How will the SEC Network fare? SI's team of college football analysts size up the biggest 2014 TV topics.
With the start of the college football season approaching and a ton of broadcasting changes, including the debut of the SEC Network, I invited four of our college football writers -- Andy Staples, Pete Thamel, Zac Ellis and Martin Rickman -- to join me for a roundtable on a number of television-related topics. Hope you enjoy:
1. How successful will the SEC Network be?
Deitsch: It’s already successful. If you look at the distribution agreements, the SEC Network will launch in more than 87 million households. The talent and production staffers are first-class, including announcers Brent Musburger and Joe Tessitore and the vice president of production for College Networks Stephanie Druley, the executive who launched the Longhorn Network. SEC markets are rabid for college athletics -- especially football -- and ESPN always has an unlimited budget for promotion of new properties. The big question, and one that will take some time to answer: Is the network simply a PR vehicle for the conference? Or will it have any editorial chops?
Ellis: I don't see how the SEC Network won't be huge from both a production and ratings perspective. The network already has plenty of great games on tap for the first few weeks, including South Carolina-Texas A&M on Aug. 28. SEC Nation should be an intriguing traveling show that could poach SEC fans on Saturday mornings if College GameDay broadcasts from, for example, the Oregon-Michigan State game in Week Two, or another out-of-conference matchup. Tim Tebow and Paul Finebaum on one show? Tell me fans won't watch that. Combine everything with the new SEC Storied films series, and this network could be a Southern fan's dream.
Rickman: I think it will be immensely successful, although it’ll have the typical first-year jitters and kinks to work out. SEC fans eat, sleep and breathe football, so a network devoted to the conference they care so much about always made sense. The roster of talent the SEC Network brought on is strong and had some time to get acclimated, and the short videos ESPN teased during SEC Media Days seemed appealing to more than just those obsessed with the SEC. It’s about maintaining consistency and just getting better from there.
Staples: This depends on how we define success. From a sheer back-up-the-Brinks-truck perspective, it’s going to be a smashing success for the SEC and for ESPN. The thing ESPN knows – because it figured out college football fans long before most other national media outlets – is that the majority of the SEC fanbases have a militant wing full of people who wouldn’t only cancel their service if they can’t get a game. They’d threaten arson, and they might follow through. This is why distribution was never going to be a problem. When people feel they need a channel to survive, that channel is going to get carried. (I say the following as the parent of two young children and a DirecTV customer: Forget the SEC Network. If I ever lost Disney Junior for even a day, I might hurl my dish off my roof like a discus.)
As for editorial success, we probably won’t know until a big, controversial story happens. We didn’t know with the Big Ten Network until the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke, and that story caused a lot of soul-searching in Chicago. After handling it incorrectly for two days, the network did a complete 180 and started covering the story. Its viewers were better served because of it. The SEC Network has mostly hired anchors and analysts, so the way it covers big news stories remains to be seen. The difference here is that ESPN already has a ton of reporters, so it’s possible that Brett McMurphy or Mark Schlabach or someone else from that stable winds up pulling double duty for the mothership and the SEC Network. That way, if something gets reported that offends the SEC, SEC Network brass can tell conference officials to take it up with ESPN president John Skipper.
Thamel: The SEC Network? What is this SEC Network you speak of? I watch ESPN all the time and haven’t heard anything about it. (Turns off sarcasm font.) The SEC Network will do fine. The off-field strength of the SEC has always been the passion of its fan base. Commissioner Mike Slive, consultant Chuck Gerber and ESPN scheduling maven Dave Brown have done a masterful job of using marquee second-tier games -- think the Texas A&M-South Carolina opener -- to leverage fans to badger their cable companies into making sure the network is available. Distribution won’t be a problem as it was for the Pac-12 Networks because the fans are so much more passionate.
