ESPN, NFL Network take different approaches in broadcasting draft
ESPN was smart to use smaller main-set crew; NFL Network had too many voices
Facing criticism, Adam Schefter addresses his reporting of picks early on Twitter
Combined first round ratings were up 16 percent, the second most-watched ever
The bellowing never stops. It pummels you over the head like a hard rain, and it's forever accompanied by outdated references ("Mel Kiper, to quote Stan Laurel, 'Here's another mess you have gotten me into, Ollie.' ") and long-winded intros that last nearly as long as a Presidential campaign. Mostly, there is Chris Berman simply talking and talking and talking.
It's a shame, really, that Berman remains the ringmaster for ESPN during the first two days of the NFL Draft, because the network has terrific draft assets and a first-rate production. It also has the better philosophy regarding the number of people on its main set at Radio City Music Hall. ESPN's decision to streamline its coverage with fewer voices (the main set on Thursday was Berman, and analysts Jon Gruden and Mel Kiper) is the best fit for viewers. In an accelerated draft, it allows time to discuss and debate picks, as well as give viewers a few moments to breathe amid the cacophony. During the event Kiper was prepared and smart, even if you disagreed with his analysis. The same could be said for ESPN analysts Trent Dilfer, Todd McShay, Bill Polian, the Saturday host Trey Wingo and the information people led by Adam Schefter. Even Jon Gruden had plenty of good moments amid his never-ending praise. The problem, as we have said ad infinitum, is the host. Berman continues to choke the broadcast.
The NFL Network had the opposite issue. Its staffing is solid, but they bludgeon you with too many voices. On the opening night of the draft, the main set was host Rich Eisen, and analysts Mike Mayock, Marshall Faulk, Michael Irvin and Steve Mariucci. That's too many voices on a speedy night with so much visual stimuli coming at you. The network's Friday night crew featured a scaled-down main set of Eisen, Mayock, and analysts Brian Billick and Charles Davis. That was the best grouping of any network, a quartet where each staffer added something to the conversation.
I favor the NFL Network these days for one reason above all: Mayock. His reservoir of depth during the three-day period is unmatched. He has also become a better broadcaster, in that he allows those around him to make salient points. The Colts' selection of Stanford tight end Coby Fleener in the second round was a perfect example of how Mayock set up his colleagues. (You'll see it by jumping to the 1:15 mark here.) After Mayock provided the big-picture reason why he felt the pick was smart, Billick and Davis followed with detailed specifics of how Fleener would help the development of Andrew Luck. It was smart television for the NFL fan.
Both productions have talented staffers behind the cameras, so it comes down to a case of which talent you prefer. The NFL Network had the superior product on the first two days, and when Wingo fronted Dilfer, Kiper and McShay, I thought the coverage was even. Both ESPN and the NFL Network have made the decision to turn the final day into more of an overview look than pick-by-pick analysis. Executives at both networks believe that is the best strategy to keep an audience for the three days. I tend agree with them.
In an ode to Peter King's iconic MMQB column, below is an analysis from my weekend with the networks.
1. I think I'll address the notion of tipping picks here. I thought both networks did a good job for the most part of living up to the gentleman's agreement first reported by SI.com that they would not foreshadow or tip picks by showing draftees on the phone prior to their selection.
But the bigger issue over the weekend was a series of complaints that NFL reporters -- Schefter and NFL Network reporter Jason La Canfora drew much of the criticism because of their forums and follower counts -- were reporting picks on Twitter ahead of the television coverage. Both networks said prior to the draft that the agreement did not extend to its on-air information people, and I believe that is the right move. Reporters, report. That is what they do, regardless of medium.
I emailed Schefter over the weekend because I wanted him to define his philosophy about reporting information on Twitter prior to the picks being announced.
"I approach the draft just like any other NFL news story," Schefter said. "When I learn information, it's my job to report it. I didn't report every pick, intentionally, and I was more interested in the trades, actually. Those were the ones I was really trying to zero in on. And I saw many of the complaints on Twitter, and that's unfortunate.
"But I go back to last year. I remember one of my competitors [NFL Network's Michael Lombardi] getting the story of the Patriots drafting [quarterback] Ryan Mallett and being commended for the work he did, reporting it in advance. Your colleague Peter King cited him in his Monday Morning Quarterback column for the job he did getting the pick. There was no criticism of him for detracting from the draft experience. So when the Patriots traded up for the player that some draft experts considered the top defensive player in the draft, was I supposed to wait until it was on TV until I reported that information? Had I done that, I would have been open to criticism for getting beat on a significant trade and pick. So I reported it, which bothered some Twitter followers. But the solution is very simple. If someone felt it detracted from their experience, they could have unfollowed me or not paid attention to Twitter. ESPN does a tremendous job presenting and broadcasting the draft, and I work to do my job as effectively as the people around me."
