Barkley's NBA commentary a slam dunk, Sochi Olympic coverage, more
Media Circus (con't ...)
There are plenty of people who work in sports television who think they are funny (Lou Holtz, Woody Paige, Shannon Sharpe and Stephen A. Smith, for example) who are not funny. So when the genuine article lands in front of you, it's music to the ears.
TNT NBA analyst Charles Barkley is the funniest person on sports television today and his humor comes from a lifelong freedom of saying whatever he feels, damn the consequences. It is probably a safe prediction that Barkley will be the last sports broadcaster allowed to get away with what he does because of who is he and his longevity in the medium. As Jack McCallum writes in this week's SI, "On most Thursday nights, Barkley paints himself into logical and syntactical corners from which he seemingly has no chance of escape -- until he almost always does, acknowledgement or apology be damned."
Barkley, as usual, stole the show on a TNT conference call last week to hype the network's NBA All-Star Weekend activities. If you are a Lakers fan, step away. This won't be fun to read:
On the Lakers playoff chances: "The Lakers had zero chance of making the playoffs before those guys got hurt. Now, it's negative 17. They got no chance of making the playoffs. If I'm buying stock, I am buying the Houston Rockets and dumping the Lakers."
On Phil Jackson: "He's my coach of the year for not taking the Lakers job."
When fellow TNT analyst Kenny Smith told Barkley he believed in the Raptors more than the Lakers, Barkley was quick to stop Smith in his tracks:
"That's two ugly girls, Kenny," Barkley said. "Who cares?
Thankfully, Barkley will be everywhere this weekend as TNT hosts 17 hours of live coverage from Houston, including the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday at 9 p.m. ET, where he and fellow Inside The NBA analyst Shaquille O'Neal will serve as general managers for the game.
The next day, Barkley will provide commentary along with announcer Kevin Harlan, O'Neal and Smith for the Slam Dunk contest. Immediately following All-Star Saturday Night, TNT will televise "Sir Charles at 50," a one-hour show in which Barkley reflects on his legacy as he nears his 50th birthday (which is Feb. 20). Then, on Sunday, Barkley will be part of the All-Star Game pregame coverage at 7 p.m. on TNT with an edition of NBA Tip-Off featuring O'Neal, Smith and Chris Webber.
"This All-Star Game is always fun because out of all the all-star games in sports, the baseball game is not that much fun, the Pro Bowl is not that much fun -- you can't play football for fake -- but we do a great job of celebrating the NBA history," Barkley said. "You walk around and you see the great Bill Russell and you'll see Moses (Malone), you'll see Doc (Julius Erving), you'll see Oscar (Robertson), you see Jerry West. It is a really cool weekend."
What makes Barkley so popular as a broadcaster? Harlan offered up a hypothesis to SI.com two weeks ago. "As a broadcaster, Charles is incredibly honest," Harlan said. "There is no sugarcoating -- it's refreshing. He relies on his instinct, brain and heart, and a lot of this comes from not adhering himself to a popular train of thought. Sure, there is a little bit of chicanery and showmanship, but that is the spice that makes you sit on the edge of your seat or laugh with him. That's what reels you in. Nothing is scripted."
(SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the weekend.)
1. With the Sochi Olympics one year away as of Feb. 6, NBC used the date for a major announcement: Television viewers will get an extra night of Olympic competition next year. NBC's coverage of the Sochi Games will officially begin on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, the day prior to the Opening Ceremony. The reason for the programming change is the addition of 12 new events. Three of those sports -- team figure skating and men's and women's slopestyle snowboarding -- will air on Feb. 6 during NBC's primetime coverage. There will also be coverage of women's freestyle moguls that night.
NBC said its over-the-air strategy will be similar to the London Games: Every event will be carried live on some platform (most via live-streaming on NBCOlympics.com), with some events taped-delayed for the primetime coverage. Sochi is nine hours ahead of the East Coast.
