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The iconic status of "SportsCenter" presents ESPN with a challenge: how to add entertainment value and create buzz for the net's flagship program without deviating too far from its well-tested format. One of many answers to this challenge has been the use of celebrity guest anchors, beginning late last year with Billy Crystal's appearance and continuing with more recent stints by actor Ken Jeong and NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson. That effort hit a snag this week when tonight's scheduled appearance by "Anchorman 2" stars Will Ferrell and David Koechner on the 6:00pm ET "SportsCenter" was called off in anticipation of today's announcement of the results from a sexual assault investigation around Florida State QB Jameis Winston. It is understandable that ESPN would not want a matter of such gravitas reported by actors appearing in character from an upcoming comedy, as that could be construed as the outlet making light of the situation. But the move raises several questions about the use of guest anchors going forward.
TIMELINE AND ANTICIPATION: ESPN Dir of Communications David Scott explained that the net's decision in this case was not entirely last-minute. Whenever a guest anchor appears on the show, ESPN makes clear to the celebrity's handlers that rescheduling or cancelation is a possibility "if there is news of a serious nature" breaking that day. Scott said ESPN producer Jack Obringer notified Ferrell and Koechner's camp on Tuesday that the Winston news could be breaking today, and if that was the case, the net "would have to take a good hard look" at keeping the actors on the show. When word came down yesterday that the Winston results would in fact be released this afternoon, both sides "mutually decided" to nix the appearance. But what if a hard news story breaks unexpectedly in the midst of a guest anchor appearance? Scott said that possibility has been discussed as well. There will be "some kind of acknowledgement made" on-air that the tone of the breaking news requires a shift away from the celebrity presentation. The planned segments with the guest anchor would then be scrapped in favor of straight news reporting for the rest of the show.
NEWS ASSESSMENT: Scott said that the net does not have strict guidelines for what kind of news would be too serious to cover with a guest anchor, but instead takes a common-sense approach along the lines of, "You know it when you see it." He added that Mike Tomlin’s fine would be an example of a story that, while it has serious implications, would not be off-limits for celebrity anchors to cover. Scott believes the guests appreciate the net's reluctance to put them in the position of reporting certain kinds of stories: "There is no way (Ferrell) wants to be reading a story like the Winston results."
SO, WHAT NOW? Scott dismissed the notion that this event in any way has caused ESPN to reconsider the guest anchor effort. "When the timing is right, when the celebrity has a connection to sports, we will certainly look at those opportunities," he said. There is no planned schedule for what celebrities will be guest anchors next or even how often they will be brought in, but the program will certainly continue. Scott said viewers have responded well to the effort, "and the ratings prove it."
NOT COMPLETELY ON THE SIDELINES: Although Ferrell will not appear on "SportsCenter" tonight, he was able to bring the Burgundy character to "The Dan Patrick Show" this morning, where he served as a co-host for two hours of the radio broadcast. Patrick asked Burgundy, "Who was your idol, by the way? Who did you learn the most from when it comes to TV presence?” Burgundy: “I learned a lot from my father, Claude Burgundy. ... My father would do the news in the town bar. He’d sit behind a desk, even though it was not televised, and just read the day’s events.” NFL Network's Rich Eisen later appeared on the show and asked Burgundy how he would “spice up" tonight's broadcast of Texans-Jaguars. Burgundy: “If it was up to me, I would walk off the air. I think this is one of those games where the NFL says, ‘Folks, it’s not gonna happen, we’re folding up shop.' … There’s a very seldom-used clause in the NFL statutes where if a game is too boring, they can release a series of wild animals into the middle of the game.” Burgundy then was asked whether the Texans want to win tonight’s game or lose and improve next year’s draft position. He replied, "You build your franchise around punting, and this next draft class, oh my, my -- there’s about 15 Reggie Roby's out there.” Burgundy later told Patrick, “You’re the Neil Armstrong of sports radio, in a world dominated by women.” Patrick: “Neil Armstrong, like the former Bears coach?” Burgundy: “No, no, no, the cyclist Neil Armstrong."
