Friday, May 9, 2014

Why ESPN's NFL Draft Coverage Sucks

To me, the reason ESPN's draft coverage sucks is simple: ESPN decides the narrative in advance, plans its event coverage based on that narrative (shot selection, graphics package, everything), and sticks with their manufactured narrative rather than simply letting the event unfold and relying on their talented camera crews, producers, and wealth of on-camera talent to synthesize a narrative as the event (the draft) unfolds. That's the main reason.  But there are other reasons.

First of all, this guy, Boomer, has become to me (and apparently quite a few of my friends, if social media is an indicator) a net negative. Once one of the more talented and promising announcers, a trained broadcaster who could cover a live event with the best of them, Chris Berman has in the past decade become a parody of himself. He gets in the way of coverage with his bombastic assininity.  He created a style which in the early 80’s helped give identity to and establish ESPN as a formidable brand, back in the days when ESPN actually stood for Entertainment and Sports Programming Network.  But now, he’s a buffoon past his prime who should go “back-back-back” to the archetype he himself developed.

Second, the talent package ESPN put together with Berman is suspect.

This guy, Mel Kiper, belongs on the set. He is “Mr. NFL Draft” and ESPN has established Kiper as the go-to guy for draft coverage.  He’s knowledgeable, concise, “gets” how sports TV works, and makes great pithy comments and observations.

This guy is the Energizer Bunny. Jon Gruden has two modes: full tilt, and off. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the NFL, brings a huge amount of energy to the broadcast, is always ready with a cogent and insightful comment, and understands how TV works.

This guy – Ray Lewis - is one of the greatest defensive players in the history of the NFL.  But when he’s up there on the anchor desk with Boomer, Mel, and Jon covering the draft, he’s way out of his league. He looks nervous and comes off as unprepared. His comments appear forced, as if he’s saying something because the producer is saying “say something, Ray” in his ear.  He’s not Dandy Don Meredith’s down-to-earth foil to Howard Cosell’s smugness. He’s not John Madden’s loosey-goosey counterpoint to Pat Summerall’s buttoned-down control.  Lewis is out of place, and it shows.

Then, there’s – at least to me – the fundamental reason ESPN’s draft coverage sucked last night: they forced the narrative.

They made it all about Johnny Football.  The story line ESPN decided long before the draft actually began was that it was going to be all about Johnny Manziel, who would certainly be one of the first picks very early in the draft. They had three cameras – two from fixed positions, one mobile – focused on Manziel, and showed him at least once every three minutes for the first hour of the broadcast, until it became painfully – and I do mean painfully – apparent that Manziel was not going to be one of the first selected. Painful because the director or producer or whoever of the ESPN telecast insisted on showing Manziel constantly, and having the anchor crew talk about him.

Well over an hour into the broadcast, after Manziel had swilled about ten bottles of ice water (his throat must have been parched from the anxiety of not being chosen), ESPN finally backed off its constant exposure of and discussion about Manziel. The last few times they went to a shot of Manziel, Boomer, Mel, Jon, and Ray were hard-pressed to come up with anything to say.  After Dallas passed on Manziel, there must have been suicides among the ESPN brain trust that decided it was going to be all Johnny, all night.

Last night’s draft telecast was a metaphor for the way the TV networks cover sports. They define a narrative for the event ahead of time, and have the announcers focus on that narrative, regardless of how the event unfolds.

For a few years in the 90’s, I had the pleasure of working every morning with the guy pictured above, the Voice of UW Hockey since ’73, Paul Braun. Paul worked out of the same big studio I did, giving morning sports reports on a couple of the radio stations in the building where we worked. We had similar routines, doing reports –Paul with sports, me with news – custom-tailored for the stations we were on. This was during a time when Badger hockey was in the process of moving from telecasts exclusively on the state’s public TV network to what has now become Fox Sports Wisconsin.

Paul did not thrive in the new Fox Sports environment.  He would shake his head as he told me how he was being “coached” to do the hockey broadcasts by the Fox producers.  In their pre-game meetings, the producers would establish the narrative of the contest. They would develop three main “talking points” for the game, and Braun was told to hammer home those three talking points and to follow the narrative during the entire broadcast.

