Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Why Sports Telecasts Should Be Uniform

How many more un-needed distractions will sports fans have to put up with during telecasts in 2013? The time has come for the media to put its foot down for the benefit of the fans and viewers.

ABC and ESPN brought us more examples of this unfortunate trend on Christmas Day. Even as these networks combined to bring sports fans the five NBA games over 13 hours of live programming, viewers were forced to endure every participating team wearing a different uniform appearance. I tuned in a few minutes into the Boston vs. Brooklyn telecast early afternoon, and found myself having to double check to be sure it was an NBA game on. It looked as though it was two amateur teams playing hoops in their pajamas until I noticed the score on the screen indicated it really was the Celtics and Nets. Moments later a friend entered the room and asked me if there was a pro game on instead.

This became even more disturbing as the day and night went on, and every team was wearing solid color uniforms which looked more like pajamas or warm-up suits. The numbers were difficult to impossible to read unless it was a ground level replay. Players without distinguishing features such as facial hair, long hair, no hair, headbands, etc. were not identifiable as quickly as usual.

And for what? It seems to me every viewer tuning in already knew it was Christmas. Whatever happened to "Merry Christmas" being shown on the screen above the score at every time out or stoppage in play?

In a way, this was even worse than the alternate or throw-up uniforms ("throw back" as the leagues call them, which I keep hoping they will do). The totally dark uniforms worn by Brooklyn and Denver, as well as the drab gray worn by Houston, made it difficult to watch those teams play. Last month it was those bumble bee uniforms on the Pittsburgh Steelers when they played against Baltimore on Nov. 18th that viewers were forced to endure on Sunday Night Football.

This may not seem like content for a media related column, but I'm here to tell you it should be. If the Boston Celtics and Pittsburgh Steelers don't have the look of the Celtics and Steelers fans are used to over the years, the fans and viewers shouldn't have to put up with this on nationally televised games.

Ask sports fans how they would feel if there was advertising allowed on the uniforms, and chances are their immediate facial expression will provide an immediate answer. They don't want to see a uniform defaced and have to endure even more advertising than the bombardment we already get from most TV shots already. I'd like to know how having uniforms which are not true to the originals is any less distracting or annoying.

The TV networks pay literally billions of dollars for these TV rights. In some instances, they gain the power to change the starting time of games, even at the inconvenience of thousands of fans who have purchased tickets. Why do these networks put up with showing teams that are not easily identified by viewers?

It isn't just the NBA allowing this. Or the NFL. MLB has gotten as bad or worse over the years at this. As much as Jackie Robinson should be honored, having every player wearing the same uniform number (even for one day) is a horrible distraction to viewers. We don't need pink bats and holiday colors which in some instances forced teams to wear colors of a big rival, and old fashioned uniforms that look like extreme pajamas either.

As sports fans eagerly awaiting the next telecast, we are entitled to be able to tell which teams are playing, and to maintaining a tradition of team uniforms.

Speaking of the Christmas Day NBA feast, here's hoping that ABC/ESPN will move forward and put a true broadcast professional as host of its studio segments. The "all analysts all the time" format doesn't allow enough time for each expert to talk, and not having a true broadcaster to lead the way eliminates structure and continuity from the studio shows. Put the ex-NBA players at games instead. Even though Doris Burke does a solid job as analyst, the fact that she is at games (such as the Celtics-Nets on Christmas) while the likes of Magic Johnson and Jalen Rose are in the studio getting only a few seconds at a time to talk seems out of whack.

Still not nearly enough progress for The Dan Patrick Show since its move to NBC Sports Network. Although Bonnie Bernstein does a little bit of filling in when Patrick is off, the Show still offered up "Best of" over Christmas Eve and Day. Here is a network which is trying to rebuild its sports image on TV while starting a new radio network, but it has no problem with a re-run of time sensitive sports programming on days when there are plenty of games and stories to discuss. I'd like to think that the mile long list of participants on Sunday Night Football could each handle a live show or two on their own to talk football with the fans a couple of mornings a year instead.

