Monday February 1st, 2010

1. NFL Ratings: Is it the economy (stupid)? The storylines? A statistical fluke? Whatever the factors, the NFL had its most-viewed regular season since 1989-90 and the postseason ratings have been just as impressive.

The Colts-Jets AFC Championship Game on CBS drew a 26.3 rating and 46.9 million viewers, the most viewers for an AFC title game in 24 years. Fox's airing of the Saints-Vikings NFC Championship Game drew a 30.6 rating and 57.9 million viewers, the second-largest audience for any conference title game, behind the 68.7 million viewers for Cowboys-49ers">49ers in January 1982. According to Sports Business Daily, the Saints-Vikings broadcast drew the most viewers for any television program since the Seinfeld series finale in 1998 (which attracted 76.3 million viewers). It was the most-watched show in Fox's history, excluding its Super Bowl coverage.

During the regular season, each NFL broadcaster increased its numbers, from ESPN (up 20.2 percent) to NBC (16.7 percent) to Fox (12.4 percent) to CBS (6.1 percent) and the NFL Network (48.4).

"In terms of why the ratings have been so good this year, for many years the NFL had gone through the trend of declining ratings that you see across a lot of other network sports and network day parts," CBS Sports and News president Sean McManus said. "I think this year there was the Brett Favre factor, which last year we were the beneficiaries of when he played for the Jets. That story did not last through the playoff, but this year the Brett Favre story built and built and built and that generated a lot of interest in any game he appeared in. I think the NFC East was also a good story this year. All four teams were in it for a fair part of the season, particularly Dallas, Giants and the Eagles.

"From a broader sense, the game of football gets more and more attractive and more popular every year," McManus continued. "There is something about NFL football when some people have less time to go out of their homes, some people have less money to go out of their homes, some people have more obligations to stay home, it just seems to be the No. 1 attraction. If they are going to watch something on television during the week, they are going to watch NFL football. ... It is an amazing story in television that a sport and a television property can be that successful year after year."

Why is McManus smiling this week? Because his network airs the Super Bowl, which I'll predict will be the highest rated (not viewers, rated) since Super Bowl XXX, when the Cowboys win' over the Steelers game drew a 46.0 rating.

2. Tony Petitti, MLB Network: Rarely does Bud Selig utter a statement that those in the press universally agree with, but the commissioner was correct when he said, "The [MLB] Network's first year was excellent, to say the least." Under Petitti's leadership, MLB Net deserves plaudits for not approaching its content as a house organ. He's hired respected baseball journalists (Tom Verducci, Jon Heyman, Peter Gammons, Ken Rosenthal) and earned credibility with even-handed coverage of Alex Rodriguez and Mark McGwire. (And the even-handed coverage includes Harold Reynolds' vanilla, pro-player takes on seemingly every issue.) It's also a place where fans with a historical bent can find interesting coverage.

"We want to keep growing the amount of homes we're in," Petitti said. "We are still very new. The more hardcore fan will find you first, and our goal is to spread that out and appeal to the less intense fan."

3. Clark Kellogg, CBS college basketball analyst and Presidential favorite: It's automatically a good month if the President of the United States calls you the "best color man in college basketball," as Barack Obama did Saturday when he joined Kellogg and Verne Lundquist courtside for the Georgetown-Duke game. CBS spokesperson Jennifer Sabatelle said the network put in an interview request with the White House on Friday when it learned that Obama was attending the game. Props for CBS Sports directors Bob Dekas and Suzanne Smith for providing viewers with some amusing shots of Obama chatting it up with Kellogg and Lundquist, while staying within the framework of the game.

4. Jim Courier, Channel Seven (Australia) on-court interviewer: Roger Federer and Serena Williams were not the only ones to soar in Melbourne last week. Courier's on-court interviews with the players, including here and here, were fantastic. The player-turned-broadcaster (Courier has worked with Australia's Channel Seven for the past couple of years in addition to his work Stateside) did a great job of humanizing the players.

"I'm not doing this as a journalist; it's entertainment," Courier told SI.com. "They know I'm not going to ask anything controversial. I'm not going to ask anything I wouldn't ask myself. You can only express yourself so much playing tennis. This is a chance to show some personality. A guy like Nikolay Davydenko will turn this into his own comedy act, and you'll never get a player in a better mood than after they've won a Grand Slam match. Trust me, if I had to interview the losers, it wouldn't go as well."

Courier, who covered the U.S. Open for CBS, said the real reason it works is because of Federer: "He sets the example. Other players see him, see how he expresses himself and how he's so giving of himself and say, 'Oh, I guess that's how it's done.' "

Of course, not everyone is as high on Courier as we are.