From an editorial standpoint, I’m curious how in the tank the network will be toward the league. Will this network become the SEC’s version of Fox News? There have been some embarrassing moments in this age of conference-specific TV channels, such as the Big Ten Network initially ignoring the Sandusky scandal. Let’s hope the SEC Network has a little more tact that that. The league leads college football in off-field shenanigans and frequency of scandals. A story like the resignation of Florida assistant Joker Phillips would be an interesting test case. It’s big news in the league. How deep will the network dig?
2. How many more years will CBS go with the pairing of Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson?
Deitsch: I hope for many years, but I’m in the tank for Lundquist. At 95 percent of what he once was, he is still better than most game-callers out there. I’ll live with any minor mistakes in exchange for his zeal, storytelling and booming voice. Danielson has never bothered me the way he seems to bother SEC fans. But, hey, I’m from New York, where SEC is more commonly an acronym for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Ellis: Lundquist has already said he would like to stick around at CBS for a while longer, but he doesn't want to linger until he has lost his touch. That's the primary criticism of Lundquist today: his minor mistakes during broadcasts. I could see Lundquist and Danielson sticking around for maybe three to five more years, at the most. If Lundquist is already anticipating the end of his career, it probably won't be far away. The duo's voices are a staple of SEC Saturdays. I'm not quite ready to see them go.
Rickman: I’m bad at goodbyes, so I can’t say this year is the end. I’ll give it two years with the farewell tour being one hell of a ride.
Staples: CBS messed with the pregame and halftime shows and changed up sideline reporters this year, so I don’t think they’re looking at any part of that broadcast as sacred. It sure seems like things will change more in the next two or three years.
Thamel: I’m a big Verne fan, so if this is his last call I’ll enjoy every drop. If he is around longer, I’ll enjoy that, too. He has a great voice and a sense for the moment. I know Danielson is polarizing, but I’m pretty ambivalent about him. I think he’s solid. Keep doing your thing, fellas.
3. What will be the biggest story this season?
Deitsch: Logic says the College Football Playoff, but history indicates that something else will come up, be it an emerging star or a scandal.
Ellis: This is a generic answer, but it has to be the College Football Playoff. We've waited far too long for it, and now it's finally here. Fans can discuss playoff teams and fill out new (albeit small) brackets. But don't be fooled, the system won't be without controversy. Arkansas athletic director and selection committee chairman Jeff Long must face cameras each week during the season's second half and explain the committee's latest rankings. Think that'll go over smoothly? Of course not, but that's precisely why it will be so fascinating to watch.
Rickman: Everybody wanted the College Football Playoff for so long, and all the league commissioners devoted a big portion of media days to discussing it. It’s changing the very landscape of the game. While Florida State’s quest to repeat should be a big story, nothing will be bigger than the playoff.
Staples: The easy answer here is the playoff, but the correct answer is probably that we have no idea. No one would have predicted the multifaceted Jameis Winston story last year, and it would be a fool’s errand to predict what we’ll be talking about come November.
Thamel: The playoff. The playoff. The playoff. This will be the season of the playoff. How does it work? Who is in? Who is out? Who is making or receiving death threats? My prediction is that somehow the new system becomes even more controversial than the BCS, and we're at an eight-team field by 2019.
4. What can Fox Sports 1 do to siphon college football viewers from ESPN?
Deitsch: Ultimately, viewership is dictated by game inventory. Great games lead to higher tune-in rates on shoulder programming before and after games. But networks can set a tone with on-air talent and production. Do they want people with reputations for reporting, great storytelling and game-calling? Or do they want people gifted at getting page views for lowest common denominator hot takes? Fox had an excellent offseason, bringing in quality news people such as Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandel. They smartly blew up a pregame show that didn't work or rate and retooled it. This will be a long and slow process. The testosterone that Fox Sports officials showed upon launch about challenging ESPN was done for media buyers. The reality is this will be a long slog. But the network's schedule is better than it was last year, and it'll gain viewers on that alone.
