The U returns to ESPN's 30 for 30; NBC's California Chrome plans

Tuesday May 20th, 2014

Miami wide receiver Andre Johnson kisses the crystal ball after the Hurricanes won the 2002 Rose Bowl.
Mark J. Terrill/AP

ESPN can't quit the University of Miami -- and that's good news for sports documentary viewers.

The network's ESPN Films division has ordered a second "30 for 30" documentary on Miami's football program following the immensely popular "The U" that aired in 2009. That doc focused on the fusion between the growing hip-hop culture in Miami and the swaggering football program that won four national titles between 1983 and 1991.

The working title for the upcoming film is "The U: Part 2" and reunites "The U" director Billy Corben and producer Alfred Spellman. The documentary will air this winter as part of ESPN's "30 for 30" series, and the running time is expected to be two hours.

"The original film followed the transformation from a Miami football program that went largely unnoticed to 'The U' and all that [associated with it] both on and off the field," said an ESPN Films spokesperson. "It became a cult classic and remains one of the most talked-about '30 for 30' films we've ever done. But that narrative didn't end in the early 90's and this sequel will pick up where the original left off."

Corben and Spellman started principal shooting last week -- Dolphins lineman Bryant McKinnie, who played on Miami's 2001 national championship team, has already sat down with the filmmakers -- and viewers should expect the net to be cast wide for subjects. Among the NFL-ers who played at Miami during the late 1990s and 2000s: Frank Gore, Devin Hester, Ray Lewis, Clinton Portis, Ed Reed, Warren Sapp, Jeremy Shockey, Jonathan Vilma, Reggie Wayne, Kellen Winslow Jr., Vince Wilfork, Willis McGahee, and Phillip Buchanon.

The boom-and-bust culture of Miami has been a longtime interest of filmmaker Corben, a Miami resident and University of Miami alum. He and Spellman teamed up for "Cocaine Cowboys," which examined the Miami drug culture in the 1970s and 1980s through the lens of the smugglers and hitmen of the cocaine wars.

The original "The U" film was watched by 2.368 million viewers during its Dec. 12, 2009 debut, which was ESPN's highest-rated documentary at the time. Executives at ESPN Films will tell you that more people ask about "The U" than any other documentary they've done.

The Noise Report examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week:

1. How does having a horse with the potential to win the Triple Crown impact what NBC Sports wants to do for its Belmont Stakes coverage on June 7?

"I'm happy with how we have presented all three Triple Crown races over the past few years, so we won't be starting from scratch or trying to reinvent the wheel for this year's Belmont," said Rob Hyland, the producer of NBC's horse racing coverage. "We will definitely add a few cameras and enhancements for this year's race and once the field of challengers to California Chrome is established, we will look into those story lines as well. Those extras will be used to supplement our existing coverage philosophy. We have a technical survey this Tuesday morning at Belmont to finalize the production plan and equipment levels. Our coverage will certainly be focused on California Chrome and his chance to become the first horse in 36 years to win the Triple Crown."

NBC has been filming Chrome and his connections since the day before the Santa Anita Derby (April 5th) so Hyland said there is a "fairly robust library of material" for features and additional content. The three-week build-up sets NBC up for a monster ratings afternoon. The most-watched Belmont Stakes on record came in 2004 when 21.89 million watched Birdstone end Smarty Jones's attempts for the Triple Crown. (Watch the race here - it's sensational)

Hyland said NBC Sports executives would discuss this week if there would be any additional post-race coverage should Chrome win the Triple Crown.

2. Olbermann, the ESPN2 show hosted by Keith Olbermann, was buoyed last week by following the NBA playoffs. The show drew a whopping 360,000 viewers on May 9 while airing at 1:15 a.m. ET. But Olbermann's ratings have been all over the map given the lack of a permanent start time and network. For instance, a live show on April 29 drew just 77,000 viewers at 11. p.m. ET.

"Listen, I am very pleased with where the show is but I am not satisfied," said ESPN president John Skipper. "We think there is upside for the ratings and we want to look at what Olbermann 2.0 is. We need to think about how to make the show different from night to night. We had a specific purpose [when we hired Olbermann]. He is a unique talent and we wanted to be competitive at 11:00 p.m. and have the clear No. 1 show and clear No. 2 show."