Rather than describe the action as it unfolded – often, as sports fans know, unpredictably – with unexpected twists and turns that come from game situations like penalties, injuries, coaching decisions, officiating,  and the myriad other things that can affect the outcome of a live sports event – Braun was told the stick with the pre-ordained script.

That’s why I’m so disappointed in ESPN’s draft coverage Thursday night.  They hammered home their narrative – that it was going to be all about Johnny Manziel – and weren’t flexible enough to make the telecast compelling by playing up the unpredictable nature of so many of the elements of a live event like the draft.

Spoiler alert: if you plan to see the movie “Draft Day” you might not want to read the paragraph below.

 The Johnny Manziel story, as pre-ordained by ESPN Thursday night, reminded me a great deal of one of the major plot elements of the Kevin Kostner movie “Draft Day”, which my wife and I saw together a few weeks ago and enjoyed a great deal.  In that movie, which takes place entirely on NFL draft day, from early morning to late night in the first round of the draft, there is, as it turns out, somewhat of a parallel with the Manziel situation last night. Everyone thinks this particular quarterback – and, in the movie, it’s the quarterback of the UW Badgers – is going to be one of the first picks.  But Costner’s character has some hard-earned inside information. It revolves around the fictional UW quarterback’s 21st birthday party, and who the Madison police did – and did not – arrest when the celebration got rowdy. Round after round of the draft goes by, and the Badgers quarterback is NOT taken, although the media keeps constantly focusing on him.  That’s all I’ll say.  The movie is fun, and worth seeing.

 Anyway, I hope Ha Ha turns out to be a wise pick for the Pack, and I hope Manziel can suck up his ego, take some coaching, and learn to be a pro quarterback.  And I hope ESPN learned something from its mistake, but I'm afraid the egos involved are too large to admit they did anything wrong.


  1. I'll take your word for Draft Day; I'm leery of movies that appear to be too blatantly advertisements wrapped into a movie skin.

    The "narrative" concept is one the NFL has taken to extremes. And this is why: that's what the fans want. ESPN knows this. Deadspin did a great story (and some related ones) on the Tebow narrative


    And explained why Tebow kept getting coverage. It was because people wanted to hear about Tebow even if he wasn't doing anything. The viewers are now dictating the news to an extent. There was a story on HuffPo today about CNN's head telling people that CNN was right to keep covering MH-370 to the point where it became almost a parody (they apparently LITERALLY covered stories about whether a UFO was involved) because ratings were up. He says that they did right because of that.

    I get that news shows need ratings; they're no longer loss leaders and have to make a profit. But when ratings determine WHAT is news we've let things slide a bit too much. Already I can't watch local newscasts in the morning because the general mix is 98% weather segments that contain too much useless information, 1% "camaraderie" and 1% news. That's because people getting up don't want the entire show and weather always grabs ratings.

    Now, I'm fading away from ESPN and sports coverage because I don't get insight into the games or actual reporting: I get Boomer's take on things (you nailed it with your analysis of him) and The Story, and if I'm not interested in The Story, I'm done.

    One other thing: Ray Lewis ought not be given any kudos, for onfield or off-field performance. It's an embarrassment that people like him and Michael Vick are allowed to be revered. While people should occasionally be given second chances, their crimes were such that I don't think they should have been allowed back into the NFL. So if you're going to mention him, I believe you should lead with "Ray Lewis, who helped obstruct an investigation into a murder and may well have been implicated in that death, was...".

    1. Cogent observations, as usual, Briane. I thought about going back in and editing the part about Ray Lewis. As a draft commentator, he makes a good thug - he embarrassed himself with his failure to be able to say anything really relevant.

      Ratings have driven news for a long time now. One of the best consultants I've ever worked with (not Holland Cooke, but Charlie Seraphin) always said when TV news ratings are down, they NEVER "adjust" the "journalism" - they change the set, change the anchors, change the graphics package - they do everything except examine the journalistic content of the broadcast. Instead of telling people what they should (need to) know, and doing it in a creative way, they've turned the telescope around and now ask people what they want to know. Sad.

  2. Paul Braun's style and voice on hockey broadcasts has always reminded me of the late Dan Kelly, the legendary St. Louis Blues radio announcer on KMOX from the days when we would tune in clear channel stations at night. Kelly also did CBS broadcasts of the Stanley Cup back in the day. A couple of great talents IMO.