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ESPN making strides with revamped NBA pregame; Fox's new NFL team

Photo: /Courtesy ESPN

Despite having to develop chemistry on the fly, ESPN is happy with the progress made by its new NBA Countdown crew.

Let's start with what ESPN's NBA Countdown is not. It is not TNT's Inside The NBA, which remains the Lionel Messi of the sports studio show genre: singular, improvisational genius that cannot be duplicated. The comparisons between the two shows by critics and viewers while understandable will always be one sided. Charles Barkley might be the only person in sports television who draws viewers merely on the possibility of what he might say. Likewise, the chemistry between him and longtime colleagues Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson wasn't drawn up in some executive suite. It happened organically and was nurtured by time.

But Countdown has improved on its own merit this season with a foursome (Michael Wilbon, Magic Johnson, Jalen Rose and Bill Simmons) that harmonizes much better than last year's quartet. With the NBA Finals debuting Thursday on ABC, Countdown (airing 30 minutes before tip) will get its largest audience of the season.

"The more TV you do with the same people, the better you get at setting them up, knowing what will make them react or laugh, knowing when you can jump in, and so on," Simmons said. "Also, I got better at TV as the season went along and I think that helped us too. I had only done like 15 PTI's [Pardon The Interruption] before I started doing this show and that's it. That was my entire TV experience. So this was like going to grad school for how to be on TV."

Along with Simmons and Rose -- who replaced Chris Broussard and Jon Barry -- the show brought in a new coordinating producer, Amina Hussein, who had previously produced ESPN's NFL Countdown show and worked in Bristol for 10 years. She moved to Los Angeles prior to the season and is one of the few women to produce studio shows in sports television.

"I think we had to work on chemistry and obviously that takes time," Hussein said. "But we are hitting our stride at the right time. As far as our strengths, I think we have four dynamic personalities. Every guy has strong opinions and is not afraid to debate with each other and mix it up. They all have a different perspective based on their experience."

Countdown still lacks daring and spontaneity. It's highly formatted -- too often it seems the reps for each person have to be equal -- and it's hurt by a 30-minute duration compared to Inside The NBA's 60-minute-plus postgame show. But the Countdown crew clearly likes each other and when they've been given time to riff, they can end up in interesting places. Simmons hit on this topic during an interview with SI.com when asked how the show could improve going forward.

DEITSCH: ESPN has no plans to lose NBA once current deal is up

"I'd like to see us take more chances," Simmons said. "I never wanted to do a traditional studio show and I never wanted us to feel like every other ESPN studio show. I should also mention that I've poked fun of the faults of studio shows more than just about anybody, so it's funny to be on the other side. Maybe that's impossible and maybe I am na�ve, but I expected us to push the envelope a lot more. And I hope we will down the road.

"I also think ESPN can help us more by giving us a better chance to succeed. For instance, they sent us to the Western Conference finals, which was awesome, but we ended up doing four minutes of postgame after every game, and that's because SportsCenter took precedent over us. That was a little sobering. TNT's biggest advantage against us other than Barkley is the massive chunk of time those guys are given. They love that show and they want it to succeed more than anything else they do. You saw what happened to Barkley in March Madness when CBS stuck him on a five-man panel and didn't give them enough time. Suddenly he wasn't Barkley anymore. I don't think people realize how important time is with studio shows. Especially when you have four people."

Hussein is asked often about the comparisons between her show and Inside The NBA but like most of her staffers, she doesn't see them as competition. "We all have the same goal and that's to promote the NBA and the league," she said. "I am a basketball fan so I watch their show a lot and I'm not looking at them from a production standpoint: I watch them as a basketball fan. I'm not going to say whether [the comparisons] are fair or not but it is definitely expected. We are both pregame shows that lead into matchups, but I think we are a totally different show. They have Ernie and Charles Barkley. We don't."

Hussein said on game days her on-air group will arrive two hours before the start of the show -- Hussein gets in around 9:00 a.m. -- and a meeting takes place between producers and talent to discuss the show's rundown. Things often get tweaked depending on whether someone has a particular passion for a subject. Hussein said she hopes SportsCenter will use her group extensively following the conclusion of the Finals game. Her staff will attempt to get players to come on set, something TNT has done to fantastic success. (I still have Shaquille O'Neal singing "Birdman, Birdman" in my head.)

