In the end, the scoreboard in sports television is ratings. CBS can claim it had a terrific NFL season given its regular-season NFL telecasts averaged 19.1 million viewers, a 2% increase over last year. It can also claim success for its pregame show given it averaged 4.0 million viewers in 2015, up 5% over 2014 and the highest viewer average for the show in 18 years since CBS re-acquired the NFL in 1998. If you want to talk playoff ratings, CBS can really boast. The AFC Championship Game between Denver and New England drew an eye-popping 53.3 million, the second highest AFC Championship Game viewership ever behind the 2011 game between the Steelers and Jets (54.9 million).
But this has not been a good year for CBS’s NFL coverage if you judge a sports network on critical reception of its top NFL team, especially via social media. The network’s top analyst (Phil Simms) and rules analyst (Mike Carey) have endured the kind of social media criticism usually reserved for Chris Berman calling an NFL game.
While you are never as bad or as good as your social media reviews, Simms has had an uneven year at best, and Carey has come off far too often as lacking self-assurance on camera, which is counter to how he was as a referee. Ideally, Carey’s job evaluation should not be based on whether he predicts accurately what the officials will do but rather the quality of his own evaluation. The reality, of course, is that Carey’s predictions have missed so often that he’s become a prisoner of that.
So there was a lot at stake on Sunday for CBS’s top broadcast crew and Denver’s 24–10 win over Carolina in Super Bowl 50 did the broadcast no favors—a pair of stout defenses making it miserable for both offenses, especially so for NFL MVP Cam Newton. The game had 17 penalties, six turnovers and less than 300 combined passing yards.
Viewers have been spoiled the last eight years with mostly quality games (sans Super Bowl XLVIII), but this game had zero flow. Nor did the broadcast. CBS has had much better days, including excellent work at the AFC championship. Super Bowl 50 felt mostly jarring as a viewer, highlighted by a lack of replays and audio issues. Social media was flooded with complaints about hearing someone in CBS’s production truck counting down to a commercial on multiple breaks as well as the broadcast feeling too graphic heavy throughout and especially at the game’s end.
Regarding replays, here was one example: Simms offered a curious line with just under six minutes left in the third quarter when Newton was intercepted by safety T.J. Ward on a pass intended for Ted Ginn Jr. Said Simms: “He threw it so hard that Ted Ginn could not make the catch.”
That was a curious assessment by an analyst about an NFL wide receiver who has been in the league since 2007 (and has had previous drop issues) and the CBS production staff failed (or maybe saved) Simms by not giving us a close-up of the play. Viewers saw a long-distance angle of the throw and the broadcast never came back to the pick after a commercial break. So was it Newton’s throw or a receiver not making a play?
What else? CBS inexplicably aired multiple full-screen graphics about Peyton Manning on the game’s final play instead of showing Manning himself. Given it was likely Manning’s last game in the NFL, it’s a call CBS will regret when it sees the tape.
Simms had a mixed broadcast at best. For example, where he could be prescient foreshadowing a third quarter pass to Denver wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, he also referred to Panthers cornerback Robert McClain as McBride, twice.
Like a man with a lifetime of losing lottery tickets, Carey first came on the air with 7:16 left in the first quarter when Carolina coach Ron Rivera challenged the official’s ruling of an incomplete deep pass down the middle of the field to wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery. After a long break, Carey was brought in. He praised the challenge—I happened to think he was right —and said if he was in the booth he would reverse the call. “If I was in the booth I would reverse this to a catch,” Carey said. Naturally, the call stood. We never saw Carey again.
Not all was bad. The graphics change—similar to NBC’s Sunday Night Football—looked very clean, and CBS director Mike Arnold had a beautiful, tight shot of Newton mouthing a prayer prior to taking his first snap of the game with Jim Nantz explaining why he said it. The broadcast had its best sequence of the night for Newton’s fourth-quarter fumble, including immediate replays from above, a close-up shot and a third replay. CBS then came back to more replays after a Carolina timeout. Simms and Nantz pointed out that Newton seemed to avoid diving for the ball.
“I just think he decided not to take the chance and get that recovery,” Simms said. “When you see that football on the ground no matter what the situation is, where it is during the season but especially the Super Bowl, you have to get in there and get that recovery. Because not getting that recovery almost takes their chances of winning this football game away.” That was strong stuff.
Thankfully, sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson asked Manning about retiring immediately after the game. While you knew he would deflect the answer, the question had to be asked and she did so. I also liked that Nantz followed up in the trophy ceremony. How Manning answered was interesting, including the multiple plugs for a beer company.
But this will not go down as a great Super Bowl or a memorable telecast.