CBS Sports has put together a special about the 75 years of the NCAA basketball tourney and some of the announcers who have been a big part of it. Greg Gumbel hosts while Dick Enberg, Gary Bender, Jim Nantz, Vern Lundquist, and Bill Raftery are among those participating. CBS Sports Network will air it starting Jan. 1 at 7 PM ET, as well as on Jan. 3rd at 7 and 10 PM ET, Jan. 4th at 9 AM ET, and Jan. 5th at 10 AM ET. I haven't seen whether or not any of Curt Gowdy's calls will be included, taking us back to the days of Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton leading UCLA to its run of championships in the 70's. But I doubt they'll include the national championship game when Gowdy mispronounced the name of the Kansas starting players.

ESPN continues to work with the Dallas Cowboys and Cowboys Stadium on its Cowboys Classic season opening week college football telecasts. The Saturday Aug. 31st game will have LSU taking on TCU in prime time. They have also announced that the Aug. 30, 2014 game will be between Florida State and Oklahoma State.

PHILADELPHIA: Last Friday (12/21) marked the end of WPEN-AM 950, which was sold earlier this year. As a result, WPEN-FM 97.5 is the only spot on the dial for ESPN Radio Philadelphia. CBS Radio begins its direct competition next week with its national feed taking over WIP-AM 610 and the local lineup staying on 94.1 FM.

Have a great New Year celebration, and I'm looking forward to your comments and suggestions for The Broadcast Booth in 2013!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Pre-Game Network Battles

It is unfortunate that how the networks handle tragedy within their Sunday pre-game and game programming is again a top story. Even though the tragic loss of lives at the CT school last week was not football or sports related, both CBS and Fox devoted a portion of their NFL pre-game shows on Sunday (12/16) to its overall impact on all of us, which certainly transcended football.

CBS led with the CT tragedy on its NFL Today show, while Fox started its pre-game show with actor Jamie Foxx basically promoting a movie, which failed to "cover" any of the upcoming games or immediately address the tragedy until the following segment.

Personally, I was neutral about CBS' decision earlier this month to not lead with the Belcher Kansas City tragedy on its NFL Today show, although many in the media were highly critical. CBS won't say whether the criticism they received a couple weeks earlier had an impact on its decision to now lead with the CT tragedy, but I have to think it did.

On Sunday evening, NBC made the decision to leave the Sunday Night Football game for about 20 minutes in order to deliver President Obama's address regarding the CT tragedy. The network did move the game action over to both CNBC and NBC Sports Network during that time, thus accomodating its audience with the choice.

For all three networks which aired games on Sunday, there were programming decisions to be made in order to present viewers with a balance of coverage and reflection. Whether you agree or disagree with each decision, at least we know that each network had sufficient time to make their decision and run with it.

As for local market viewership of NFL games this past weekend, it is interesting to note that both Dallas and Chicago, which consistently draw significant ratings for Cowboys and Bears telecasts respectively over the years, were actually outdrawn by viewers of the opposing teams.

Milwaukee showed a 48.5 rating and an amazing 78 share for the Packers at Bears telecast on Fox, while Chicago's 31.5 rating and 59 share, while still respectable, was clearly behind.

The same thing happened with the Cowboys vs. Steelers telecast, as Pittsburgh scored a 47.5 rating and 70 share locally, with Dallas at 31.4 and 58.

For Sunday night, the big 49ers vs. Patriots telecast on NBC drew much better in Boston than it did for the San Francisco/Oakland market. That one is not a surprise.

NBC Sports Radio is now just over 2 weeks away from its debut, and has now finalized its weekend lineup, with some hosts handling both a Saturday and Sunday shift. Personalities will include Brian Webber (also on NFL Network's morning show), Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated, and Newy Scruggs of NBC-5 TV Dallas.