On the much-criticized strategy of saving marquee events to air tape-delayed in the primetime hour, NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus said the network has had some evolution on this strategy but he would not define the specifics. "What we do believe is that 30 million people a night voted to watch us when they already knew what was going on," Lazarus said. "We want to make sure we make available digitally everything again, and we think that satisfied a lot of the immediacy needs. I think in some cases we will alter how we present the Games but we will not completely change what we believe to be a successful model for our viewers and our business."
1a. NBC said more than half the events from Sochi, including every United States hockey game (men's and women's) will air live on television. Lazarus did not make any specific guarantees for hockey games involving Canada or Russia.
1b. Lazarus said he expected NBC to make a profit at the Sochi Games. The network lost a reported $223 million on the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, but turned a small profit for last summer's games in London. The Sochi Games cost NBC $775 million as part of a $4.38 billion deal to show the four Olympics from 2014 to 2020. "Ad sales are pacing extremely well," Lazarus said. "This will be a very good moment for our company."
1c. NBC executives said the network's rating and viewership for the first night of competition on Feb. 6, 2014 will not be included in its cumulative 17-night performance because the night does not have any ratings history.
1d. Jim Bell, the executive producer of NBC's Olympic coverage, said the network has already identified 80 to 90 percent of the broadcasters it will use in Sochi. As for who will host the opening ceremonies coverage, Lazarus said that announcement will not come until the network is briefed on the content of the program. (Obviously, Bob Costas is a near-lock for one of the spots.) "We believe in marrying the right talent with the right type of programming," Lazarus said.
1e. How and will NBC Olympic team address subjects such as Russia's human rights abuses or Russia's not-so-smooth diplomatic relations with the U.S.? "I think it is our obligation in the context of the Games to have those open discussions but it is not a news event," Lazarus said. "Additionally, our news division will be there should breaking news happen." On this note, Lazarus said NBC is interested in a sit-down interview with Russian president Vladmir Putin.
1f. Lazarus thinks slopestyle snowboarding could be a breakout sport for U.S. television audiences. Here's a primer on the sport from SI.com's Austin Murphy.
1g. You don't often see sports television executives respond to social media critics -- especially in Bristol -- but NBC Sports thinks differently. Bell, for example, responded to critics during the London Games from his Twitter account and Lazarus said his staff has the go-ahead from him if done respectfully. "We are in the public's eye here and we want to be in the public's eye," Lazarus said. "But we are also not going to be bullied. We are respectful of our audience's points of view, but where we think they are not accurate in reflecting what is going on, we will not be shy in responding respectfully to them." To me, that's a strong decision. If you believe in your product, you should defend it. (See item 10e. for another philosophy.)
2. More NBA broadcasting notes: O'Neal continues to pound his frenemy, Dwight Howard. Said Shaq: "The great players before us showed us that you can play through pain. We have all played through pain. His shoulder isn't going to get any better, [so] play through pain. If you're so hurt all the time, stop smiling on the court all the time."
2a. Barkley called Nets forward Kris Humphries and Lakers center Dwight Howard the two most disappointing players for the first half. He said Portland rookie point guard Damian Lillard has been the biggest surprise so far and named him his midseason rookie of the year.
2b. Kenny Smith said the Lakers should be considered one of the most disappointing teams in history if they miss the playoffs this season. "Here's a team with four guys that are going to be in the Hall of Fame, and six guys who have been All-Stars and they are the ninth seed," Smith said. "It would be the biggest upset in the history of basketball if the Lakers did not make the playoffs."
2c. Marv Albert will call the All-Star game, with analysts Steve Kerr and Reggie Miller and reporters David Aldridge and Craig Sager. (The game airs Sunday at 8 p.m.) Matt Winer will provide play-by-play for the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday with analysts Webber and Mike Fratello and reporter Sager.