The 2-10 Texans travel to Jacksonville tonight to play the 2-9 Jaguars, and NFL Network officials "likely would prefer any number of teams for this week's prime-time matchup" instead of the two they have, according to David Barron of the HOUSTON CHRONICLE. NFL Net analyst Mike Mayock said, "There may be less interest from a national perspective. But you can't have New Orleans and Seattle every night." Despite the face the Texans and Jaguars enter the game with "just five combined wins," it is "not the worst prime-time matchup in history." A survey of primetime games since '70 "reveals at least 30 games in November and December matching teams that had losing records or finished with losing records." In at least 10 of those, the teams "had six or fewer combined wins." Regardless, "people will be watching." NFL Network's Thursday games through 11 weeks have had an average audience of 7.1 million viewers, up 12% from '12, "despite a couple of recent clunkers." Since the "present holds little promise for either team, Mayock said much of the between-plays conversation will involve the future." This is the second time NFL Network has "missed out on what it thought would be a blockbuster Texans game." In '11, a late-season Texans-Colts game "became a bust after Peyton Manning was lost for the season for Indianapolis and the Texans clinched a playoff berth a week earlier" (HOUSTON CHRONICLE, 12/4).
PEOPLE WILL WATCH: THE DAILY's John Ourand said despite the fact that tonight's matchup features two teams with losing records, "people still watch." Ourand: "I can pretty much guarantee you that this is going to get over 6 million viewers because all these games get over 6 million viewers. If it's a close game, even with bad teams, it could be over 7 million viewers." NPR's Mike Pesca said, "Those 6 or 7 million will double, maybe even triple, (tonight's) nationally televised Miami Heat game" ("Morning Edition," NPR, 12/4). The Wall Street Journal's Jason Gay said, "You could take the worst possible NFL matchup -- I don’t know, Jaguars-Buccaneers -- that would be the No. 1-rated show of the night. That’s how effective, that’s how potent the NFL is. That’s why it’s such a desirable primetime destination." However, he said he believes Thursday night games are "diluting the rest of the schedule." Gay: "What happened to Sunday 1:00 football games? ... I just feel you are diluting the great American ritual" ("Crowd Goes Wild," FS1, 12/4).
IS MONEY TRUMPING INJURIES? THE MMQB's Robert Klemko noted, "The NFL has long played games on Thanksgiving, but its package of Thursday night games carried by NFL Network didn’t start until 2006, with an eight-game schedule." The league "found that roughly the same amount of injuries happened in 2012 Thursday games (5.2 per game) as in games played on Saturday, Sunday and Monday (5.3)." It is "compelling evidence that Thursday games are no more dangerous than Sunday games, that is, if you can watch an NFL game and believe that only five or so injuries are happening in those 60 minutes." Most of the execs who "bargained for an expanded Thursday slate don’t know what it feels like to play in the NFL." Klemko: "Here's what they do know: Money." There is "a big TV market for an eight-game package of Thursday games, which the NFL is expected and free to sell off now that its cable arm has 14 in its possession." Part of the expansion of the Thursday night schedule "was to ensure competitive balance, with each team having to play on the short week once, but that was likely a secondary concern to the revenue selling the Thursday package would create" (MMQB.SI.com, 12/4).
NBC Sports Group yesterday named Rick Allen lead NASCAR announcer when its coverage begins in '15, as he signed a multiyear agreement to call the Sprint Cup Series and Nationwide Series. Allen comes to NBC after calling races on FS1/Speed. He will be joined in the booth by Jeff Burton (NBC). USA TODAY's Nate Ryan notes a third member of the booth "will be announced later." NBC Sports Exec Producer Sam Flood said of Burton, "Jeff's the go-to guy who will have a strong, well thought-out position on whatever's going on. He'll offer opinions and not play the PC game. He'll tell you what he thinks, and if it goes against one of his buddies, he knows he wears the Peacock (NBC's logo) first. His job is to the audience and not to protect friendships." Flood added, "Our first job is the audience and being honest and loyal to them. We'll never embarrass a partner, but we'll give our opinion." Ryan writes NASCAR execs "have been pointing at NBC's re-entry into Sprint Cup broadcasting with the 2015 season as a fresh sheen that could help reinvigorate the sport's popularity." The net "views its return the same way -- and not just by increasing the number of eyeballs glued to TV sets." Flood: "We have to get the core fan back, get people to the track and remind them it's the coolest place to be on earth on a Sunday" (USA TODAY, 12/5).