5. Dog-as-Twitter Avatars for NFL Writers: The latest NFL trend isn't the Wildcat formation or finding fault with Tim Tebow's throwing motion, but NFL writers using their dogs for their Twitter avatars. The trend appears to have started with AOL FanHouse's Dave Goldberg and, since then, we've seen SI's Peter King, Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Palm Beach Post's Edgar Thompson and Alex Marvez of Fox Sports.com follow suit. Holdouts with large Twitter followers include: ESPN's Chris Mortensen (his avatar is a photo of his football-playing son, Alex) and Adam Schefter (the classic looking-cool-in-the-studio headshot), ESPN Boston.com's Mike Reiss and Charles Robinson of Yahoo! Sports (classic prom headshot). SI Swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker, who once picked football games for this site with Dr. Z, has also joined the club.

6. Matt Winer, NBA TV Host: Following a path charted by Rich Eisen and Dave Revsine, each of whom left ESPN to become bigger faces at smaller networks, Winer left ESPN after eight years to become a studio host for NBA TV. The New York Post's Phil Mushnick, who praises ESPN about as often as Fidel Castro appears in public, called Winer "a reliable, dues-paid studio man." We can't argue with that. Solid move for all parties.

7. Todd McShay, ESPN Draft Expert: There is no question ESPN is fast-tracking McShay for stardom (in fact, the last time I saw such a p.r. blitz from Bristol, it ended up with Dick Vitale being enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. The Kiper-in-waiting analyst put himself on the line with his candid analysis of Tebow following his Senior Bowl workouts.

"I've never seen a quarterback at an All-Star game like this that had such an obvious delivery issue," McShay said. "I thought coming in, maybe all the intangibles, showing signs of improvement could help his stock. [But] it's going to be a huge, huge transition for him. It's hard for me to imagine us one day talking about Tim Tebow as a good, starting quarterback full-time for an NFL team."

AOL Fanhouse college football reporter John Walters, a fine writer for this brand for more than a decade, wrote last week that McShay's reputation is on the line because of Tebow's fame. It's an interesting hypothesis. Ultimately, it will be years before we know whether McShay's analysis of Tebow is correct, but he may never have a bigger call than the one on Tebow. What viewers deserve from the likes of McShay, Mel Kiper Jr. and Mike Mayock is competence and unfiltered analysis. So far, McShay has been consistent with his opinion of Tebow, and I respect that above all, no matter whether Tebow turns out to be Steve Young or Young MC.

8. Winter Olympic Ratings: With struggling prime-time ratings and its epic bungling of the late-night franchise, NBC has had a terrible run recently. Now comes the Winter Olympics, which lacks a marquee U.S. star as well as no American women likely to be a factor in the Ladies' Figure Skating competition. NBC ramped up its Vancouver ads with Apolo Ohno and Lindsey Vonn, but neither athlete is close to having the kind of pre-Games Q-rating that Michael Phelps had. Plus, Vancouver does not hold the same kind of curiosity as Beijing. (No disrespect to the great country of Canada.)

GE has said NBC expects to lose $250 million on the Vancouver Olympics -- the network bid $820 million for the Games -- and as The Hollywood Reporter's excellent Paul Gough reports, NBC is guaranteeing Madison Avenue an average prime-time household rating of 14 for the 16 nights. That feels overly optimistic, but we shall see.

9. Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnson and Tony Siragusa, Fox Sports: Rough month for Fox's No. 2 NFL crew, as the trio was crushed around the country, from The Denver Post to Miami Herald to the San Diego Union-Tribune and St. Petersburg Times.

10. Craig James, ESPN: ESPN ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer weighed in on James in a deeply reported Jan. 20 column, and it's certainly worth reading for those who have followed the Mike Leach saga. Rather than focus on Ohlmeyer's analysis of whether ESPN's Alamo Bowl treatment of Leach was more biased than balanced, I want to once again reiterate how unsatisfied, as a viewer, I remain that James did not recuse himself publicly from the Alamo Bowl broadcast before ESPN pulled him. It gives me serious pause to trust him as a broadcaster going forward. (Ohlmeyer did not quote James in his piece).

Last week, I asked ESPN executives if James should have pulled himself off the broadcast. "While we recognize this was a complex and evolving issue, we would have preferred that Craig alerted us earlier, and he understands that," said Norby Williamson, an ESPN executive vice president. "What's most important is that the proper decision was made; Craig did not call the Alamo Bowl. It was a mutual decision made by ESPN and Craig the day he alerted us to his situation, which was the same day he expected the matter to become public. As we said then, it would have been inappropriate for Craig to work the game and everyone involved agreed."

I appreciate Williamson's response, but the timeline remains unsatisfying. The James family clearly had an issue with Leach before the matter became public in late December, and Craig James has worked in broadcasting long enough to recognize that impartiality was an impossible standard here. Viewers need to hear from him on this before the start of next season.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.