Prior to the game, this is how Drew Kaliski, the producer for The Super Bowl Today, answered the question of how he would evaluate his pregame show. “Did we inform and entertain the viewer throughout the four-hour pregame show? Over the course of 50 Super Bowls there were a number of plays, players, coaches, owners and teams who made a significant impact on the NFL, and we hope to give viewers a different perspective on some of the iconic moments in NFL history. Did we give a unique perspective of the matchup between the Panthers and Broncos? What impact will tight end Greg Olsen have on the game, through the eyes of a future Hall of Fame tight end in Tony Gonzalez? How will linebacker Thomas Davis perform with a broken forearm, through the analysis of former linebacker Bart Scott? Boomer Esiason, on whether this could be Peyton Manning’s last game as an NFL quarterback. How would Bill Cowher defend the dynamic Panthers offense if he was Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips? If we answer all those questions in the four-hour telecast, I will say we had a successful broadcast.”
Did they fulfill their charter? Somewhat. Kaliski showed immediate invention by having Esiason and Cowher walk from inside the Panthers’ locker room to the 50-yard line in one long live shot. That gave viewers an interesting visual regarding the players heading out to the field. If you were around at the start of the pregame, you saw reporters Wolfson and Evan Washburn provide quality reporting, including Wolfson saying that Manning told his Denver teammates in their last meeting before the game to “make sure to play for each other and not for me” regarding the very obvious possibility of him retiring.
The feature on the Bills winning four straight Super Bowls didn’t quite work, but give the former Bills (and Michael Irvin and Phil Simms) full marks for playing along with the setup. James Brown’s interview with Newton was revealing because: 1) They gave subject and interviewer time; 2) Brown offered follow-up questions and used his excellent instincts; 3) Newton is an excellent interview subject; 4) Brown’s producer was Charlie Bloom, as good as any sports producer in the business. Brown’s short Q&A with Roger Goodell wasn’t a back rub but revealed no news and likely pleased the league.
I was also pleased to see Zaevion Dobson’s story get national attention on Super Bowl Sunday.
There were of course some unwatchable moments. Tony Gonzalez’s interview with Broncos coach Wade Phillips and DeMarcus Ware was so overproduced that I was left wondering what it could have been given that Phillips and Ware are excellent interview subjects. CBS’s annual, cringe-inducing Super Bowl Pizza Hut promo was as bad as you can imagine.
The best part of CBS’s entire presentation (including the game) was the first 15 minutes of the Kickoff Show (which started at 6 p.m. ET and led into the kickoff). Those 15 minutes included a great opener produced by Pete Radovich featuring Ron Howard directing actors and artists such as Jack Black, Larry David, Jamie Foxx, David Letterman and Betty White before deciding to go in a different direction with Peyton Manning and Cam Newton, all to the theme of Aerosmith’s “Dream On.” That was followed by an on-field presentation of 40 Super Bowl MVPs. It was nostalgic, memorable and bittersweet, especially with some of the players limping badly. But you could not take your eyes off it.
The Noise Report
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable stories)
1. I heard from a lot of readers on Twitter looking for information on why ESPN college football reporter and NFL draft analyst Todd McShay was part of Michigan’s signing day event hosted by the Players’ Tribune on Feb. 3 at Hill Auditorium. The optics were odd given this was essentially a pep rally for Michigan and McShay had a formal role in the show. It was unclear if you were watching whether McShay was being paid by Michigan, which would really be odd given he’d have to report on them as a sideline reporter and draft analyst. Viewers clearly notice this stuff.
ESPN management said that McShay was not paid for the appearance and it did not know about his attendance prior to the event. To his credit, McShay answered the question when asked by SI. “I completely understand that I made a mistake and clearly should have discussed this appearance with ESPN in advance,” he said. “I will obviously learn from this situation, and in no way will this compromise the quality or objectivity of my work going forward."
1a. ESPN’s Monday Night Football will televise the National Football League’s return to Mexico City when the Texans play the Raiders at Estadio Azteca on Nov. 21 (Week 11) of the 2016 NFL season. It will be the first NFL regular season game in Mexico in 11 years. ESPN Deportes will also offer the Spanish-language production of the Texans-Raiders game.
Said ESPN President John Skipper, in a statement: “The NFL’s return to Mexico will be a signature game during the 2016 NFL season and ESPN’s Monday Night Football and our NFL studio shows will properly showcase this event both in the U.S. and in Mexico.”
2. Turner Sports NBA analysts Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal had some interesting suggestions for potential format changes to All-Star Weekend.
Barkley: “I would love to see an outdoor game. That would be my suggestion if we got to a warm-weather city. The only other format change I would like to see is I would like to do the United States versus The World. We got enough international players now to make it competitive. I think that would be exciting.”
Shaq: “I would love to see someone put up a million dollars for some one-on-one games. You get 10 of the best players voted by the fans and they all play one-on-one to seven and then the last game we play at halftime of the All-Star Game on Sunday.”
TNT will present live coverage of NBA All-Star 2016 events from Toronto, Feb. 11-14, including more than 26 hours of All-Star programming. The NBA All-Star Game will also be simulcast on TNT and TBS beginning at 8 p.m. ET next Sunday.
2a. SBD’s Austin Karp reported that the Pro Bowl drew 7.99 million viewers, marking the event’s lowest audience since it moved to the weekend before the Super Bowl in 2010. The game was down 9% from 8.77 million viewers for last year’s game on ESPN, and down 30% from 11.38 million viewers when NBC aired the game in ’14.