Ellis: FS1 needs quality games, but it also needs to bring quality analysis in pregame and postgame shows. Joel Klatt was the best college football talking head it had last year. Bringing on Feldman and Mandel can only help Fox Sports 1's college football credibility. Both will do wonders for the network's reporting, as they are among the country's most respected college sports writers. They can add commentary on the web and on television. That's the kind of thing I want to see from any network's studio shows: Quality analysis without the goofy antics. That also would make me flip the channel from a debate between Lou Holtz and Mark May on ESPN.
Rickman: I said this last year and I’ll continue to repeat it: Be different. GameDay is a staple and people will tune into it out of habit. If Fox Sports 1 wants to attract viewers, it has to do something no one else is doing, or something better than anyone else. Right now it isn’t doing either, and the numbers reflect that. There are talented folks working there, and it’s just about finding an identity and sticking to it. Whether it’s humor, well-researched features, focus on betting lines or otherwise, there are ways to make it work as long as FS1 thinks creatively.
Staples: Hope for really good games. Live events drive sports viewership, and if FS1 winds up with a few barnburners, that probably means some viewers will wind up watching Fox Sports Live because they forgot to change the channel. If Fox Sports Live is good that night, those viewers will make mental notes to watch it more often. The idea of a show courting college football gamblers seems like a promising one. No one in the sport wants to admit it, but a lot of football’s popularity is derived from the fact that it’s extremely gambler-friendly. I don’t bet on sports, but plenty of people do. Those people have televisions.
The other potential spot where FS1 could gain viewers is with a quality postgame show late Saturday night. I’m not sure if this is something network executives are already planning, but it’s something they should consider if they aren’t. People watch ESPN’s May-Holtz extravaganza because they feel they have no other option. (Rece Davis deserves all the raises for classing up that show as much as possible.) If FS1 offered an entertaining alternative, it might pull a few viewers away from ESPN. If that happened, ESPN would likely strive to make a postgame show worthy of the rest of its college football programming, which would steal those viewers right back. In the end, the viewers would win.
Thamel: I have to admit that other than the handful of relevant games Fox Sports 1 aired last season -- Oklahoma at Baylor on a Thursday night comes to mind -- I didn’t watch the network very much last season. There was no real reason for that, other than it didn’t do much to compel me (or anyone, if you look at the ratings and cancelled shows) to watch. FS1 executives hired wisely this offseason, bringing in Feldman and Mandel to lend some journalistic credibility to their broadcasts. Both are friends, so I’ll probably watch a little bit more. To be honest, Fox’s competition with ESPN isn’t much of a competition at all. But good information and breaking news leads to increased credibility, so this is a small step in a long journey. For what it’s worth, I always enjoyed interviewing new hire Dave Wannstedt, who I hope remains as candid as he was during his tenure as Pittsburgh’s head coach.
5. Which newcomer are you most interested in?
Deitsch: Wannstedt. Fox officials and on-air talent really sold the soap hard to me on him, so I’m curious to see if a great audition translates to a compelling voice from week to week. Wannstedt wasn’t a great interview as either the Chicago Bears or Miami Dolphins coach, but he was much more compelling at the college level with Pittsburgh. Fox has also smartly streamlined its main college football show to Rob Stone, Klatt and Wannstedt. Fewer voices will be more with the product. The network’s longtime embrace of The Best Damn Sports Show Period ethos (basically a bro-fest) proved to be a viewership and critical failure for college football. The new approach is much more promising.
Ellis: Mack Brown. He was known as a media-savvy coach at Texas and is as likable as they come off the field. How will that convert to the studio? Having never met Brown, he struck me as someone who seemed willing to ride off into the sunset after his departure from Texas. But his ESPN broadcasting role will be intriguing to watch.
Rickman: Honestly? I’m curious to see what Brady Quinn can do over at Fox Sports. He is polished and has been testing his analyst chops all spring. I get the sense he will either be a natural or flame out completely. Either way, he’s worth keeping an eye on.
Staples: Definitely Brown. He’s a great talker, and even though things slipped in his last few years at Texas, he was an all-time great coach. If he gives honest, unfiltered opinions, he’ll be fantastic.
