Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Weathering The TV Networks

Even for all those millions of dollars the sports media still can't control the weather. But the sports media can control itself. It's too soon to know if this will happen more often, but the past weekend's weather delays for football games and a key NASCAR race raise some interesting questions for those in charge of the TV coverage.

Rain or weather delays have been a factor regarding baseball telecasts for years, but very rarely has it come up during football telecasts, only to have several college football games delayed (with one stopped completely) due to severe storm conditions.

Granted, ESPN has an advantage over most other networks during weather delays since it has immediate studio and game resources on which to rely, even when not expected during a football telecast.

On Saturday (9/3) NBC was put in the rare position of what turned out to be lengthy rain delays during its Notre-Dame vs. South Florida telecast that began during the late afternoon hours. The network began by doing an excellent job given the unusual circumstances. It was one instance where having a "reporter" in addition to the broadcast booth actually enhanced the telecast, as Alex Flanagan was able to secure an interview with N.D. Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick. Viewers were brought up to date on what the players could and could not do during the weather delay. Tom Hicks, filling in for Tom Hammond on play-by-play (odd that Hammond would have another NBC assignment ahead of the N.D. season opener), was able to interview Terry McAulay of the Big East Conference regarding the rules and procedures for such weather delays.

Granted, the weather delays totaled more than 2 1/2 hours, NBC wasn't expecting this, and it was not a full slate of other NCAA games on Saturday. Yet, NBC instead opted to replay much of a past Notre Dame game while keeping the South Bend radar and delay information on the screen during a large portion of these delays. I know I'll get the responses that NBC's contract is for Notre Dame games and not with the NCAA. My point is that replaying a past game, no matter how enjoyable at the time it happened for N.D. fans, leaves much of the audience hanging. Or should I say looking for something else to watch. During this time period, there were several other live games still being televised just about everywhere in the country in addition to the ESPN and ABC games.

As one who complains because the networks tend to have way too many studio analysts for pre-game, halftime, and post-game segments because the good ones don't get enough time to comment, this was a situation where it would have helped. Sorry, NBC, but the idea should be to stay live and current. This was the season opener for N.D. No reason there shouldn't have been profiles of players at key positions, an in-depth look at the remaining schedule (at the very least the home games), and more scoreboard updates. Heck, even more info about future opponents would likely have retained the viewing audience ahead of a recorded game from a past season.

NBC was fortunate to have Versus to take over the live coverage into prime time. Normally, I'd be upset about them moving the game, but in this instance I certainly understand that weather delays of this magnitude could not have been anticipated in time to make revised programming arrangements.

On Sunday (9/4)ESPN wound up with weather delays during both its Marshall at West VA football coverage and the its NASCAR rate scheduled for Atlanta. The football game was delayed, and later not completed with the score at the time standing as the final, during its late afternoon time slot. The telecast was scheduled to have ended in time for the NASCAR race, which was also delayed and eventually postponed. Although ESPN hoped to fill the NASCAR delay with the conclusion of the football game, neither took place.

The saving grace is that ESPN has so many "live" resources immediately available, including its College GameDay coverage crew and its NASCAR studio crew. Thus, ESPN was able to offer the live updates, analysis, and coverage of scores, other games, and sports events, that NBC didn't.

I'm sure that there will be more discussion and perhaps policy discussed by the NCAA, member schools, and likely TV network officials, in the very near future, regarding ways to handle these weather delays. Storms such as these do impact player and fan safety, and it's good that the schools consider fan safety given the high cost of attending a game these days.

Hopefully the networks other than ESPN/ABC will be ready with live programming, interviews, and features in the event of future delays.

Meanwhile, while the fallout understandably continues about the startup of the Texas Longhorn Network, the University of Missouri is moving forward with its own TV presentation. To its credit, Missouri is doing it much differently. The Mizzou Network is scheduled to debut on December 1st (thus not for this new football season), and will be internet based. Most of the content will be free, including some live telecasts of lesser sports events. Word is there will also be some shows from football and basketball practices and other behind-the-scenes sports activities, with the idea being for branding rather than revenue, as it should be.

