Rece Davis settling in on College GameDay; inside Fox’s NFL coverage
Rece Davis has a genius idea for a future celebrity picker on College GameDay.
“I have no idea if we can ever do this, but I would love to get Kevin Spacey to come to Clemson, but in character as Frank Underwood,” said Davis, referencing the Netflix hit House of Cards. “He’d do the knuckle-knocking on his table when making his picks, the whole deal. I think that would be great.”
Yes, it would. His other suggestions (he’d also like to see Ronda Rousey and a president make picks) would also be can’t-miss television. As part of a phone conversation last week with SI.com, Davis addressed how he’s viewed his first few weeks of GameDay as the replacement for Chris Fowler, as well as some other GameDay-related issues. After 25 years as host of the iconic college studio show, Fowler has moved on to calling Saturday Night Football.
“I think the expectation has been pretty much what I thought it would be,” said Davis. “This [job] hasn’t been bigger than I thought. Obviously, you want to make things go very smoothly early on the first show so I will confess to being concerned and cognizant about that.”
Watching Davis this week host GameDay from Tuscaloosa, Ala., a couple of things were immediately apparent. First, he’s finding spots in the production to interject information that he finds interesting without dominating the conversation. He clearly knows college football and does the week-to-week preparation. For instance, after analyst Kirk Herbstreit praised the future of Temple’s football coach but failed to name his name, Davis provided the coach’s name, Matt Rhule, for any viewers not familiar with the coach. Second, his on-air colleagues like him. You can always tell via body language when colleagues don’t support each other independent of what they say for public consumption. The GameDay crew has welcomed him and the show already has good working chemistry.
Last month, Fowler and Davis had a chance to sit down at an offsite outing in North Carolina for ESPN’s college football staff where they discussed the craft of hosting GameDay. Fowler shared with Davis his thoughts on how to make the people on-set and behind the scenes most comfortable, while Davis said he wanted Fowler to know that he was comfortable with Fowler coming on the show anytime (which Fowler did on Aug. 30 in Fort Worth for the first College GameDay remote of the season).
Davis knows he’ll be compared to Fowler by viewers; that’s inevitable. But he said he won’t be imprisoned by trying to emulate Fowler stylistically.
“I’m just doing it my way because it’s the only way I know how,” Davis said. “Very early on in my tenure doing SportsCenter, way back in the 1990s, I might have been thick-headed about a lot of things, but one thing I did pick up on quickly was if you tried to solve or satisfy everybody who has an opinion about the way you do your job, you will end up running in circles and not satisfying anybody. So I don’t know that the comparisons are beneficial.
“We are in a subjective business and you and I can watch 10 tapes of [broadcast] people and we would probably agree on the majority of them,” Davis continued. “But I would almost bet anything that there would be at least one of those tapes that you would love and I would hate or vice versa. That’s the nature of our business. So I can’t get caught up in that. I tend to be by nature a guy who wants to get along with people and want people to like me. But I can’t be consumed by someone who wants to compare me to Chris or wants me to do things this way or that way.”
Davis said the toughest challenge he’s found so far is finding the proper on-air space to work in pieces of information on teams that do not get major points of discussion on a given week. (For instance, when a highly ranked team is playing a walkover game.) An upcoming challenge will be the elements: crowd noise, temperature, wind, especially at cold-weather venues.
Something that’s new strictly to the Davis-hosted GameDay is the show’s increased focus on gambling this year. Davis is not a sports bettor, but he said he’s fine with the shift in content.
“I immediately recognized when we talked about it during the off-season that we all know who will get blamed for this — me — because I was the change,” Davis said, laughing. “I’m actually O.K. with it and here’s why: We do a lot of slick and interesting stuff on GameDay and I think people like it and appreciate it. But 95% of the time, people yell at Kirk [Herbstreit] and Desmond [Howard] or David [Pollack] and Coach [Lee Corso] to say, ‘Who are you going to pick?’ I don’t even make picks and they are yelling at me. I think it is just a different way to make picks. People like hearing the predictions. I think it is a different way to make picks. I think [researcher] Chris Fallica is brilliant with that stuff and he’s a character and people have embraced as an everyman. I am OK with it, but I’m cognizant of the fact there are people who might be uncomfortable with it.”
Davis filled in for Fowler to call Michigan State’s win over Oregon on ABC’s Saturday Night Football on Sept. 12 when Fowler was calling the finals of the U.S. Open, and there is a plan in place for Davis to call some bowl games prior to the national semifinals. But while Davis said he would like to continue to keep calling college football, he will only do so when it does not conflict with the studio show.
“Right now that has to take a secondary role for me as I establish this routine on GameDay,” Davis said.
