indications, the NCAA might opt out of its contract with CBS Sports and rebid the event, with ESPN has the generally accepted primary suitor.

The numbers beg all kinds of questions -- not the least of which is why ESPN would want to pay more for something that's drawing less TV attention and viewers. On top of that, any revamped tournament (96 teams) would seemingly water down ratings and shares even more by adding more content to a seemingly oversaturated market.

Because of its ability to charge cable customers directly, though, ESPN has a better model to produce the revenue the money-hungry NCAA wants for its men's basketball tournament. It has to be concerning so someone, though, that the since 2005 the tournament lost nearly 13 million viewers, according to total audience estimates by CBS Sports.

In 2005, the latest high-water mark was 141.7 million viewers for the tournament. In 2009, those same estimates were at 128.9 million viewers. That's a 9 percent drop in viewers in just five years.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Techno Tackles Stadium Size at Final Four

INDIANAPOLIS -- In its basketball configuration, Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, site of the Final Four national semifinals Saturday and national championship game Monday, seats 70,000 people -- with all those people spread across the expanse of the stadium focused on a hardwood area 94-feet long by 50-feet wide.

Not many people will be really close to the action.

CBS Sports will not have many camera operators or hand-held camers close to the court, either.

"The NCAA has helped us get closer to the court," said director Bob Fishman. "Our main play-by-play camers are farther away, but we're going to have cameras all over the court -- robotic cameras."

Long, powerful lenses will make the game action from the primary play-by-play cameras look no different than what college basketball fans typically see on TV, and with robotic cameras stationed all over the place (attached to the backboards, tables on the baseline and even near the benches), fans should see all they want of the three remaining games of the season.

Howard Bryant, vice president of production for CBS Sports, calls the cameras focused on the benches "the big ad" for the Final Four. As the NCAA Tournament progresses and games become more and more important, CBS Sports typically adds more gizmos and technology to cover the games.

Another difference this weekend is the location of the court. Last season the court was centered on the football field at Ford Field in Detorit, and that'll be the same again this year. It's the first time basketball games have been played with that configuration at Lucas Oil Stadium, though. Previous games here, whether part of a regular season doubleheader with Indiana or as part of an NCAA Regional, all featured the hardwood positioned in an end zone of the football field.