Schefter said he was never asked by any league official not to report picks on Twitter prior to them being revealed on the podium, and it should be noted most of his reported picks on Twitter came in the first round. "In the second round, I was on the lookout for the notable picks and notable trades," Schefter said. "When the Rams were going to draft the publicized [North Alabama] cornerback Janoris Jenkins, I reported that in advance because I had the information. When the Packers traded up to draft Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, I reported that in advance. But after Thursday night, those were the only two picks I reported in advance. If I had gotten the Broncos selecting [Arizona State quarterback] Brock Osweiler in advance I might have reported that, too, but unfortunately -- or fortunately to some of the people who didn't like what they called the pick tipping -- I didn't get that information in time."
Here is what Seth Markman, ESPN's senior coordinating producer for the NFL and the executive who oversaw the draft coverage for the network, said about Schefter reporting picks on Twitter: "No one says you have to sit with your Twitter feed going as you watch the draft. If you want to enjoy the draft in its unspoiled form as we have tried to do it, you can unfollow Adam or not follow some of the other reporters. You have clear options. I just gave him these instructions: If you want to tweet the picks, tweet them. From an ESPN standpoint, I do not have a problem with you tweeting the picks. But from a personal thing, I'm not sure you want to tweet every pick because you are starting to feel some of the backlash from your followers. That was my philosophy with him but I never directed him to not do it ... He is a reporter and I have no issue with him reporting. But I do think this is an issue that we are going to have to discuss with all in the future: How much do you want to alientate your own TV audience?"
2. I think it's interesting that NFL Network executive producer Eric Weinberger told La Canfora to back off tweeting picks during the draft. "Mike Lombardi and Jason could have tweeted every pick Thursday night but they didn't," Weinberger told SI.com in an interview Sunday. "We sort of unleashed Jason on Friday and he was doing it, he was picking off picks on Twitter. And the reason we were able to do it is the picks were coming in so fast that there were backups of three picks at some times. So there was more time to get the information out there.
"But after following him on Twitter and me watching the show, we told Jason to pull back. And I don't think at this juncture it's as simple as saying, 'Don't follow him on Twitter.' It's what people do. It's hard to say turn your tablet off. Everyone is watching TV with a tablet. We have to find ways to continue to grow these sporting events and this is becoming an obvious one: The viewer wants it to be a TV show and the way they like it now is they want to see it on the podium."
3. I think the television ratings for the draft were huge for both ESPN and the NFL Network. A combined average of 8.1 million viewers watched the opening round on both networks, an increase of 16 percent from the previous year and the second most-watched first round ever. ESPN averaged 6.66 million for its Thursday coverage, up 11 percent from the previous year and its second most-viewed first round behind 2010. The NFL Network drew 1.4 million viewers for the opening round, up 40 percent from the previous year. How's this for growth: The NFL Network finished with a three-day average of 757,000 viewers, up 34 percent over both 2010 and 2011.
4. I think I liked that Markman said he's willing to re-evaluate how much Polian is used on the draft next year. Viewers should see more of him. He was no-nonsense terrific when the hosts called on him, and Markman said that when Polian didn't know a player, he simply told the truck not to call on him. (Imagine an analyst volunteering not to talk.) "Bill really is the smartest person in the room," Schefter said. "He picked up on what teams were doing before they were doing it, and was dead on. Right after the Colts drafted Coby Fleener, Bill told me that Indianapolis was going back to the basics on offense, a two-tight end, two-wide receiver set where they could pound the ball and throw short as well. And sure enough, Indianapolis' next pick also was a tight end (Dwayne Allen of Clemson). A small group of us went to dinner Saturday night and Trent Dilfer said he was blown away by some of the things that Polian said to the point where his jaw was hanging."
5. I think one of the best moments of the draft for the NFL Network came in the third round, when the Jaguars selected Cal punter Bryan Anger with the No. 70 pick. Sure, Eisen schticked up a bit, and I can understand some being bothered by that, but the host had already built a reservoir of goodwill for the 69 previous picks before by doing what a good host should: Being smart and short with his first comment and letting the analysts do the rest. What was great about this clip was that after the joking, Davis actually gave you something interesting on Anger.
6. I think, during a discussion on Memphis nose tackle Dontari Poe prior to the Chiefs selecting him at No. 11 overall, this exchange happened on ESPN:
Berman: "Maybe they are reading Edgar Allen Poe's short stories. I don't know. There are some good ones, you know.
Gruden: He's got a lot of Poe-tential
Berman: See, now if I had said that, I'd be ripped for about three years. You can go with it. You are a rising star.