The Mizzou Network will have the rights to show one football game per season (starting in 2012) and any basketball games not already picked up by TV stations or regional/national networks, but may do so as a pay-per-view. Normally, I'm not in favor of pay-per-view of sports events, but if the cost is reasonable, it makes more sense than the Longhorn Network expecting people who do not support the U. of Texas to cough up still more dollars each month to have the channel they might not want. When even some of the large cable/satellite companies aren't carrying the Longhorn Network because of the revenue concerns, it shows you how much out of proportion TV costs have become.

Yet, the Longhorn Network snuck through another aggravating announcement late last week. Now that it won't easily be able to show high school games live as it hoped, the Longhorn Network will now show five home football games of UTSA (University of Texas San Antonio) starting this Saturday (9/10) vs. McMurry. They seem to have overlooked how UTSA is part of the University of Texas. Now it is as though the Network was limited to UT in Austin, and not even for the entire university system. Yes, how nice of the University of Texas to be willing to share some of the millions and millions of dollars it is trying to soak people for with a part of its own system.

On the NHL side, NBC and Versus continue to be aggressive about the NHL on TV for this season, especially as the NBA lockout continues while NHL teams open training camp. Versus now plans to air at least 4 exhibition games nationally. In the past few years, only the NHL Network showed some. It is possible that these will be national feeds of local Comcast SportsNet telecasts to reduce production costs, but understandable since the CSN family is also part of the NBC Sports Network family. Three of the telecasts are Flyers games, already scheduled to be shown on CSN Philadelphia, while the fourth is a Chicago Blackhawks game already scheduled for CSN Chicago:

Sept. 21, 7:00 p.m. – Toronto vs. Philadelphia
Sept. 26, 7:00 p.m. – NY Rangers vs. Philadelphia
Sept. 28, 8:30 p.m. – Detroit vs. Chicago
Sept. 29, 7:00 p.m. – New Jersey vs. Philadelphia (VERSUS)

On the Canadian side, CBC and TSN will each air at least 4 exhibition games, with all featuring at least one of the Canadian teams in action.

In the Atlanta market, efforts are underway to maintain an NHL presence on the regional sports networks. As of press time, an announcement is pending regarding the market receiving a steady diet of Nashville Predators games this coming season. If so, it will be most interesting to see the audience measurements, and see if fans have given up on the NHL or would rally to indicate that Atlanta should again have a team in the league.

SAN DIEGO: As a disappointing season comes to an end for the Padres, it could be end of an era for the team's local radio and TV coverage. The XX Sports Radio contract for the broadcasts is up at the end of this season, with no renewal announced as of yet. Last week, Channel 4 confirmed that it will not televise the Padres after this season. Dick Enberg is, as of press time, the only announcer under contract for 2012, and that's as far as his agreement goes. Mark Grant, Ted Leitner, and Andy Masur have not yet been renewed.

CHICAGO: We have another instance of a current player being signed to a paid media deal, as Comcast SportsNet Chicago has hired White Sox pitcher Jack Peavy for a "Jake's Take" segment to appear as a weekly video diary. The segments are expected to air on White Sox pre-game shows along with some of the network's nightly sports recap shows. Have to wonder about the demand for such a feature, given that the fans have heard enough excuses for Peavy earning close to $2 million per pitching victory this season.

MILWAUKEE: It's not just "any" football for Milwaukee area TV viewers. It's the Super Bowl champion Packers, obviously. This past Thursday (9/1) the Packers final exhibition game vs. Kansas City was on up against the University of Wisconsin's season opener head-to-head. Yet, the meaningless Packers telecast more than doubled the audience of the Badgers' opener of what could be a big bowl season.

PORTLAND ME: WPEI 95.9 has increased area coverage thanks to WLOB-FM 95.5 Topsham dropping its talk format (which continues on its AM) and picking up a simulcast of WPEI as of this week.

CORPUS CHRISTI TX and PENSACOLA FL: After losing several affiliates to Fox Sports Radio, ESPN Radio is taking steps to add more affiliates once again. Corpus Christi's 1440 KEYS went from news/talk to ESPN Radio on Thursday (9/1), while Pensacola's WBSR 1450 dropped its light music format to become "1450 ESPN) this week.

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