When I asked Davis how long he hoped to be on the show, he said he planned to be there for the duration of his contract (which lasts through 2021) and beyond.
“I am planning on doing this as long as I can,” Davis said, “because this job is a blast.”
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories
1. Some thoughts on Fox’s 2015 NFL coverage:
One of the more admirable things about Fox Sports management is their collective willingness to embrace change. Some NFL-specific examples include bumping up of the excellent team of Kevin Burkhardt and John Lynch to the No. 2 spot on the talent roster and switching Tony Siragusa off the Kenny Albert-Daryl Johnston team. Fox also has a new top-four broadcast team this year with play-by-play announcer Thom Brennaman and analyst Charles Davis after Davis served as the network’s lead college football analyst from 2007-14.
Of course Fox also has also made some short-sighted decisions based on a lust for celebrity. Management demoted Pam Oliver from the top team and initially wanted her off the NFL entirely before placing her on the No. 2 team, which has aided Burkhardt and Lynch. But Fox’s most significant NFL change this season was moving Fox NFL Kickoff (11 a.m. to noon ET on Sunday) from FS1 to big Fox and revamping the on-air team for that show. Kickoff is now hosted by Charissa Thompson with analyst Champ Bailey (making his Fox debut this year), Colin Cowherd, Randy Moss and Dave Wannstedt. Cooper Manning serves as a contributing reporter, and it’s a good hire, with an eye toward humorous features and interviews. The Cowherd addition obviously stands out, a trend among networks to get its high-salaried opiners as much exposure as possible. When negotiating with Fox Sports, Cowherd was likely looking for an NFL forum and Fox provided he and his sun-tanned CAA handlers with such an opportunity. Whether Cowherd adds anything to your NFL viewing isn’t the point; the goal here is cross-platform marketing of Cowherd. Watching Fox NFL Kickoff on Sunday, the first question of the show (Peyton Manning’s future) went to Cowherd and that tells you a lot about the ethos of Fox Sports’ new management.
A couple of additional thoughts on Fox NFL Kickoff: The production of Sunday’s show (graphics, pacing, sets) was very high so full marks to line producer Spandan Daftary, graphics producer Gary Hartley (with an ode to fellow News Corp brother New York Post in some of his graphics) and executive producer Bill Richards. Thompson did an excellent job moving the show along and making it about her analysts, which is what the best studio hosts do. It was clear she knew the content. Moss continues to be an interesting listen and Kickoff gave some time to its reporters in the field including Peter Schrager, who had an interesting note on Adrian Peterson contemplating making an attempt as an Olympic sprinter if his NFL career were over.
Kickoff had a predictable fantasy segment (it was hard to tell if it was sponsored by Draft Kings) but opted not to use a fantasy expert on set, which is an insult to fantasy players. Moving Fox NFL Kickoff to FS1 was an excellent idea, given ESPN and the NFL Network have had the 11-to-noon hour with little competition nationally. Fox network affiliates have been asked to clear an extra hour on Sunday mornings so that Fox’s NFL programming can start at 11 a.m. ET. Two weeks ago, the show aired in 94% of its markets (It wasn’t carried in 29 markets totaling 6% of U.S. TV homes and Fox will take those numbers for now).
“It was a show that we launched on Fox Sports 1 a year ago, and it [airing it on the network] is probably something we should have done from Day 1 because of our relationships with the affiliates,” said Fox Sports president Eric Shanks. “We started looking at season two and had some conversations with the affiliates and realized we could clear the time. This is a commitment to this show and growing it on the network. We think it’s a great opportunity to start the NFL coverage a bit earlier and give a really quality lead-in to Fox NFL Sunday.”
1a. Fox’s 2015 broadcast teams
No 1: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman and Erin Andrews
No. 2: Kevin Burkhardt, John Lynch and Pam Oliver
No. 3: Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston and Laura Okmin
No. 4: Thom Brennaman, Charles Davis and Tony Siragusa
No. 5: Chris Myers, Ronde Barber and Jennifer Hale
No. 6: Dick Stockton, David Diehl and Kristina Pink
No. 7: Sam Rosen, with rotating analysts Chris Cooley, Matt Millen, Kirk Morrison and Brady Quinn, and rotating reporters Peter Schrager, Holly Sonders and Danielle Trotta
1b. Via Austin Karp of Sports Business Daily, here’s how some Sunday morning NFL studio shows fared for Week One:
Fox NFL Sunday: 5.377 million viewers
The NFL Today (CBS): 3.886 million viewers
NFL Countdown (ESPN): 1.97 million
Fox NFL Kickoff: 1,025 million
NFL GameDay Morning (NFL Network): 787,943 viewers
1c. This from Fox NFL Insider Jay Glazer on Cardinals running back Chris Johnson’s shooting incident: “It’s amazing that Chris is starting today and more amazing that Chris Johnson is alive today. By now a lot of you know that he was shot in the shoulder this off-season and that his friend was shot and killed. But a lot of you don’t know though that the bullet that killed his friend was headed toward Chris and he got a text message and leaned forward to look at that text message. When he did that, that’s when that bullet passed by him and unfortunately took his friend.”