2d. Prior to All-Star Saturday night, TNT will televise an episode of its popular "Open Court" series featuring a one-hour roundtable discussion hosted by Johnson with Barkley, Miller, Kerr, O'Neal, Smith, Webber and Steve Smith.
2e. ESPN will air the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game at 7 p.m. ET this Friday and while these games are usually an exercise in self-aggrandizement and product promotion, there is a compelling reason to tune in: Olympic sprint champion Usain Bolt is expected to play.
2f. NBA TV will air a "Dunk-A-Thon" marathon on Thursday, beginning at 10 a.m. ET. The 15-hour marathon will feature every Slam Dunk competition since 1984, including the 1976 ABA All-Star Game contest.
3. Gus Johnson makes his world soccer broadcasting debut Wednesday when he calls the mouthwatering Champions League Round of 16 match between Real Madrid and Manchester United, live from Madrid's Estadio Santiago Bernabéu at 2 p.m. ET on Fox Soccer. Six days later, Johnson will be in London for a Champions League match between Arsenal and Bayern Munich. SI.com broke the story of Johnson being groomed as the lead soccer voice for Fox, and since the news broke, plenty have weighed in on Fox's decision. For a sampling of viewpoints, here is Grantland's Brian Phillips, the EPL Talk website and the Awful Announcing blog.
3a. Lazarus and a group of his top lieutenants flew to London last week to meet with EPL managers and owners. The network takes over the U.S. broadcasting rights for the EPL beginning in August, and a pressing issue for EPL fans in the U.S. is who will call the matches. Lazarus said to expect some talent announcements this spring. (The network has an exceptional soccer announcer in Arlo White and it's a near-guarantee he will play a significant role on EPL broadcasts.) "Here's what I can tell you: We will be authentic to the land where the game comes from and we are not going to put out a bunch of random NBC broadcasters who call football or basketball games to do the EPL," Lazarus said. "We will be authentic to the land of the EPL."
4. ESPN and Pac-12 network analyst Bill Walton made waves last week with his pointed comments about UCLA coach Ben Howland. Prompted smartly by play-by-play announcer Dave Pasch -- bravo to an announcer asking follow-up questions of an analyst -- Walton essentially called for Howland to be removed as coach. Sports broadcasting is filled with analysts who mythologize college coaches, an extension of personal friendships and relationships that have been forged with both individuals and networks. Sure, Walton talks up a storm for every broadcast but this kind of blunt talk is refreshing. Keep sending it home, Big Man.
5. The prestigious Columbia Journalism Review has given a "Dart" to ESPN for the year 2012. CJR cited ESPN's "big, weird mistakes," including hiring a "scam artist" and "lifting content" from Wikipedia, while shrugging it off as "journalistic laziness."
6. No one questions Dick Vitale's immense passion for college hoops, even with his constant butt-smooching of coaches and over-talking on broadcasts. (Poor Dan Shulman.) The longtime ESPN analyst (34 years with the network) gets a career-wish fulfilled this year by serving as the analyst for ESPN International's coverage of the Final Four from Atlanta. ESPN said the telecast will extend to 150 countries and territories across 35 television and broadcast networks outside the U.S. including Latin America (Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America), Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, Japan, and Canada. Brad Nessler will call the play-by-play on all three Final Four games; Jay Bilas will work one of the semifinals. I must say I never expected Vitale to be as entertaining as he is on Twitter, and if you are on that service, I highly recommend 73-year-old as a follow.
6a. Vitale and Magic Johnson will pair up with announcer Mike Tirico on Feb. 19 for ESPN's telecast of Indiana at Michigan State. The game marks the first time Johnson (who led the Spartans to a title in 1979) will work a college game as an on-site analyst. Vitale said he recruited Johnson while he was coaching at the University of Detroit.
7. The brilliant opener to Super Bowl XLVII (featuring Joe Namath, Marcus Allen, Don Shula and others) was placed on YouTube this week by CBS Sports producer Pete Radovich Jr., who produced the piece.