That purpose, of course, was to siphon audience away from Fox Sports 1's Fox Sports Live, which was created to draw audience away from SportsCenter. Skipper did say Olbermann has been on "his best behavior" as an employee and said viewers should expect to see Olbermann on additional ESPN shows.

2a. ESPN's Chris Fowler will conduct an impressive double this fall as both the host of College GameDay and the play-by-play announcer for ABC's Saturday Night Football package and the national championship game. Skipper said last week that the company is looking at the dual assignment on a year-by-year basis. "We were trying to do a new deal with Chris and both we and Chris decided to give it a shot and see how it goes," Skipper said. "Chris may decide it is more wear and tear than he wants to do and we will look how good he shows are. We will do it this year and reevaluate it at the end of the year."

3. I spoke with Fox Sports president Eric Shanks on Sunday about where he thought Fox was regarding preparation for the 2018 World Cup. "Fox Sports U.S. up to this point has not had an event that spans 30 days or multiple studio shows per day," Shanks said. "Planning coverage of a global event that has this many hours, we have quite a lot to do still. The quality of soccer coverage we have on the studio side has been upgraded clearly over the past three years. The bulk of what you do is everything that surrounds the World Cup and we have done better with those resources the past few years. But that is a drop in the bucket compared to what we have to do for the World Cup and we know that."

3a. One thing Shanks made clear is viewers should not expect Fox to bring back a soccer-only studio show on Fox Sports 1 prior to the World Cup. But Shanks said Fox does plan to give soccer a lot of airtime on its multi-sport shows. "What we found is in the current lifecycle of Fox Sports 1, the single-sport-dedicated half-hour shows have a harder time gaining audience," Shanks said. "It could be the best show in the world but you have to realize what the lifecycle of the channel is in. Multi-sport shows tend to have broader appeal because you are talking about more sports. We kind of took a step back, whether it is a football-only show or soccer-only show. I think its time will come but its time is not right now."

3b. In a move that will benefit soccer fans, ESPN management invited Fox Sports management to Brazil to watch onsite how it puts on a World Cup. Shanks and a group of Fox Sports executives will spend the first week of the World Cup hanging with their usual competitors. "We were blown away by the offer and hospitality from John [Skipper] and the ESPN guys," Shanks said. "That offer came immediately after we were in Zurich working on the [World Cup] bid. From day one we have been blown away by their support. The ESPN setup is one we can learn a lot from."

4. How much is Skipper worried about Fox Sports Live making inroads against SportsCenter? "Right now I do not believe it is happening, but do we worry about it? Absolutely," Skipper said. "We would be foolish not to. There are some smart people there [at Fox] and they are in this. Studio shows take a long time and I suspect they will experiment and do new things. I worried enough that we put a show (Olbermann) in between [SportsCenter and Fox Sports Live]. They were attempting to position themselves to go after SportsCenter at 11 so we put Olbermann there. Now you are competing for third and not for second and that's how we view ESPN2."

4a. If you work on First Take, Highly Questionable or Numbers Never Lie, your boss appears to be committed to your shows. Skipper said last week that he was happy with the block of ESPN2 programming in the late morning/afternoon and will continue to give the shows time to build audience. "We always believe in quality of content and differentiating shows," Skipper said. "ESPN 2 has the second best slate of live games and the second best slate of studios shows. We view [success] on content, ratings, followed by ad sales, and we think we have some shows where we can do more business. We have the best ratings we had on day parts for First Take and Numbers Never Lie and we have a lot of patience and memory with our shows. Remember, it took PTI a long time to hit."

4b. ESPN's research staff said 96 percent of all ESPN programming is watched live and that American males spent more time watching SportsCenter than any other TV program: 2.7 billion total hours in 2013.

5. SportsCenter has a new home, and the studio is actually as impressive as the PR onslaught for it: ESPN's Digital Center-2, a 194,000-sq. foot, five-studio media facility, had its ceremonial opening on Monday in Bristol. SportsCenter will be the first program to debut from the studio this June, followed by NFL programming.

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