1d. The CBS and NFL Network’s coverage of the Broncos’ 31–24 win over the Chiefs was the most-watched Thursday Night Football game ever with an average of 21.117 million viewers. The previous high was Pittsburgh-Baltimore from last year (20.777 million).
1e. Here were the viewership numbers for Colin Cowherd’s first eight days of simulcasting on Fox Sports 1, courtesy of Douglas Pucci of TV Media Insights and Awful Announcing.
Sept. 8: 82,000 viewers
Sept. 9: 58,000 viewers
Sept. 10: 49,000 viewers
Sept. 11: 54,000 viewers
Sept. 14: 38,000 viewers
Sept. 15: 53,000 viewers
Sept 16: 56,000 viewers
Sept. 17: 31,000 viewers
The numbers above illustrate how hard it is to get traction in the afternoon for a still-fledgling sports network. For a comparison at the same hour, ESPN2’s His and Hers averaged 297,000 viewers the week of Sept. 7–12. CFB Daily, ESPNU’s college football show which airs weekdays between 1–4 p.m ET, averaged 84,000 viewers the week of Sept. 7–12. The Dan Le Batard Show, which simulcasts in the spot on ESPNU Cowherd used to occupy, averaged 24,000 viewers from Sept. 8–11.
2. College GameDay had an excellent discussion Saturday on Florida coach Jim McElwain’s profanity-laced tirade toward running back Kelvin Taylor after Taylor received a personal foul for making a throat-slashing gesture in a 31–24 win over East Carolina on Sept. 12. The show gave the discussion the proper time about where the line should be drawn for coaches. Particularly strong was analyst Desmond Howard, the most accomplished athlete on the set, who asked why the University of Florida administration had not suspended McElain for a game.
But this wasn’t a hot take. Howard calmly explained that he understood the idea of tough love and had no issues with McElwain’s actions until he heard the audio. He also did something that rarely happens on college studio shows — he put the onus on a football coach and an administration rather than a player.
“It made me sick to my stomach,” Howard said. “He oversteps his boundaries ... He lost control. That’s one thing you are taught as player. Never lose control at any situation during the game ... What does it take for a coach to be suspended?”
Kirk Herbstreit also provided a reasoned take and vouched for McElwain convincingly as a good man who had a bad moment. Viewers were rewarded with an excellent segment.
2a. For an alternative take from Howard on McElwain, here’s a column from CBS Sports host Doug Gottlieb.
2b. ESPN faced some criticism this week over one of the signs featured on GameDay.
2c. I didn’t watch the game live, but well done to Fox Sports college football analyst Joel Klatt who made a huge pre-snap call late in the fourth quarter that Texas quarterback Jerrod Heard would run a draw off a Cal blitz. Seconds after Klatt’s prediction, Heard scored on a 45-yard quarterback draw. This upcoming weekend will one of the busiest of the year for Klatt: He’ll call Stanford-Oregon State (with Tim Brando) on Fox Sports 1 on Friday night and then Utah-Oregon (with Gus Johnson) on Saturday on Fox.
2d. Ole Miss’s thrilling 43–37 win over Alabama on Saturday night, which had a 9:15 p.m. ET kickoff, drew a 4.6 overnight rating on ESPN, well ahead of the game that ran on ABC (Stanford-USC) in the same window (That game did a 2.7). For additional comparison, the top ESPN/ABC overnight rating this season is Ohio State-Virginia Tech (6.4, on Sept. 7).
2e. Last week on Twitter, I sent out some thoughts about what feels like a growing trend of on-air talent appearing on-camera during feature pieces on sports networks, particularly when that content is football-related, and how this is often dictated by high-salaried talent or management and not always with the viewer in mind. I heard from a couple of thoughtful people on the subject including NFL Network and HBO Sports reporter Andrea Kremer, who also appears on the CBS Sports Network. Upon reading her email, I asked Kremer if she wanted to offer some extended thoughts on the topic in this week’s column. Her words are below:
After reading Richard’s recent comments equating the number of times an interviewer appears on-air in a feature story with high-ego demands, I wanted to provide some additional perspective. This is not a rebuttal or a justification from the point of view of “talent.” I just believe it can be misleading to make a blanket statement without understanding the process.