CBS Radio Sports has had their lineup in place, but has been giving some "practice" time to author and columnist John Feinstein by way of Washington D.C.'s The Fan 106.7. Feinstein is doing some filling in over the holiday period only in D.C., with station (106.7) officials quoted as saying he is not in consideration for a local slot.

While in Boston, it seems that 98.5 Sports Hub is not going to continue with Damon Amendolara as its overnight host after all when he joins the CBS Sports lineup as its overnight host. Amendolara, who had been hosting overnights locally on the Sports Hub, had been selected for the national spot in the same time slot, leaving many of us to think that what is really the Boston overnight show would be picked up for national airing. Now it turns out that Boston's "loss" could be good for the rest of the country since the overnight show does not figure to be Boston biased. As of press time, the Sports Hub has yet to name the overnight replacement, but says it will, keeping the Hub local during that time.

KANSAS CITY: The market will soon have its first FM sports station, as The Fan 102.5 is now scheduled to launch on Jan. 2nd. This appears to be a "late" decision, as the station has yet to announce any local programming to start, instead going with CBS Sports Radio. This format replaces "Funny 102.5" which had been a comedy station. Those who find the current Chiefs season and recent Royals season as "laughable" will probably see a tie-in with the formats.

MIAMI: After more than 20 years on WQAM-AM, some listeners and fans have probably forgotten that host Joe Rose played in the NFL for seven seasons. Rose remains so popular with the station that the morning host has received a 3-year contract extension that runs though 2015.

CINCINNATI: Like with Kansas City, sports talk comes to FM on January 2nd when WCFN 100.3 hits the airwaves. And like K.C., there is no word yet and if and when for local hosts. The station has brought in Rick The Brick Ucchino as its morning sports anchor, and will be heard with scores and headlines during local breaks. Ucchino had been an afternoon co-host on WQRT 1160 during the sports shows it has aired during that time. WQRT is "Real Talk" with the majority of its programming being non-sports.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

End of an Era - Sporting News Going Online Only

It's one of those blockbuster announcements that shows your age. Or, if you are not over 40, chances are it isn't even a blockbuster announcement at all. But for those of us who grew up in the era before cable TV, all-sports radio, the internet, cell phones, and constant communication, the announcement that The Sporting News will no longer publish is significant.

TSN will go all digital as of January 1st, which, according to the announcement, ends a 126-year history in print. The most important news is that the content will be free and advertiser supported, which hopefully will send a different sort of message to newspaper and magazine publishers around the country.

The Sporting News had been a weekly publication into 2008 when it reduced to bi-weekly, and then to a monthly only publication just over one year ago.

For those who grew up as sports fans in the 50's, 60's, and early 70's, the publication was known as "the sports bible" and introduced generations to the thought of waiting for the mailman to come on Tuesdays with that week's edition. It was our entree into out of town team news, statistics, and even box scores, that we couldn't always get in our local newspapers, radio, or TV reports. Columnists from all over the country shared details about sports stories of national interest.

Those of you who remember "The National" daily sports newspaper from the late 80's and into June 1991 and how much great content it delivered on a daily basis can relate to the impact of TSN on a weekly basis 20+ years earlier.

Granted, I'm among those that stopped relying on The Sporting News in the 80's when ESPN came into prominence and more and more sports events were being televised. By then, we as sports fans were being brought a daily dose of highlights, headlines, and current statistics which were "old news" by the time TSN arrived in the mail.

From my having followed sports, reported on them, taught college students about it, and having been a "fan" for more than 50 years, losing the print version of The Sporting News is still significant. It's how Detroit Tigers fans felt when Tiger Stadium wasn't there anymore, Yankees fans felt about the "new" stadium, and fans of the likes of Fenway Park and Wrigley Field will feel years from now when those parks aren't there anymore. Just as new stadiums and arenas for the events offer new perks and conveniences for the fans, we will never forget the venues which came before and built up our "hunger" as sports fans. Just as "The Sporting News" in print did for fans before the newer methods and sources of coverage came along.