Thamel: If a veteran stockbroker from Morgan Stanley was caught insider training, could he go on to work for CNBC? And then possibly get hired in a few years by Goldman Sachs? No. Of course not. But in college sports, Bruce Pearl can get caught cheating, work for ESPN and then get hired by Auburn. Only in college sports, kids. This is why ESPN’s Butch Davis hiring cracks me up. He basically had a runner for an agent on his staff at North Carolina. He would be a perfect guest analyst to explain plausible deniability, as he managed to get cleared by the NCAA. But I have a feeling the network won’t bring him in as an expert on staff members funneling agent money to star players. His hiring as an analyst interests me only as a way to show how ESPN’s hiring practices completely disregard the NCAA enforcement office in Indianapolis. Feel free to add, “Ability to get hired by ESPN,” to the endless list of reasons why there is no disincentive for college coaches to cheat. Moves like hiring Davis show that ESPN’s executives think about as highly of the NCAA and its rules as Jay Bilas does.
6. What is your reaction to ESPN appointing Chris Fowler to call the national championship game and Saturday Night Football?
Deitsch: If the decision were based on merit alone, Musburger would still be calling ABC’s Saturday Night Football. His performance did not drop last year. But ESPN management needed a post-Brent plan, Fowler’s contract was coming up and the organization had a long-term employee who was campaigning for the job. I don’t worry about Fowler being a professional. He and Kirk Herbstreit will give viewers an excellent broadcast; both represent the best of on-air sports broadcasting. Whether Fowler has the kind of big-game voice and sense for the moment that viewers have come to expect from someone calling the most important games of the season, we’ll soon see.
Ellis: Fowler's ascension to Saturday Night Football wasn't as surprising as the demotion of Musburger, who is synonymous with ESPN and ABC's primetime matchup. To me, he still had some miles in that role. Still, Fowler is already a voice firmly associated with college football thanks to his GameDay responsibilities. That familiarity will serve him well, as will his long-developed on-air chemistry with Herbstreit, who remains great in the booth. Hearing Fowler welcome viewers to a stadium on a Saturday night will feel just as exciting as his opening monologue on GameDay.
Rickman: Fowler is a pro’s pro and would probably do a good job announcing a beer pong tournament. He’ll be fine.
Staples: Good for Chris, who is one of the best in the business. I’ll always have a soft spot for Musburger, but I’ll still be able to see him on the SEC Network. Chris and Kirk are going to be awfully busy on Saturdays, but private jets are wonderful things.
Thamel: Fowler is talented and knowledgeable, and I’ve never found him to be an overt shill. I had no strong reaction to those appointments. He’s the best in the college football racket and has earned everything he has achieved.
7. How would you define the coverage of Jameis Winston? What do you expect moving forward?
Deitsch: Inconsistent, depending on the outlet. ESPN’s preseason sitdown conversation with Winston might as well have been conducted by the Florida State PR department. At times, the network has shown more journalistic ambition here. But that tag is probably true for most of the outlets covering college football, with the New York Times coverage of Winston serving as the lone exception. I expect the coverage this fall to be a mix of fawning (by those who fawn) and tough reporting (by those who report). And I expect a lot of it both ways.
Ellis: Winston has to understand that he is now the most polarizing college football player in the country, and every little thing he does will be magnified. Much of the coverage surrounding Winston during the latter part of his redshirt freshman season stemmed from his involvement in a sexual assault investigation. Since he was ultimately not charged, I'd imagine the spotlight surrounding Winston would focus more on football than anything else in 2014. He'll be a legitimate threat to repeat as the Heisman Trophy winner, and Florida State has a favorable path to the playoff. All Winston needs to do is be smart off the field.
Rickman: It’s a sensitive subject, and I expect it to be dealt with in a sensitive manner. Heather Cox was doing her job when she asked the questions she asked after the ACC title game, but this season I fully anticipate people trying to focus on Winston’s play on the field -- unless, of course, he makes noise off it again -- as a pendulum shift in the other direction. Sure, there’ll be some crab legs jokes here and there, and the GameDay signs won’t hold back. But I feel like everyone will try to choose their words carefully when it comes to Winston.
