SBJ/May 12-18, 2014/Media

NBC looks to CSN for next generation of national broadcasters

Al Michaels was 35 when he made his famous “Do you believe in miracles?” U.S. hockey call at the 1980 Winter Olympics.

NBC’s top hockey announcer in Sochi earlier this year was Doc Emrick, who is 67.

That age gap highlights a consistent lament I hear from programming executives who worry about aging on-air talent as they try to attract younger advertiser-friendly audiences. These executives gripe that younger generations aren’t getting the same opportunities that a young Al Michaels had in 1980.

Of course, younger announcers today have many more opportunities than they did in 1980, thanks to the explosion of TV channels and digital platforms. But it’s become virtually unthinkable for anyone in their 30s to call a big event, such as U.S. hockey’s gold medal run in 1980.

The problem is twofold. On one hand, once announcers get these plumb positions, they obviously don’t want to give them up. In many cases, they shouldn’t. Take Emrick, for example. He is hockey’s best announcer and won a sports Emmy award last week for play-by-play.

On the other hand, viewers don’t like change. I’d like to hear more young voices calling games on TV. But personally, I was disappointed to see ESPN move the 74-year-old Brent Musburger off of its top college football game in favor of Chris Fowler, who is a youthful 51. There’s something to be said about the comfort of hearing “Big Game Brent.”

I reached out to NBC Sports Group’s Princell Hair last week to talk about what networks like his are doing to give more opportunities to more voices. As senior vice president of news and talent, Hair is the executive responsible for hiring and firing talent. He talked about a strategy that NBC uses to tap into on-air talent at its regional sports network for open national slots.

“The national guys don’t give up those seats easily,” Hair said. “When they do, I want us to be ready and have somebody that’s in the family, someone that we’ve been grooming, someone that can make a seamless transition from the regional to the network.”

Ever since Comcast’s acquisition of NBC became official two years ago, Hair has overseen this strategy, which he said is part of NBC’s “Symphony” initiative that NBCUniversal CEO and President Steve Burke put forth when Comcast’s NBC acquisition became official. That is a push to have all of NBC’s departments work more closely together.

“As we look at the next generation of reporters and anchors and play-by-play commentators and analysts, our regionals are a natural place for us to look,” he said. “I see that evolving.”

Hair has used Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic’s Julie Donaldson as a fill-in host on NBC Sports Network’s “Sports Dash,” as an online host during the Olympics and as a beach volleyball announcer. He tapped Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia’s Marshall Harris for some Olympic work. He has used Comcast SportsNet New England’s Carolyn Manno on everything from NBCSN’s “Sports Dash” to the Winter Olympics.

Donaldson, Harris and Manno all are in their 30s.

The moves seem obvious. NBC has available talent on the local level that would relish national exposure. But Hair recalls a planning meeting before the London Games when he suggested using some RSN talent to fill in some programming holes. At the time, the idea was unique. NBC’s executives quickly embraced it.

“That was really the first time where we were able to take advantage of the fact that we are this huge company with a vast array of talent,” he said. “Before, we really had to go out of house quite a bit in order to fill the talent needs.”

Hair says he relies mainly on a gut instinct to decide which RSN talent would fit best on a national stage. But he identified attributes all on-air announcers and reporters should share.

“They have to have a passion for sports,” he said. “While I’m watching their reels, I need to feel some sort of connection with them or some sort of connection with the story that they’re telling me. If you start from the most basic attributes of someone you’re watching on television — an anchor or a reporter — they obviously have to speak well. They obviously have to look that part — it is a visual medium.”

And if NBC’s strategy holds, when older announcers decide to retire, the next generation will be ready and capable to step in.

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.


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