Elsewhere, the impact of the lack of NHL hockey is being felt by more media than NBC Sports Network. It shows even more on the Canadian side. The latest radio ratings from Vancouver show that CKST 1040, the flagship station for the Canucks, has dropped from #2 to #10 in males 25-54 during the most recent ratings period, which took place during the time the NHL would normally have been playing. The Fan 960 in Calgary has seen a similar drop.

SAN DIEGO: XEPRS XX 1090 is reportedly bringing back Scott Kaplan and Billy Ray Smith to its 3-7 PM weekday spot, after the two were removed from the air in February of this year due to inappropriate on-air comments about local reporter Andrea Lloyd. The pair are, at least for now, keeping their morning TV gig for U-T TV.

In another significant move, XX 1090 has brought back Lee "Hacksaw" Hamilton for morning drive, as of this week, replacing Dave Palet and Jeff Dotseth. Darren Smith moves up from afternoons for Noon to 3.

MINNEAPOLIS: Mike Morris is out after nearly 10 years with KFAN-AM 1270. The former Viking had been co-hosting the "Power Trip" morning show along with Vikings post-game shows. Not that it helps to pay the bills during the holiday period, but it wasn't anything personal. Morris was one of many staff cuts implemented by Clear Channel, which also owns WFAN.

SEATTLE: Hard to believe it was 21 years, but Mike Gastineau has left KJR-AM 950 following last Thursday's (12/6) show. The former N.Y. Jets and NFL standout says he decided to move onto "something new", but did not rule out a return to radio in the future. No official replacement named as of press time.

HOUSTON: Steve Bunin, formerly with ESPN for more than nine years, is joining the new Comcast SportsNet Houston as a "SportsNet Central" anchor.

HARTFORD: Sorry to report the passing, at the age of 82, of Arnold Dean, who seemingly forever (he started in 1965) was a part of WTIC 1080. Dean is widely considered to have pioneered local sports talk in Hartford, where he began hosting sports talk in 1976. He co-hosted the pre-game "Tailgate Show" this past season for UConn football games, including the final home game just a couple weeks ago.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Why CBS Played A Different Game

There are those times every year when a sports event or sports news is overshadowed by a serious and sad news story. Unfortunately, the murder-suicide involving Jovan Belcher of the Kansas City Chiefs this past weekend became one of those times.

It is safe to assume that the vast majority of football fans knew this had taken place long before the various NFL pre-game shows began on Sunday (12/2). The NFL Network, Fox NFL Sunday, and ESPN NFL Countdown each took steps to include this horrible news within the early part of their coverage. CBS-TV handled this much differently.

ESPN went to the extent of not airing its regular segment with comic Frank Caliendo, for example.

Although the majority of Chiefs games are shown by CBS-TV, the Chiefs' hosting of Carolina on Sunday meant that it was a rare Fox telecast. Although CBS-TV has been under criticism for not making the Belcher story a priority on its pre-game show, this decision actually was not without precedent. However, in this day and age of media competition for viewers and advertising dollars, it is possible that CBS might have handled it differently.

For those who missed it, CBS opened its NFL Today with it's "Drive For the Playoffs" segment, and THEN went into the Belcher story. This included Lesley Visser on live from Kansas City which included a Chiefs official explaining the decision on playing the game on Sunday, prior to the studio crew, including Boomer Esiason and Bill Cowher, reflecting on the story. Unlike ESPN, CBS did not drop its "lighter" segment with Jim Rome interviewing a Vict. Secret model, which seemed to take longer than the Kansas City report. Essentially, CBS "refused" to let this tragic news story impact its pre-game show.

Of course, I am not going to defend CBS for doing so. They actually had their reasons, whether we agree with them or not.