ADVICE FOR BURTON: SPORTING NEWS' Bob Pockrass wrote many people "had Jeff Burton penciled in as the best driver for the next TV job," and the "good thing for Burton is that he can study how other former drivers have done in the booth." Burton "can’t worry about upsetting friends and fellow drivers with things he says," as he need to "shoot straight." That will be "easy for the most part, but it will be difficult at times." Burton can do his job "without being in the garage as long as he continues to talk to principles in the sport." However, to "remain respected, he needs to walk through the garage, even if it is for a short time and even if he doesn’t get too much done." It "gives the perception that he is interested in being more than just a voice on TV." Meanwhile, as long as Burton is driving or testing for Michael Waltrip Racing, it "will be hard for him to comment objectively on what’s going on with that team." He will "earn more respect by avoiding any potential conflict of interest" (SPORTINGNEWS.com, 12/4).
FRANCE HAPPY WITH DEALS: NASCAR Chair & CEO Brian France told attendees at the ’13 NASCAR Motorsports Marketing Forum he “couldn’t be more pleased” with NASCAR’s new TV deal with Fox and NBC. France said, “NBC has put a huge bet on NASCAR. What I really like about it -- people will see over time -- is for them to be successful … they have to reinvent the presentation part of NASCAR. On-air talent, graphics and how everything is presented. They’re going to do some things that are going to push the envelope.” France said Fox has done an “outstanding job for us,” but added the network will be “pushed, in a good way,” because of NBC’s presence beginning in ’15. Meanwhile, France called the Gen-6 car’s first year in the Sprint Cup Series a success, but said the organization is still working on its competition review in order to have the “closest, most competitive and safest racing in the world.” France: “We think we can do better” (Josh Carpenter, Staff Writer).
Embattled Toronto Mayor Rob Ford made a rare appearance on a U.S. radio station this morning, as he called into WJFK-FM's "The Sports Junkies" and took part in the show's weekly celebrity NFL pick segment. Ford said, "I understand we're talking football. I love football, and let's get on with the picks." Ford picked this weekend's slate of NFL games against the point spread, noting he "analyzes games … to the nth degree." He called himself an "absolute football fanatic" and noted there is a "football pool in my office ... and we have a lot of fun." Ford even offered to make his appearance a weekly segment and challenged the co-hosts to a picking contest and before saying they would "go out for some chicken wings when you come to Toronto." At one point early in the interview, Ford was asked about his drug use and allegations he tried to purchase a tape that shows him smoking crack, but he said, "You can talk to my lawyers about it but I'm here to talk football, guys. So if you want to talk football, talk football." Ford later addressed the controversy surrounding the Redskins name and said, "The Cleveland Indians -- what do we call them next, the Cleveland Aboriginals? Where do we go with this? It's been around for years and years and years and if they were offended, they should have come out when the name was first initiated. ... The politically-correct people have to come out now? I think everything's fine and I'd just stick with the name" ("The Sports Junkies," WJFK-FM, 12/5).
ASK, AND THEY SHALL RECEIVE: In DC, Dan Steinberg reported WJFK show producers Matt Cahill and Matt Myers, "knowing Ford’s fondness for football, together crafted an e-mail to Ford’s public-relations staff more than a week ago, explaining that they’d like him to pick NFL games, as other politicians ... have long done for the show." WJFK Program Dir Chris Kinard said, "It was collaborative. They toss around who would we like to get if we could. Every once in a while one hits. And this one hit." Cahill and Myers "heard nothing until Tuesday, when they were told by a Ford staffer that the mayor was interested." Many outlets "have reported that Ford will make weekly appearances with the Junkies, but the station has only been promised this Thursday’s show." Kinard: "If it goes well, we’d love to have him weekly, but it’s just a one-time thing at this point" (WASHINGTONPOST.com, 12/4).