Staples: The coverage has been conflicted, and that’s probably the way it should be. You have an obviously great player who was involved in a very complicated situation about which we’ll probably never get the full story. Winston is charismatic, and his on-field exploits are outstanding, but the way the rape accusation was handled by the Tallahassee Police Department will always leave lingering questions. So, Winston is probably not going to get fawning coverage. That said, no charges were filed, and we also have to cover him as a football player. It’s messy, and it probably always will be.
Thamel: Winston is the most polarizing player in college football. I thought the New York Times story on how his investigation was handled -- or bungled, really -- was top-notch journalism. But as the season beckons, Winston will be the sport’s go-to hot-take player. I expect to roll my eyes a lot and change the channel.
8. Could Erin Andrews return to college football?
Deitsch: Perhaps as a one-off but unlikely outside of that. I don’t discount Andrews’ love of college football (it’s very genuine), but I think she craves celebrity and opportunity more. That can only come from the NFL and entertainment gigs. If I’m her agent or publicist, I tell her not to look back.
Ellis: It seems like Andrews is growing into too big of a star to return to college sports. The NFL is America's sport, and I could see Andrews staying with that beat for a while. I will say I thought Andrews' role as a studio host for Fox Sports 1's college football show felt a bit forced. She may get criticized for tossing softball questions as a sideline reporter, but that role feels like a natural fit for her. She'll do well at the NFL level.
Rickman: I doubt it at this point. Usually, after making the jump to NFL, a television personality doesn’t come back. She might eventually transition out of the NFL and into more lifestyle stuff. Still, with that contract, I can’t see her returning to college football.
Staples: Maybe? If she likes covering the NFL better, then there is a great career to be had doing that. But she loves college football, so it certainly wouldn’t be shocking to see her covering the sport again.
Thamel: I have no idea if Andrews will ever come back to college football. If she wants to, I hope she can. I wish her well in the NFL.
9. Who should replace Lee Corso on GameDay when he decides to retire?
Deitsch: The correct answer is Nick Saban. Now, will the timing work? College GameDay producer Lee Fitting told me he does not expect Corso to step away any time soon, so I would hold the core group in place for as long as possible until Saban decides to step away from coaching. There is no college coach in any sport that ESPN’s executives desire more than Saban, and they will pay any price to get him because they believe Saban’s presentation and skill set is perfect for sports television.
Ellis: Rick Neuheisel. The former Colorado, Washington and UCLA coach is a natural on Sirius XM and the Pac-12 Networks. He won't bring the fun, off-the-rails shtick that has defined Corso for so long, but he's a colorful analyst who can play well off Fowler, Herbstreit and Desmond Howard. Assuming Neuheisel doesn't find his way back into coaching, he should be high on ESPN's list of potential candidates if Corso hangs up his headgear in the near future.
Rickman: Since Steve Spurrier doesn’t seem set to retire any time soon, someone will have to keep the seat warm for him. Nobody will replace Corso specifically; rather, someone will take the spot and make it his own. A former coach with personality makes sense. Let’s see what Brown can do in a trial basis over at ABC this year. And this is a pipe dream, but I’m sure Bill Murray would stop by unannounced once or twice if the idea were casually suggested to him.
Staples: I’ve always said Gerry DiNardo would be perfect, and I still believe that. Though the more I see of Neuheisel and his guitar on the Pac-12 Networks, the more I think Gerry might have some competition. Maybe they could become a Statler-and-Waldorf team.
Thamel: I would love to see Les Miles in Corso’s role down the road. He is quirky and folksy enough to watch every week.