After all, the NFL is entertainment. Network officials reasoned that people tuning in for an afternoon of football were still planning to watch the game(s) since there was nothing they could do about the tragic Belcher story. In addition, calling the extra and priority attention to this story would have reminded viewers that CBS was not carrying the Chiefs game that afternoon, which it does on most other Sundays.

By conveniently delaying the Belcher coverage by a few minutes, any CBS viewers who would then have tuned over to Fox's or ESPN's pre-game shows would have done so following those networks' coverage of the same story. Hence, CBS viewers were sent an indirect message that this story was no longer as big of a priority, and set the scene to go on with the games about to be played.

Back to that precedent I mentioned earlier. CBS-TV and its NFL coverage was faced with a tragic situation back on October 24, 1971 during game coverage. During its regional telecast of the Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions game that afternoon, Lions receiver Chuck Hughes collapsed on the field during a play. The seriousness of his collapse was such that Dick Butkus, the future Hall of Fame linebacker for the rival Bears, was by Hughes and waving frantically for help. It turned out that Mr. Hughes never recovered and passed away on the field.

As a college student in Chicago at that time, I was actually watching that telecast as well as the national doubleheader game which followed. During the remainder of the Bears-Lions telecast, as well as throughout the natonal doubleheader game, there was no mention made of Hughes' condition. It wasn't until a (Chicago) local newscast came on WBBM-TV after the doubleheader game ended that viewers were told that Hughes has died shortly after the collapse.

In other words, CBS did not report on the player's death despite live NFL coverage for more than three hours after viewers saw the play. I still remember a couple of friends telling me the next day that they heard about Hughes' death via other stations well before the CBS station first reported it.

Again, this doesn't make it right. But even then, CBS took the "It is entertainment, and let's allow people to enjoy the game" approach.

Their role is to provide the coverage and "entertain" the viewers. While I'm not defending CBS this time around, this was another decision that could be criticized no matter which way it goes.

We don't know for certain if Fox would have made the Belcher story its top priority if CBS were showing the Chiefs' game on Sunday. And Fox and CBS compete with each other moreso than ESPN and NFL Network because each airs one hour shows leading into game telecasts.

However it is handled, it is a difficult situation for the decision makers, as well as for all concerned. If I were going to criticize anyone about this, I would be more inclined to be critical of the NFL for "allowing" the Chiefs to play the game with their players in shock. Frankly, I believe that if this had happened early enough in the season, before the Chiefs and Panthers had bye weeks, it is possible that the NFL would have then rescheduled the game. But now they could not. All the media did was determine how to cover this tragic story as they saw fit.

Something positive from the Baseball Hall of Fame this week, and it's media related. While the debate rages about which players should or shouldn't get in, no one will dispute the upcoming induction of former Toronto Blue Jays voice Tom Cheek, who was selected for the Excellence in Broadcasting wing and goes in next July. Cheek called more than 4,300 regular season games and 41 post-season games for the Jays until his untimely passing following the 2005 season.

ESPN is going back to a 3-man booth for Sunday Night Baseball, adding John Kruk to the booth along with Dan Shulman and Orel Hershiser for the 2013 season.

NEW YORK: The Jets are struggling on the field but ESPN 98.7 WEPN has locked up the broadcast rights for years to come with a new multi-year contract extension. WEPN-AM 1050 will also retain the Spanish broadcasts. This re-upping was crucial for ESPN with the current growth and expansion of CBS Sports Radio. WFAN 660 and 101.9 continues with the Giants broadcasts.

Whether it is due to the few miles move from the Jersey side to Brooklyn, or the early strong showing of the Nets, the results are positive for YES Network's Brooklyn Nets telecasts already this season. The YES telecasts are up more than 200% over the first month of the season. Last Saturday's (12/1) telecast against the Miami Heat was the highest rated telecast not involving the Knicks since a 1998 Nets game against Chicago when Michael Jordan was heading toward another championship.