Gruden: I learn quick from you, Chris.
Why was the exchange particularly amusing? Because last week Berman told USA Today that he doesn't pay attention to criticism. Show me a person in sports television who doesn't read stuff about them and I'll show you a Kardashian who can act.
7. I think I really liked the chemistry this year between Gruden and Kiper, especially during the first round. After Buffalo's selection of South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore, Gruden spoke about Gilmore's fantastic measurable at the scouting combine, his versatility at different positions, and how fast he was coming off the edge on a blitz. Kiper followed with a big picture look at Gilmore's career and why he moved up to the early portion of the first round. It was good stuff between two guys who showed nice chemistry.
8. I think the NFL Network set based in Los Angeles, consisting of host Paul Burmeister, Charlie Casserly and Tom Waddle, gave you more smart analysis than the Bristol-based ESPN set of Suzy Kolber, Tedy Bruschi, Herman Edwards and Ron Jaworski. And that's tough for me because I love Jaworski.
9. I think I liked the 20 minutes I listened to SiriusXM NFL Radio on late Saturday, especially the work by host Jason Horowitz, and analysts Jim Miller and Gil Brandt. The group provided hardcore knowledge of how lesser-known prospects had done in the Senior Bowl. They really went deep. The fourth member of the crew, Pat Kirwan, is clearly knowledgeable as a former scout, but his penchant for non-stop talking and self-love is suffocating. But this was very smart radio, and recommended for anyone on the road during the draft.
10. Here are some additional thoughts:
a. I asked both Markman and Weinberger what they thought their network's best moments were. Weinberger said he thought it came when the Redskins drafted Kirk Cousins in Round 4 and they broke that Washington had cut John Beck. The group then had an interesting discussion about why the Redskins would draft another quarterback after RG3.
Markman said he enjoyed when ESPN told the story of Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson on Friday night. "People knew him and had watched him play and we were fortunate to have a camera in his home," Markman said. "We spent a lot of time debating him (Gruden liked him a lot; Kiper mentioned his shortcomings). We noticed in the truck that Russell was cheering when Gruden was talking and waving his hand when Mel was talking. We cut into that discussion with his reactions. He then wound up getting picked shortly after that by Seattle and we hooked him up quickly and Chris interviewed him. That was my favorite moment of the weekend." You can watch it here.
b. There were scores of people on Twitter who thought Berman received picks ahead of time, including Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio, who tweeted "Chris Berman is making vague guesses when he knows damn well who the pick is." I asked Markman to address the charge. "Not one time have we ever told him who the pick was -- I promise you," Markman said. "Never. It is preposterous. We would never do that, and second of all, he would never want it. Boomer, and I'm sure Rich Eisen does this, too, talks to teams and executives. He doesn't just see himself as being there to set up guys and we don't want him to do that. He has over 30 years of contacts in the NFL. He has notebooks full of notes that he shows me and says where this team is going to head. He is as well-prepared as anyone.
"I did see what Pro Football Talk tweeted and I just thought they never called me to ask me if we do that. I'll invite you or anyone else into our truck to show you we would never operate that way and I'm sure the NFL Network does not operate that way. The only reason we get the pick a minute or so in advance from the NFL is so we can prepare our video packages and graphics. I just felt I should put that on the record."
c. I'm going to file away what Mayock said about the Dolphins' selection of Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill. You can watch it here.
d. ESPN staffers, like the rest of us, had never heard of Ohio State defensive back Nate Ebner, a former rugby player who played three snaps of defense for the Buckeyes and was selected by New England in the sixth round. Markman said he was one of the few guys who was not in Kiper's in-house book. But give Schefter a save on the pick. He made a call to a Patriots source and was able to get info on Ebner a couple of minutes after the selection.
e. Mayock making fun of men getting manicures on Saturday ("It's called being a chick, Rich") was a dumb comment. He should know better than to bring gender nonsense into any on-air conversation. Said Weinberger when asked about that comment: "He's all football, all the time."
f. This is how Markman evaluated Berman's performance during the draft: "I thought he was on top of his game. I am being 100 percent honest with you. I thought Thursday night and I told him this after the show -- that was as difficult a night of draft coverage as I have ever seen and I thought as the QB of our team like he was in the two-minute drill the entire night and handled it flawlessly.... He handled pick after pick coming in, knowing the players as well as he did, and talking about where they fit into their NFL teams, which we were harping on a lot this year to make it as NFL-centric as we could. Maybe I am na´ve, but I just don't see where the criticism is warranted here. I understand it is a completely subjective thing, but I think it's taken on a little life of its own on the Internet and the blogosphere as people like to pile on."