10. Will Tim Tebow be a compelling broadcaster?
Deitsch: Yes, Tebow would be compelling on face simply because he’s a very famous athlete transitioning to broadcasting (in a conference that knows him) at a young age. He has spent most of his professional career giving vanilla, though always polite, answers to questions. But I was really impressed -- actually, stunned -- by his work on ESPN’s Megacast coverage of last year’s national championship game. He was sensational at diagnosing offensive and defensive plays and did so in an easy-to-understand manner. The role of a studio analyst -- which Tebow will have on the SEC Network’s SEC Nation -- demands opinion and analysis. If Tebow is flat, he will get mundane quickly even with his fame. But I think viewers will be surprised.
Ellis: People will watch Tebow, and that's what matters to a network. I just wonder how critical Tebow can be in an analyst role. He has always been poised in front of cameras, and aside from his well-known and emotional speech after Florida's loss to Ole Miss in 2008 he rarely displayed an edge. I'm curious if Tebow will be the constant glass-half-full presence on the SEC Network, or if he can really dig deep and criticize a team, coach or player when criticism is deserved.
Rickman: People care about Tim Tebow. People have always cared about Tim Tebow. People will always care about Tim Tebow. So it was written. So it shall be.
Staples: If he’s honest and not trying to be politically correct, he will be. People don’t seem to realize that Tebow has some edge to him. It doesn’t come out that often, but when it does, it’s pretty interesting. Tebow has never seemed to care much about what anyone else thinks, so I think he might be willing to go for it as a broadcaster. That could be fun. Also, from what I hear from the SEC Network folks, former LSU defensive lineman Marcus Spears may be the breakout star. I love the perspective of linemen, so I hope that’s true.
Thamel: I’ll be curious to see how Tim does for the SEC Network. I always found him to be a compelling interview, especially outside of group situations. After a career filled with giving intentionally vanilla remarks, however, he is going to have to rewire himself to be more compelling. He has the football knowledge and background to be a sharp analyst. But I’m worried he may be a bit too nice to really unveil the full breadth of his football knowledge and be critical. It’s not his nature.
11. What is your dream broadcasting team?
Deitsch: Lundquist, Herbstreit and Charles Barkley. Why? Why not?
Ellis: Lundquist, Neuheisel and Herbstreit. I might be in the minority here, but mistakes be damned – Lundquist is still a fun broadcaster. Nobody can make the phrase "Oh, my goodness!" sound as exciting as he does. Danielson can wear on viewers, however, so I'd toss Herbstreit and Neuheisel alongside Lundquist.
Rickman: Ian Darke pairing with Brent and Herbie (or with anyone, really). Darke’s approach to broadcasting is mesmerizing. I really want to see if it would work in college football.
Staples: Joe Tessitore and Rod Gilmore, reunited. Because they can make magic happen.
Thamel: My dream broadcast team would start with Sean McDonough doing play-by-play. He’s sarcastic, blunt and is the best play-by-play guy in the game. He also isn’t afraid to be opinionated, something many play-by-play people shy away from. Since this is my dream pairing, I’d put Sean with former East Carolina coach Steve Logan, who has a radio show in North Carolina. Logan is laugh-out-loud funny, knows quarterback play cold and deserves a bigger platform. ESPN has too many announces who bow down to the coaches. Logan would not do that.
12. What is your nightmare broadcasting team?
Deitsch: Chris Berman, Holtz, May and sideline reporter Craig James -- the Knute Rockne of insufferable broadcasts.
Ellis: May, Holtz and Petros Papadakis. I'm still not sure what ESPN plans to do with Holtz and May as late-night studio analysts. They just have no chemistry. Davis is the only redeeming quality on that crew, but they all look bad when putting on that silly courtroom skit. As for Papadakis, he seemed more concerned with yelling on Fox Sports 1's college football show last year than offering actual analysis. These three together in a booth would have me searching for the mute button – and fast.
Rickman: It would never happen, but Matt Millen and Mike Patrick with May. I’m getting an ulcer just thinking about it.
Staples: James, May and Holtz. There is no play-by-play guy. He ran away.
Thamel: The only college football broadcaster who I actively muted for years was James. So, I’m going to use this space to celebrate how he remains off my television.