Hussein said she thinks Countdown can improve by incorporating more X's and O's analysis and also with a larger commitment to incorporating social media. (She's experimenting with the idea of filming behind-the-scenes footage of her talent prior to air and releasing it through social media channels. This is something Around The Horn has done very well and Hussein would be wise to do it with her show given the immense social media popularity of her on-air talent.)

ESPN senior management said it is pleased with Countdown but as senior management are wont to do, they offered no confirmation on whether the same on-air talent would appear next season. "We are pleased with how the four guys have interacted," ESPN executive vice president of production John Wildhack said. "This was not only Jay and Bill new to the set but a new coordinating producer (Hussein), a new producer (Kim Belton), and they were all not together for the first time until about 48 hours to air which was not ideal. I think the show has improved as the season has gone on. The conceit of the show is we want it to be four guys who are discussing NBA basketball, debating and talking NBA basketball. We think it has been a significant step forward for us."

Asked how confident she was this would be the quartet next season, Hussein said, "I feel pretty good about it. Right now I am focused on the Finals but I love these guys."

The Noise Report

(SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week.)

1. SI.com has learned Fox Sports has constructed a new NFL announcing team for the 2013 season. SportsNet New York broadcaster Kevin Burkhardt will call play by play with current Fox Sports staffer John Lynch serving as his analyst. (Credit Newsday ace Neil Best for first reporting Fox would likely use Burkhardt, who has done terrific work as a reporter and announcer for the Mets, somewhere on its football coverage.) Erin Andrews is also likely to serve as a sideline reporter on a handful of NFL games this fall and very likely with this group, though her first priority is hosting Fox's college football studio show. When contacted Sunday afternoon by SI.com, Fox Sports president Eric Shanks declined to comment on any NFL broadcasting moves.

The broadcasting depth for the NFL on Fox needed upgrading, so the hiring of Burkhardt -- who currently serves as the radio play-by-play voice for the Cowboys' national broadcast on Compass Media Network -- is a smart move. Shanks and other Fox executives have previously said they view every NFL announcing group below Joe Buck, Troy Aikman and Pam Oliver as the potential No. 2 team at the network.

1a. Eric Mangini's second act as an ESPN broadcaster was a very good one. He brought intellect and thoughtfulness to his analysis during his two years in Bristol. Television also allowed him to re-invent his public persona of the tight-lipped coach we saw all too often with the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets. News broke over the weekend Mangini accepted a job with the San Francisco 49ers as the team's senior offensive consultant. He was a smart, outside-the-box hire by Seth Markman, who oversees ESPN's NFL studio shows, and he'll be missed by many viewers. "We were very impressed with Eric's overall growth as an analyst," Markman said. "He sees the game like few people do and was able to share his unique insight with fans in a way that likely pleasantly surprised people who had a certain perception of him as a coach. Our door would always be open to him, but he belongs on the NFL sidelines."

2. On the issue of whether he expected to return to NBA Countdown next season, Simmons said he thought his group earned a second year but could also get much better. Interestingly, he would not fully commit to returning. "I need to re-evaluate things this summer and figure out the best way to spend my time," Simmons said. "I was doing too many things these last eight months. I never wanted to become 'That Guy' and I don't want my daughter to hate me. She just turned eight and might turn against me just because I missed one soccer game or something. Little girls hold grudges. So I'm going to talk it over with my family and let them decide what I should do. It's going to play out like a bad sitcom pilot that ABC would reject."

2b. Hussein said discussions about on-air staffing for next season would happen a couple of weeks after the conclusion of the NBA Finals. She said such conversations would occur with Wildhack and Mark Gross, a senior vice president & executive producer at ESPN and Hussein's immediate supervisor.

2c. What does Simmons think of Inside The NBA? "I love it and think Barkley is the best studio talent of all-time," Simmons said. "Also, I think Ernie is the best studio host of all-time. I don't view them as a competitor. We never go head to head against them, and their show is geared around the postgame whereas ours is geared toward the pregame. But the familiarity and chemistry that Kenny, Barkley and Ernie have is special and I don't think people realize how rare it is. Trust me, after doing a year of TV, I appreciate those guys more, not less. If Barkley had taken the Phoenix general manager job, my reaction wouldn't have been, 'This is great for our show.' It would have been, 'No!!!!! They're trying to take Barkley! SOMEBODY STOP THEM!!!!!!'