A touch of background: in addition to my work with NFL Network, HBO Real Sports and CBS Sports Network’s We Need To Talk, I, like Richard, am an adjunct lecturer. I teach at Boston University’s College of Communication in the School of Journalism. In addition, I was recently awarded the Andrew R. Lack Fellowship (along with Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times) by BU. So I read his column through the prism of academia.
Having started my television career as a producer and having canvassed a few of my producers about this subject, there are several production and journalistic reasons why it is important to establish the interviewer on-camera and I even discuss this with my students. It is important to know what the question is that elicited a certain answer. That assures context. Any time you see someone on-camera you glean information from facial expressions and observing the reaction and interaction between subject and questioner adds a degree of realness to the exchange. Was it a leading question? Did the interviewer badger the subject or cut them some slack? How is the rapport? Is the interviewer listening and following up appropriately? In addition, cutting back and forth aids with the pacing of a story and sometimes you have to show the talent out of necessity. You might have to see the interviewer on-camera to cover a bite or an edit.
Richard’s point is valid: some talent might demand to be seen more in a story or executives may require that if they are promoting a certain on-air person. However, he also wrote that good producers say the interviewer should rarely appear on-camera. I would argue that is misguided producing. In fact, if I don’t see the interviewer on-camera I wonder why not.
I know of one network where they had their talent shoot cutaways and questions after the interview was completed since it was only a one-camera shoot. That is anathema in TV journalism and as I tell my students, if that is required, make sure you repeat the question verbatim as it was originally asked; you don’t make up a question to suit the answer already in the can.
I have never heard of anyone “keeping score” of how many times talent appears on-camera in a feature. I would rather keep track of how many times an interviewer successfully elicits unique, meaningful and newsworthy information, emotion, perspective or revelations and if I actually watch them do it, all the better.
3. The latest Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features ESPN anchor and reporter Suzy Kolber. In the episode, Kolber discusses how she prepares for Monday Night Countdown and NFL Insiders, how she has maintained her longevity on-air, why she left ESPN for Fox in the late 1990s, her thoughts on her 2003 Monday Night Football interview with Joe Namath where the Pro Football Hall Of Famer said on-air he wanted to kiss her (and later apologized), raising a child as a single mother while working in the sports media, the impact her parents had on her (her father is Gene Kaye, a well-known radio personality in Pennsylvania) and much more.
Kolber, on the Namath incident:
“It was always stunning to me it got as much publicity as it did. At the time it was almost no different than many other situations I could have found myself in. I have always marveled at how fascinated everyone was by that because to me, it would have been over seconds after it happened. I probably looked at our photographer, rolled my eyes and that would have been it. I would have never thought about it again.
“So it is so hysterically funny to me that it’s what I am most known for. I would never have done anything differently than I did, and I refused to discuss it publicly for a long time. Every news outlet, newspapers, late-night talk shows, everybody wanted me to talk about and I never did. I did not talk about it on-camera until HBO did the documentary on Joe and even then I requested of the producers to ask Joe’s permission if I can talk about it. Because for him and me, I wanted it to go away. He and I did speak the day after it happened and the first 30 seconds of the conversation was on the record where he said he was sorry, and the next 35 minutes was off the record. He felt embarrassed, humiliated, all of that stuff. I said to him, ‘I’m fine.’ One of my favorite things came from my mom. Her comment afterward was, ‘Good to see Joe still has good taste in women.’”
4. Sports pieces of note:
• From PBS’s Frontline: Researchers with the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University have now identified the degenerative disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in 96% of NFL players they’ve examined and in 79% of all football players.
• An appreciation of the late Moses Malone, the man and the player, by New York Times writer Harvey Araton.
• A profile of the IMG Academy, which trains high school kids to play college athletics.
• Vice Sports had a three-part series on what retired NFL players face regarding obtaining medical care.
• Chris Kluwe, writing for SI.com, on NFL teams doing players dirty.
• The many faces of Jose Mourinho.
• From Bruce Arthur: The incredible story of elite Ironman Lionel Sanders.
• Interesting Bloomberg Business piece on why you are likely to lose playing daily fantasy games.
• Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Brady McCollough goes inside the Dominican baseball machine.
• NYT’s John Branch, on a career minor-league hockey coach.
• From Matthew Odam of The Austin-American Statesman, the story of an Austin woman honoring her mother by visiting all 30 MLB parks.
Non-sports pieces of note:
• Washington Post reporter Stephanie McCrummen produced a stunning piece on the people Dylann Roof stayed with before the Charleston church shooting.