g. I felt bad for the staffers in the NFL Network truck when they did not have footage of Georgia State defensive lineman Christo Bilukidi, because it's a group (same with ESPN) that takes pride in getting highlights and graphics for every pick. I profiled some of them last week. "[Senior producer] Charlie Yook memorizes all our tapes so as soon as the name was said, he said out loud, 'Sh--, we don't have the tape.' But that was a funny moment for us in the truck."
h. Stanford coach David Shaw made some friends at the NFL Network. Said Weinberger of his performance: "David really popped on screen. What a nice man, too. I don't want to say he surprised us, but we had not been around him. We were thrilled with him."
i. At 2:15 ET on Saturday, ESPN had Giants GM Jerry Reese at the exact same time the NFL Network had coach Tom Coughlin on to analyze the team's picks. Give Giants PR maven Pat Hanlon a raise.
j. I really liked Lombardi joining the main NFL Network set for Round 7. He was very good, especially when offering draft grades (which are obviously ridiculous at this juncture) off the top of his head.
k. It's silly for Melissa Stark to act like she's a warm-up speaker at a political rally. When the Jets selected Stephen Hill in the second round, Stark inexplicably urged Hill to pump up the Jets crowd at Radio City. "You'll fit in fine," she gushed to Hill afterward. Act like you've been there before, Melissa.
l. I find Deion Sanders usually intolerable, but I appreciated some of his questions this year, including asking Browns running back Trent Richardson if he expected to go as high as he did (he did not) and throwing a change-up on RG3 ("Do you understand that you are thought to be the savior of the Washington Redskins?") One day I dream of a network hosting the NFL Draft to assign the podium interviews to professional reporters who can ask smart, pointed questions the way someone like ESPN's Kelly Naqi or TJ Quinn does.
m. Nice work: Schefter and Chris Mortensen telegraphed after two picks that the opening round would be filled with trades, even though Mortensen was off on his prediction (He predicted 7-10 trades; there were a record 19 involving first round selections).
n. Berman had a smart premise about the value of a drafting a running back in the rarefied air of today's NFL after Richardson was selected. Of course, his pontificating during his question lasted so long, I no longer cared about the answer by the end of the question.
o. I told Weinberger that his group on the second day (Eisen, Billick, Davis and Mayock) is better than his first day. Here is how he responded: "The second day set is fabulous. They are invested, especially Charles and Mike, in the path to the draft as anyone in television. I know the other guys are working hard and watching a lot of tape, don't get me wrong. But Charles and Mayock travel everywhere together during the process. They are so in sync, and then you throw Billick in, who is such a smart evaluator and such a smart communicator. It's by design the deeper you get into this draft, we use different sets of talent to communicate in different ways. We're almost speaking different languages each day."
p. I think Markman would be smart to listen to draft fans such as Mohamad Beidoun. I asked people during all three days to send in their thoughts -- hundreds did -- and Beidoun wasn't alone in this suggestion.
q. Less Michael Irvin is always a good thing.
r. I was struck by how over-the-top Edwards was during a discussion on Ravens draft pick Courtney Upshaw. Edwards is bright and clearly passionate about football, but the rah-rah stuff gets a little tiring for viewers when you only go one speed.
s. Weinberger said he wants to figure out a way to get Kurt Warner more airtime next year during the draft, especially on the quarterback position.
t. You know what's fun to watch? Footage of team draft parties. And I liked that the NFL Network sent reporter Steve Wyche to the RG3 intro press conference at FedEx Field, because it's always fun to watch fans going nuts behind a reporter.
u. I loved that both ESPN and the NFL Network had a highlight and graphics package on Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish, who was the final pick in the NFL Draft. (He was taken by the Colts with the No. 253 pick.) One of the goals for both production teams was to have a highlight package for Mr. Irrelevant and both nailed it. Said Weinberger: "It really is an amazing moment for the people in the truck when they pull that one off because it's the end and they know that their hard word has paid off."
v. Finally, I asked both lead executives to assess their coverage:
Markman: "I thought it went great overall. On Thursday and Friday the picks were coming in so fast, and with the amount of kids they had in the green room, by the time they got up, met with the Commissioner, did interviews, there were times the next picks were already happening. But I think if you watched it on TV and enjoyed it for what it was, as a TV event, I think our coverage really rocked."
Weinberger: "I thought we did a lot of things very well. The draft changes after night two and you have to shift into a gear almost for a different audience. It's a more intense diehard audience on Saturday. And I thought our team did that really well. I thought we did a great job on Thursday capturing the event and with our extra cameras -- from the parties to the war rooms to the kids' homes. I think the draft is expanding outside of Radio City and we did a nice job showing all of that."