2d. I asked Hussein why not having a traditional host was a good fit for Countdown. "I think because it gives the guys more time to bounce things around," she said. "The show is not as segmented because the conversation will go where it wants to go."

2e. Hussein said she collaborated with senior management about the Countdown lineup changes for this year but her interactions with some of the talent (particularly, Magic Johnson) came later than usual because her mother passed away shortly after she moved to Los Angeles to helm the show. Hussein traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with Wilbon prior to the season and had known Rose from working in Bristol. She met with Simmons when she first relocated to L.A but only met Johnson for the first time the day prior to the new group's first broadcast.

3. How did Fox Sports management view the first year of Gus Johnson's world football broadcasting journey? "I think that it was pretty much as expected as far as what Gus and I talked about before he took on this challenge," Shanks said. "It was going to be a work in progress. It was going to be tough. He was going to be criticized from all sides but he was going to put his nose down and work to get better every game. We paired him with different people -- at least three different analysts during the season -- and he was finding his way with each individual guy. The constant and consistent improvement comes in finding the pace of the game and I believe in the Champions League final, he found the pace of the game. He is committed to continuing to get better and we will continue to work at it."

3a. Shanks said Fox is still working on naming a full-time analyst for Johnson. "I think we will probably take a look at tapes and talk to Gus because a big part is how much comfort does Gus have with this person," Shanks said. "The goal is to land on a consistent person for next season."

4. Even if it often uses the program as a public relations counter to the network's 'embrace debate' and bloviating nonsense, ESPN's commitment to its Outside The Lines franchise deserves significant praise. They should be commended for airing the show on a daily basis and for the notable hires of Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporters such as Don Van Natta and Steve Fainaru. "ESPN has made it clear in recent years that we are very committed to doing hardcore journalism and Outside The Lines is how we get it out there," said Dwayne Bray, the Senior Coordinating Producer of ESPN's Enterprise Unit and OTL.

As a ratings play, Outside The Lines is averaging 346,000 viewers, down 12 percent over the same period from last year. But Bray said he does not feel ratings pressure from management. "I've been here seven years and we have all the autonomy we could need and want," Bray said. "No one has ever come to me and said, 'You know that story you did on high school kids and GPA? That was an important story but not rated as high as an NFL story, so do more NFL stories.' We pick the stories we think are best. I don't feel ratings pressure other than the pressure I put on myself to create interesting television that people want to watch."

Outside The Lines has two decision-making groups within its unit: The television program group, headed by David Brofsky, determines the staffing for OTL's television show, the focus of the television conversation and the show's visual look. The reporting group, headed by Bray, decides how the editorial resources of ESPN will be used on OTL-style stories. Bray and Brofsky talk every day and Bray also works closely with Chris Buckle, a senior editor for investigations and enterprise at ESPN.com.

Asked what story OTL will focus on most heading forward, Bray cited the concussion issue in the NFL. (ESPN has a collaboration with PBS's Frontline and Crown Books on the topic.) "That's a story we really want to own," Bray said. "I don't talk a lot about wanting to own a story but the concussion issue in football to me is the single most important topic we deal with. I would say number two would be everything going on with the NCAA. What is going to happen to college football, college basketball and to (NCAA president) Mark Emmert's future? That's another very important topic we are game-planning around."

I asked Bray what he thought of ESPN President John Skipper's recent comments to SI.com about how the show handled the Jason Collins announcement. (Said Skipper: "I think we did great other than we made one mistake: The mistake was not being more careful with Chris Broussard [on Outside The Lines], and there is a collective responsibility there. Chris Broussard's job was to come on and talk about the news of the league, how the league was representing it, and through a series of events he made personal comments which was a mistake.")

Bray said he agreed (probably smartly) with his boss's take. "Chris is a dear friend of mine, and we are actually both from the same city -- Cleveland," Bray said. "Chris is a reporter and answered the question he was asked, but Chris's role here is as a reporter."