Former N.Y. Daily News sports writer Dick "Hoops" Weiss is now "chronicling in digital form the cutting-edge emergence of global basketball," according to Seth Davis of SI.com. Weiss was laid off from the paper in May, but he now is freelancing for multiple outlets, including BlueStar Media, a website that "tracks basketball around the world." BlueStar is just one of "several outlets that are employing Weiss these days -- including the Daily News, which has hired him on a freelance basis to cover big-ticket events." Weiss: "I feel like a survivor. A lot of people who get out of newspapers disappear, but I've been able to reinvent myself." Davis reported BlueStar Founder & Owner Mike Flynn "had been pushing BlueStar deeper into men's basketball" when Weiss called him in May to let him know he had been laid off, so Flynn "pitched Weiss on the idea of traveling the world to cover basketball for BlueStar." Weiss within a month was "whisking off to Prague to cover the FIBA Under 19 World Championship," and he "later traveled to the Philippines to cover the FIBA Under 18 men's and women's world three-on-three championships, with a stop in Singapore on the way home to write about another three-on-three event there." Weiss next May will "be at the Euroleague Basketball championships in Milan, Italy." Flynn "insists that Weiss is no charity case." Flynn: "This was a quid pro quo. I'm getting one of the most iconic writers in America, who brings us authenticity, and he's getting to have fun with no pressure doing the things he loves." Davis noted Weiss during the season also will "write columns for the American Athletic Conference's website as well as former USC coach George Raveling's site," in addition to "some studio work for Big Ten Network" (SI.com, 12/4).
In West Palm Beach, Brian Biggane notes Golf Channel for the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge has assigned Brandel Chamblee to "the post-match interview area, meaning he should be on site" when Tiger Woods completes his first round today. After the "back-and-forth between the two following Chamblee’s charge that Woods was 'cavalier' with the rules at different times this past season, and Woods' counter that perhaps GC should terminate Chamblee’s employment, it should be an interesting exchange" (PALMBEACHPOST.com, 12/4). Meanwhile, in a special to GOLF WORLD, golfer Geoff Ogilvy writes he did not agree with everything Chamblee said about Woods, but the "resulting backlash against Brandel was also unfair." While he "used language that was, in places, too hyperbolic for my taste, the principle of him being able to share with us his expert assessment is too important to be abused." Ogilvy: "To my mind, Brandel is one of the best things on Golf Channel. And let's be clear: He isn't employed to give us facts; he is there to offer opinion. So he should be allowed to do so" (GOLF WORLD, 12/9 issue).
AMERICA'S MOST WANTED: THE BIG LEAD's Jason McIntyre cites sources as saying that free agent QB Tim Tebow will "almost certainly be a college football TV analyst next year, either for ESPN’s SEC Network, CBS Sports, or Fox Sports." One source said that ESPN, CBS and Fox "have all expressed interest" in Tebow and that ESPN "already has a show set in place for him." SEC Network, which debuts on Aug. 21, is "planning its own version of 'College Gameday' and has settled on three names: Rece Davis (an Alabama grad) would be the host, the voice of the South Paul Finebaum would play the role of Lee Corso, and Tebow would be the show’s Kirk Herbstreit." Meanwhile, McIntyre reported CBS is "willing to blow up its pregame show and make major changes if it lands Tebow" (THEBIGLEAD.com, 12/3).
MARK MY WORDS: In DC, James Wagner notes former MLBer Mark DeRosa will make his debut as an MLB Network analyst Monday at the MLB Winter Meetings. DeRosa, who will "appear on the show 'MLB Tonight' throughout the season," was a guest analyst for the net during the '11 and '13 postseasons and "loved the experience." MLB Net's studios are in Secaucus, N.J., "'walking distance' from where DeRosa grew up, and his new job will allow him to spend more time with family there" (WASHINGTONPOST.com, 12/4).