8. Among the memorable sports pieces this week:
• ESPN.com's Patrick Hruby had a brilliant examination of former NFL player George Visger and the brain injury he deals with on a daily basis.
• Sports on Earth's Chuck Culpepper reflected on being a gay sports writer and covering the NFL.
• SB Nation's Amy K. Nelson examined how the Costacos Brothers built their sports poster empire.
• SI's Andy Staples delivered some amazing fly-on-the-wall reporting on how Ole Miss landed its vaunted recruiting class.
• James Surowiecki of The New Yorker made the case for legalizing sports betting.
• New York Times reporter Greg Bishop wrote a fantastic in-depth profile on Jay Williams' journey from can't-miss NBA prospect to ESPN broadcaster.
Here are two non-sports pieces I can't recommend enough:
• The Wall Street Journal's Kevin Helliker and Sara Germano had a remarkable story on Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" being tainted by new evidence.
• The Economist's obituary on Richard III, who died in the 15th century but was rediscovered in February, was sensationally done.
9. The Crossover, the new NBC Sports Network show featuring Michelle Beadle and Dave Briggs, has failed to make traction with viewers so far, with some airings getting as little as under 20,000 viewers. That's partly because the network is struggling for viewers outside of NHL games.
How concerned is Lazarus about the show? Not concerned at all. "Sure, I'd rather have higher ratings than lower ratings but we have a long view on these things," Lazarus said. "You have to build habits and build audience."
9a. On a similar note, Lazarus said he is not worried about the ratings for the NBC Sports Network despite its very low viewership in the fourth quarter of 2012. "We took off a lot of high-rated programming last year relative to our current programming," Lazarus said. "We took off most of our MMA and a lot of our field sports, which rated very highly as this was old Outdoor Life Network. We have a lot of sports talk, some of which do not have lots of rating points, but they are much more sellable ratings point. The ratings point are down but our business is stronger.
"We were also clearly hurt by not having hockey in the fourth quarter," he continued. "Hockey is now back, and we have a decent amount of college basketball and college hockey. There's also the Olympics coming, plus the Tour De France, EPL, F-1, and we are making progress on the acquisition front and the quality of the programming front. The Dan Patrick Show gives us daily relevant programming, with somebody sports fans recognize. We have a long way to go but we are doing it in a way that will yield financial results for the company."
10. Miscellaneous: Fox's 2013 NASCAR coverage will consist of 13 Sprint Cup races, including the 55th running of the Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 24. Chris Myers returns as the host of Fox NASCAR Sunday, along with Michael and Darrell Waltrip. Race coverage includes Mike Joy and analysts Larry McReynolds and Darrell Waltrip. Jeff Hammond will serve as a reporter at the garage and pit road. Fox's pit reporters are Steve Byrnes, Krista Voda and Matt Yocum.
10a. TiVo Research and Analytics, Inc. reported the most engaging Super Bowl commercial this year was Taco Bell's "Live Mas."
10b. Nuggets play-by-play announcer Chris Marlowe dropped some serious hyperbole last week after this circus shot from Nuggets forward Danilo Gallinari.
10c. ESPN will air a record 151 regular-season college baseball games as well as conference championship games across ESPNU, ESPN3, ESPN2 and ESPN.
10d. Sports Media Watch had an interesting post examining the college basketball television ratings this season.
10d. Showtime's Al Bernstein, the Hall of Fame boxing analyst and one of the class guys in sports broadcasting, has written a memoir: Al Bernstein: 30 Years, 30 Undeniable Truths About Boxing, Sports, and TV. It's a fun read for boxing fans.
10e. Deadspin writer John Koblin and I invited First Take executive producer Jamie Horowitz and commentator Skip Bayless to join us on a podcast for an open discussion on First Take and everything it represents. The show's tagline is "embrace debate" but Horowitz and Bayless (through ESPN PR) declined our offer. The invite is here and will be extended on the sixth day of each month.