5. NBC Sports should be concerned by the English Premier League's declining ratings in the U.S. According to Sports Business Daily, ESPN and ESPN2 combined to average 254,000 viewers for 51 EPL telecasts this season. That's significantly down from 2011-12 (321,000 viewers) and 2010-11 (301,000). SBD also reported ESPN Deportes had lower ratings for its 30-game EPL package: The Spanish-language net averaged 49,000 viewers, down from 58,000 viewers last season and 55,000 in '10-11. NBC takes over the package in August and will air the majority of its games on NBC Sports Network.

6. Baseball's draft doesn't produce the same fervor among television viewers as the NFL and NBA Drafts but MLB Network continues to add to its coverage of the event. The 2013 MLB First-Year Player Draft will be aired live on the network (and MLB.com) on Thursday at 7:00 p.m. ET and MLB Network will also have a draft preview show at 6 p.m. ET. An MLB Network spokeswoman said MLB Network's live coverage Thursday will feature interviews with front office personnel and representatives, footage from team draft rooms, and interviews with prospects and newly drafted players.

7. Among the memorable pieces this week:

? A group of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism students profiled some of the 4,000 former NFL players who are suing the league for neglecting to tell them about the dangers of blows to the head and hiding evidence that linked head trauma with long-term brain damage.

? ESPN writer Kate Fagan had a fantastic profile of WNBA player Brittney Griner.

? SI's Tom Verducci says it's time for a new approach to the closer role.

? Science Daily says for professional bloviators such as Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith, it's better to be confident than correct.

? If you love great profile writing, New York Times senior writer Dwight Garner wrote a beautiful piece on singer/songwriter Jason Isbell.

? The Wall Street Journal examined how eye contact is declining in work and social settings.

? Alex Belth's "The Stacks" feature on Deadspin highlights some of the best sportswriting of the past 100 years, including Jimmy Breslin, Red Smith and Richard Ben Cramer.

8. NBC Sports Network drew 3.4 million viewers for its coverage of the Blackhawks-Red Wings Western Conference semifinal Game 7, the network's third most-viewed NHL game ever. (The network's most-viewed NHL game remains Game 3 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final between the Blackhawks and Flyers. That game drew 3.6 million.)

9. ESPN2's Numbers Never Lie is being re-tooled again -- Jemele Hill has been named as a co-host -- but at least this move has promise given the nice chemistry between Hill and current host Michael Smith. Both Hill and Smith have a reporting background, which should elevate some roundtable discussions above the usual afternoon gasbaggery. But the show should really drop its current name because management long ago gave up on doing a serious analytics-based show.

10. Sports Business Daily media reporter John Ourand reported last week Drew Kaliski has replaced Eric Mann as the producer overseeing The NFL Today. It's the first time in 25 years the show will have a new top executive. Mann had been in his position since 1988 and will continue to stay with CBS Sports. Kaliski previously worked as a coordinating producer for CBS Sports Network and as a senior producer at NFL Network.

10a. ESPN will air a one-hour special on Vince Lombardi on Thursday at 9 p.m. ET. The program, Lombardi's Legacy, will be hosted by Chris Berman and includes in-studio guests Mike Ditka and Jerry Kramer.

10b. The Big Lead website reported Fox Sports hired longtime NFL cornerback Ronde Barber to work on Fox Sports 1. Barber retired last month after 16 years in the NFL.

DEITSCH: Fox Sports 1 adds retired Andy Roddick to team of analysts

10c. The Golf Channel averaged 133,000 viewers for the month of May, a 19-percent increase over the previous May (112,000 viewers) and a 58-percent increase over May 2011 (84,000 viewers).

10d. Golf fans: This press release highlights the NBC and Golf Channel coverage from this year's U.S. Open from Merion Golf Club.

10e. I'm not sure what ESPN golf analyst Paul Azinger was thinking here, outside of not thinking.

10e. NBC Sports is creating a summer series around its Pro Football Talk brand called "Faces of the Franchise: Who's on Your Team's Mount Rushmore." The show will attempt to determine the four most influential people in the history of each NFL team. Coverage begins this week with possible selections debated on Pro Football Talk, which airs at 5 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network. Episodes will continue on the show through the end of the month, with the final episode featuring the Steelers coming June 28. NBC Sports said Hall of Fame players and coaches will appear on Pro Football Talk throughout the month to participate in the conversation.

10f. Pro Football Weekly, you will be missed.

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