• Remarkable piece about an incredible war journalist.
• Via Rachel Donadio: “How do you cover the Vatican?” Some reminiscences from one of the most challenging beats out there.
• From The Atlantic: “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
• Via The New York Times: “In Unit Stalked by Suicide, Veterans Try to Save One Another.”
• Fascinating to read this 1998 piece today. CNN’s GOP moderator Jake Tapper on dating Monica Lewinsky.
• From The Guardian: “When West Point rugby went to war”.
• NBC’s Joe Posnanski takes a drive with his 14-year-old daughter.
• Via Michael Starr of The New York Post: A rare interview with Dennis Franz (NYPD Blue fame). Seems at peace.
• A Washington Post story that will wreck you.
5. On Sept. 29, NBC will broadcast an NHL game from the Cambria County War Memorial Arena in Johnstown, Pa., the home arena featured in the hockey film Slap Shot. The game (Penguins hosting the Lightning) will start at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Bob Costas, who began his professional broadcasting career at the arena in 1973 when as the play-by-play voice of the Syracuse Blazers of the North American Hockey League he called a game between the Blazers and Johnstown Jets, will host the event. Mike Emrick will call the game and the coverage will include Emrick paying homage to legendary Charlestown Chiefs broadcaster Jim Carr. Current NHL players will discuss their favorite scenes and memories from Slap Shot, and following the game, NBCSN will televise Slap Shot, starring Paul Newman, in its entirety.
Costas was still a senior at Syracuse University at the time he called the game and ended up spending $150 on a flight for a broadcast that only paid $30.
“To prepare, I got the roster of teams and studied them until the players were like members of my own family,” said Costas via NBC Sports. “Then, just before game time, I noticed that the Johnstown owner had sprung for new uniforms — all of the numbers were different. There was no time to relearn the numbers, so when the first Johnstown player on the ice was a guy wearing No. 2 named Francois Ouimet, I decided that he was about to play the game of his life. No matter what the play, Francois was in on it. He scored all the goals and even assisted on his own. He checked everybody, including himself, into the boards. He was in on every play. He was everywhere.”
5a. Steve Lavin was not out of work long. Fox and the Pac-12 Network have hired the former St. John’s and UCLA head coach as an analyst. Lavin will work as a studio analyst on Fox and Fox Sports 1’s coverage, appearing on the pregame, halftime and postgame shows including the FS1 program Inside The Big East. He also calls select games for Fox Sports during the season and makes appearances on America’s Pregame and Fox Sports 1. The Pac-12 Networks will use Lavin as a studio and game analyst.
5b. The New York Times did a deep dive on Fan Duel and Draft Kings and congressional interest in the daily fantasy business.
5c. ESPN said it averaged 1,265,000 viewers for its coverage of the U.S. Open, up 20% compared to 1,054,000 a year ago. It was the most-viewed U.S. Open since 2011 (1,443,000). Watch ESPN quadrupled its total of live minutes viewed for the U.S. Open with 364,700,000, compared to 76,500,000 in 2014, an increase of 377% (the linear TV presentation plus ESPN3’s offering of up to 11 courts and other content).
5d. Novak Djokovic’s win over Roger Federer (a rain delay sent the match to primetime) drew an average of 3,153,000 viewers, up 43% from a year ago (2,199,000, a Monday afternoon final between Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori).
5e. The women’s final featuring Flavia Pennetta over countrywoman Roberta Vinci drew an average audience of 1,601,000 viewers.
5f. Nice work by former SportsCenter anchor Steve Weissman, who handled the in-stadium updates during the men’s and women’s finals at the U.S. Open for those listening to the coverage on American Express Radio. Weissman has also found work for the NFL Network and the Tennis Channel. It can be a shock to the system for on-air talent when ESPN opts to not re-sign, so good on Weissman (who did solid work hosting OTL) for the hustle.
5g. Add this to Fox Sports-ESPN wars: On Sunday, ESPN’s Ryen Russillo, in a tweet, accused Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd of swiping one of his segments:
Russillo’s friend and former radio partner, ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt, also weighed in:
5h. Taking a page out of Seinfeld’s Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee playbook, Bellator debuted a new web series on Sept. 8 called Rolling With Jimmy featuring MMA analyst Jimmy Smith driving his 1969 Barracuda while conducting interviews.
5i. Hall of Fame baseball broadcaster Milo Hamilton, who called Hank Aaron’s 715th home run, passed away at 88.
5j. My current leader for Sports Media Tweet of the Year:
Andy Reid has worse clock management then the Irving school district folks— PFTCommenter (@PFTCommenter) September 18, 2015