Friday, December 28, 2012

Highs and Lows (2012) and A Look Ahead (2013)

In 2012, another sports network officially came to life -- with the launch of NBC Sports Network (rebranded from Versus) on Jan. 2 -- and the year produced many moments when on-air and production types shone during game coverage and related programming.

Of course, there were moments when those same folks were out to lunch as well. One of the most noticeable came during ESPN's coverage of the Notre Dame-USC football game when Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit, as well as two sideline reporters and their supporting production personnel, missed the on-field action when Irish QB Everett Golson lost his helmet and was forced to leave the game or one play.

Without that perspective, the on-air team speculated about irrelevant penalties and unrelated game strategy, neither of which served the viewers who knew more by simply watching what was on the screen.

As usual, it was year filled with that mix of highs and lows. Some of my favorites follow, as well as a quick look ahead at 2013.

Best Studio Show
"College GameDay" -- On Saturday mornings, this show sets the stage for all of the day's college football action, and it does so in an engaging and informative manner. Its weekly on-campus location provides unparalleled atmosphere, as well as the backdrop for some schtick. Still, the show invariably rises above the silly and delivers information, insights and news.

While TNT's NBA studio show comes close, thriving in its own right on the strengths of opinions and personalities, "College GameDay" remains the standard for which all other studio shows should strive.

Best Studio Host
Chris Fowler, ESPN -- The best studio show rests squarely on the shoulders of the best host. Fowler knows college football and always keeps the show on track, across conferences, across newsworthy and across the country. He keeps things comfortable for viewers and his partners, but he's clearly in control.

Close behind would be Ernie Johnson of TNT, in large part because of his ability to keep a show that features Charles Barkley on task but mostly because Johnson is very good at what he does.

Best Play-by-Play Team
Mike Breen/Jeff Van Gundy, ESPN/ABC -- Engaging and entertaining, steady and solid, a true team. Breen never misses the nuts-and-bolts action while offering appropriate moments for Van Gundy to share his expertise and options. They play well together, and play well on TV as a result. They're serious about their work and also provide appropriately lighthearted moments as well.

Many others teams are close, but none are as good.

Best Play-by-Play Man
Joe Buck, Fox Sports -- He's their top guy for baseball and football, and he deserves that spot in both instances. He's simply a pro who relates game action well and allows his color commentators to do their jobs. The few moments when he does not do that, and imposes his own opinion on broadcasts, represent the only glaring downside to his work.

Best Color Commentator
Chris Collinsworth, NBC Sports -- Always prepared and always opinionated, the two best possible traits of a color commentator. He knows what he's talking about and he's not afraid to tell viewers why. Too often, people in his seat offer silliness or the same-old tired approach. That's just not the case with Collinsworth. He makes play-by-play man Al Michaels better, and he always keeps the viewers in mind.

Best Sideline Reporter
Tom Rinaldi, ESPN/ABC and Doris Burke, EPSN/ABC -- In a world of the over-blonde and under-talented, these two stand out because they act and look different. They're serious reporters who share provide context and information, knowing all the while that the show and the segment of the show on which they appear is not about them. Viewers appreciate that approach and the resulting work.

Best Insider/Expert
Peter King, NBC Sports/Sports Illustrated -- During his comparatively brief TV time on Sunday nights as part of "Football Night in America," King shares good, timely information. Like all the best insiders, though, he sets himself apart by contributing to numerous outlets on various platforms, always sharing the kind of information readers/listerners/viewers want and often cannot get anywhere else. His connections seem ot set him apart.

Newcomer of the Year
Adnan Virk, ESPN/ABC -- With several radio hosts, most notably Doug Gottlieb, leaving ESPN Radio for other opportunities, depth could be a slight concern for ESPN Radio moving forward. Plenty of talent exists, it's just not easy for someone who move into a role and quickly make a connection or prove themselves. Virk did that well when filling in for Mike Greenberg on "Mike & Mike in the Morning" and got additional airtime throughout the year. The Canadian-born talent started as a host on ESPNNEWS and seems set for bigger and bigger roles in coming years.

Comeback Talent of the Year
Joe Buck, Fox Sports -- OK, he never really left but after a virus in the laryngeal nerve of his left vocal cord hampered him (and almost ended his career) in 2011, Buck recovered and returned to his usual high level of performance.

Where Have You Gone Award
Erin Andrews, Fox Sports -- Hired as host spot on the network's mostly overlooked college football studio show on Saturday nights, Andrews might not have been seen by any fewer viewers than she was in her role as a sideline reporter for games on ESPN/ABC, but she certainly seemed like a less important part of gamedays. Plus, she has not yet developed the gravitas to be a studio host.