2b. The NHL All-Star Game averaged 1.595 million viewers and a 0.90 household rating for NBCSN. That was up 34% from 1.19 million viewers last year. Karp reported that the last time the game was on broadcast TV in ’04, ABC drew 2.68 million viewers.
2c. The NFL announced last Monday that it had reached agreement with CBS and NBC to share its Thursday night primetime package of games. Both CBS and NBC will broadcast five Thursday Night Football games in 2016 and 2017, while all Thursday Night Football broadcast games will continue to be simulcast on NFL Network. The league-owned network will also exclusively televise an eight-game schedule comprising Thursday Night Football, late-season games on Saturday and additional games to be determined. CBS has been assigned the early part of the season; the exact date of its first broadcast is still to be determined. NBC will start its package on Nov. 17, which means the network will have six consecutive Thursday night games when you add in Thanksgiving night.
3. Episode No. 40 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast with Richard Deitsch features CBS Sports director Mike Arnold, the director of Super Bowl 50. This was the fourth Super Bowl directed by Arnold, who also directed the famous 1992 NCAA Men’s Basketball East Regional Final between Duke and Kentucky when Christian Laettner hit his last-second winning basket for Duke.
In this episode, Arnold discusses the role of a director in a sports broadcast, how he prepares to work a game the magnitude of a Super Bowl, how crowd shots are decided during a game, how he communicates with camera people during a game, why you see the commercials when you do during an NFL game, what it feels like to read criticism of his broadcasters such as Phil Simms and Mike Carey, how he gets evaluated, whether sports television directors are made or born and much more.
A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI’s podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at me.
4. Non sports pieces of note:
• From John H. McWhorter: What O.J. Simpson Taught Me About Being Black.
• From The New Yorker: The Annals of Insomnia.
• After the death of a 13-year-old Virginia girl, the popular app Kik has police worried. From the New York Times.
• CNN on a secret air strip in Syria that is being developed for US military use.
• The Putin of Chechnya, via The New Yorker.
• If you have experienced grief, you will appreciate this powerful piece from Walrus magazine on digital ghosts.
• Via The Washington Post: Why I let a brain tumor go untouched for 10 years.
• What it’s like to cover Trump as a female reporter.
• From Politico: Time for Chelsea Clinton’s Easy Ride to End.
• From Metro Birmingham Living: Journalism in Birmingham, Alabama.
Sports pieces of note:
• A Vice Sports writer attends church with Cam Newton’s father. Excellent piece.
• MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas on Jerry Richardson’s seeds for owning the Panthers.
• From the NYT’s Bill Pennington: Willie Wood Made the Most Memorable Play of Super Bowl I. He Has No Recollection.
• From Toronto Star columnist Bruce Arthur: On Roger Goodell, and the temptation of nihilism.
• The NYT’s Mark Leibovich on the NFL as Teflon Don.
• The bizarre Super Bowl prop bets that changed Las Vegas forever.
• From Les Carpenter of The Guardian: How John Elway once turned down a chance to play for the football league that Donald Trump would ruin.
• Inside Peyton Manning’s secret investigation of the Al Jazeera doc, from Will Hobson and Justin Moyer.
• From Sportsnet (Canada): Being a black sports journalist.
• SI’s Tim Layden on how sports jerseys became ubiquitous in the U.S.
5. FS1’s Colin Cowherd continues to play coding games with John Wall—it’s now going on six years. Thankfully, the Washington Post hasn’t let up on the coverage.
5b. Which prompted a response from Craig Calcaterra of NBC Sports.com.
5c. The New York Times had a notable obit on Arnold Greenberg, the father of ESPN’s Mike Greenberg.
5d. Speaking of Mike & Mike, the show will now highlight First Take segments as the BaylessSmithization of ESPN grows larger. If I were hosts Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic, I’d be ticked that management was screwing with my show and talk to my respective agents.
5e. “There’s something toxic about Fox Sports 1.” Deadspin’s Tim Burke examines FS1 and its current direction, with assistance from the Sports TV Ratings website.
5f. Next Sunday at 5 p.m. ET, ESPN will air Rise Up: A SportsCenter Special. It’s the centerpiece of ESPN’s Black History Month programming and will consist of Bulls forward Taj Gibson, former tennis player James Blake and ballet dancer Misty Copeland sharing firsthand accounts of the events in the news cycle that impacted their lives. Here’s the list of other programming.
5g. GQ interviews FS1’s Katie Nolan.
5h. Via Austin Karp: Winter X Games on ABC/ESPN this year averaged 925,000 viewers for four live telecasts, marking the event’s lowest average viewership since 2004.
5i. Los Angeles Times reporter Lance Pugmire examined Al Haymon’s spending to put boxing on TV.
5k. From Golf.com: David Feherty Reflects on His Life in Golf as He Heads to NBC.
5l. ESPN reporter Holly Rowe had surgery last Tuesday after a second tumor was found in her chest. Here’s the ESPN statement on her.