NATIONAL TREASURE: In Toronto, Jerry Agar gave his reasons why Rogers Communications "should keep Don Cherry." Agar: "Simply put, he is unforgettable." What other sportscaster "would take the time to honour Canada's soldiers and cheerlead for his country the way Cherry does?" The fact that some people "want to stop him from doing it, and take to the Internet to describe their hatred for him, says more about them than it does about Cherry, a man who loves his country and will speak up loudly for it." With "no disrespect intended to other sports broadcasters, Cherry is irreplaceable" (TORONTO SUN, 12/3).
NOTES: ESPN yesterday announced that Ben Casselman will join the team of FiveThirtyEight.com as its Chief Economics Writer. He comes from the Wall Street Journal, where he covered energy, real estate and most recently served as a lead economics reporter (ESPN)....TV One officials yesterday said that the net has hired ESPN.com Editor Shannon Cross “as news anchor for its live daily news program, ‘News One Now.’” The net said that Cross will “serve as a contributing voice of the daily morning news broadcast, narrating both breaking news briefs and lengthier feature segments beginning Dec. 9” (MULTICHANNELNEWS.com, 12/4).... In Miami, Barry Jackson reported radio host Marc Hochman, who recently informed WAXY-AM that he is leaving when his contract expires on Dec. 31, yesterday wrote in an e-mail to associates that he and the station have “mutually agreed to part ways about three weeks earlier than planned.” He indicated that today’s morning program “will be his final show” (MIAMIHERALD.com, 12/4).
The HOLLYWOOD REPORTER's Eriq Gardner reported DirecTV has "made a strategic investment in LiveClips, a technology platform that aggregates live, post-game and archived sports feeds." The investment "will allow DirecTV to give 'Sunday Ticket' customers the ability to see personalized sports highlights." In addition, the technology "has the capability to allow customers access to searchable video clips of game action on broadcast and digital devices." Terms of the deal were not disclosed (HOLLYWOODREPORTER.com, 12/4).
GETTING THEIR PHIL: In Toronto, Kevin McGran reports many inside the Maple Leafs' clubhouse expect RW Phil Kessel "to be the breakout star" of HBO's "24/7: Road to the Winter Classic." Maple Leafs D Dion Phaneuf said, "Phil has a real different side to him behind those doors and in front of you guys, and I hope that that show can really show what kind of a guy he is because he's a great guy to hang out with." Maple Leafs C Nazem Kadri: "Phil's going to be interesting to watch. He likes to kind of keep to himself a little bit, but I know the HBO cameras are going to kind of want to get on him a little bit and have him in the show." McGran notes while Kessel can "at best be reticent to speak to reporters and face cameras after games and practices, he really didn’t have a choice but to go before the HBO cameras" (TORONTO STAR, 12/5).
AT A SPRINT: FS Indiana telecasts of Pacers games in November saw a 113% ratings increase compared to '12, marking the team's highest rated opening month since '05. The increase is the largest in the NBA this season. The team's local TV ratings overall ranked fourth in the league, up from 13th at the end of last season. The Nov. 27 game at the Bobcats was the highest-rated game on FS Indiana since April 20, 2005 for the season finale against the Bulls. Nielsen data shows that Pacers telecasts on the net overall are averaging a 4.1 rating in the Indianapolis market (Pacers).
ON A ROLL: In Birmingham, Ty West reported Alabama has the most appearances on CBS' SEC package over the last 10 years with 47 games, followed by LSU and Florida with 46 each. Those three schools have been involved in about 46% of CBS broadcasts during that period. The Florida-Georgia game "has appeared on CBS in each of the past 10 years." The Alabama-Auburn Iron Bowl "was tapped for CBS nine times, which was tied with Arkansas-LSU and Florida-Tennessee" (BIZJOURNALS.com, 12/3).