TV Moment of the Year
Game-Winning Touchdown on "Monday Night Football" -- The controversial game-ending play as the Green Bay Packers lost to the Seattle Seahawks was the final game action of the season for the NFL's replacement officials and it was something that would not have happened without TV.

The shared-possession/touchdown call itself would have been problematic for the regular officials but that was really not a primary part of the discussion after viewers saw they play and then flocked in record numbers to watch "SportsCenter" after the game ended.

TV's ability to show the play from all angles fueled debate and quickly prompted league officials to end the dispute with officials. It was a testament to the power of TV.

Four things to watch for in radio/TV during the coming year.
1) The launch of CBS Sports Radio on Jan. 2 provides a challenge on another front for ESPN and ESPN Radio. With talent such as John Feinstein, Jim Rome and Doug Gottlieb -- each of whom hosts consecutive three-hour shows beginning at 9 a.m. -- and important support from CBS and Cumulus Media the sports network's lineup has already supplanted ESPN offerings in some markets.

2) The need for programming for CBS Sports Network and NBC Sports Network as they strive to compete with ESPN will drive rights fees for live events and related programming to even higher levels. Live sports events on TV remain highly desirable programming because viewers generally do not record those events. They watch -- and that's what the fledgling networks need.

3) The launch of a network for the Southeastern Conference should provide even more revenue for programs in that conference.

4) The debut, albeit a one-time-only affair, for Charles Barkley and Dick Vitale as they work a college basketball game together.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Avengers? Nah, The World Really Turns to Sports as Broadcasters Do a Job That's Not Really Theirs

In a time of crisis or need, a time of despair or tragedy, people the world over turn to sports. As an extension, they to sports broadcasts.

It's not just that people seek sporting events as a diversion or something that can bring a sense of normalcy. At its misplaced worst, those seekers want perspective as well.

The understandable need for community, shared perspectives and support drives many to burden sports leagues, teams and especially the sports broadcasters -- whether it's during the games themselves or as part of the associated pre-game and studio shows -- to provide a barometer of concern and some measure of news gathering and reporting about the crisis of the day.

In so many ways, that's like asking a dentist to set a broken leg. The person or persons doing the work might have some sense of how it's done, but it's hardly their job.

This past weekend's reaction to the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., provides the latest example.

Too many people expected networks to lead their NFL pre-game shows and game broadcasts with coverage of the tragedy. The broadcasters did so, and in general they did so in an appropriate manner.

Still, it's really not their job -- and even those in charge know it. Credit NBA commissioner David Stern for admitting as much Tuesday when discussing his league's moments of silence and efforts related to the tragedy with "Mike and Mike in the Morning" on ESPN Radio.

"There is no way to help. When we do those tributes and moments of silence, we're more helping ourselves than anything else," Stern said. "You do the necessary, which is pay tribute of some kind, but the images were so graphic and sad that I just don't think sports adds anything. We all together felt so helpless watching this, that it was more profound than anything we could have done."

Not even such honesty -- which those in charge across broadcast networks and leagues certainly share if they're truly open about it -- can limit expectations, though. Hypersensitive and thin-skinned consumers and critics, often the most vocal of all who listen or watch, always want more. And in this latest instance broadcasters acquiesced.

On ESPN's coverage of the New Mexico Bowl, for example, the on-air tandem of Bob Wischusen and Danny Kanell referred to Nevada's pistol offense as the "Nevada offense" to avoid any reference to guns.

In fairness, some outlets and schools do have a higher level of responsibility in this situation. They have the credibility and proximity to address the situation with as much concern as they would like. That includes ESPN, located just a half hour or so from the site of the shootings, and New York-area professional teams, as well as UConn and other local colleges and universities.

Beyond that, sports media types really should not be expected to weigh in on the matter. They have other jobs to do.

That they do offer perspective, though, provides more insight about their personality, and the humanity of the people producing the shows. It's a good thing for them to do. It's the right thing for them to do. But it's not their job -- especially in regard to the death of 20 young children and six adults in a shooting spree by a disturbed young man.

Broadcasters must cover a murder-suicide involving an NFL player that took place in part at a team's practice facility, which happened three weeks ago. They also must cover the death of an NFL player in a drunk-driving accident when a teammate was driving the vehicle, which happened two weeks ago.

When we have expectations of what happens on TV or radio in regard to coverage of the tragic deaths of elementary school children, though, those expectations should be heaped on newscasts and cable news networks, not outlets that focus on sports. Instead, we should appreciate their work and thank them for providing that community, that forum and that shared place to enjoy (just a little bit) a small bit of normalcy. Anything beyond that is not their job.