Our media columnist on the men and women behind the NFL cameras, why ESPN is misusing Stephen A. Smith on Sundays, and the future of Thursday night broadcasts. Plus, a bold prediction about the Bills
1) I think so much of your NFL viewing is focused on the people in front of the camera. That’s understandable. The networks market their campaigns around on-air talent. But worth keeping in mind is how many people are grinding behind the scenes so NFL viewers can be entertained. If I’m ever up early enough to watch the NFL Network’s NFL GameDay First, which airs at 7:00 a.m. ET, I often think about the producers and stage managers traveling long before sunrise to arrive at work in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, where the show is filmed at NFL Films. This week I got some details on when the key production staffers come in. Alexandra Matcham and Craig Germain are the producers for the show. Matcham arrives at 4:00 a.m. while Germain is in by 4:30 a.m. Steve Silver, the show’s studio manager, is in at 5 a.m. on Sundays. They do it every week. Much respect.
2) I think you should read this Buffalo News story by Tyler Dunne on the NFL’s concussion crisis, and particularly the quotes from former Eagles and Bills quarterback Kevin Kolb. It’s scary stuff.
3) I think as most savvy fans know, NFL pregame shows have become for the most part indistinguishable. They act as marketing vehicles for their network’s programming and they subsist on an endless amount of laughing. Sometimes, they produce some remarkable feature work. Most of the hosts, thankfully, are very good at the mechanics of television. One show that I think has stood above of the rest at times has been ESPN’s NFL Insiders, and the reason it stands out is because it has avoided most of the obvious markers we see on sports television. The show was built on the principle of no ex-players or coaches, which eliminated a lot of NFL-speak. They also approach fantasy football intelligently—Matthew Berry gets significant airtime and the tips are smart. It’s a very palatable watch and in today’s crowded pregame space, that’s a win.
4. I think ESPN made an intrinsic promise to viewers about NFL Insiders. If you invest in the show, they won’t load it up with what you traditionally get elsewhere: former coaches and players bloviating in a form of info-tainment. That’s why the appearance of Stephen A. Smith on NFL Insiders for a segment called “Tell Me I’m Wrong” should trouble you.
Full marks to Smith for breaking the news on Kam Chancellor’s returning, but he doesn’t cover the league on a daily basis and adds little to a serious football show for viewers. So why is he here? Well, Smith is supported by high-ranking ESPN management figures. He’s also someone who understands television very well and how to rile an audience. If you are going to use him on the NFL, use him on Sunday NFL Countdown or Monday Night Countdown, shows that invite big opinions. That would at least be conceptually accurate and honest to viewers. His Sunday segment on NFL Insiders is nothing more than an offshoot of former ESPN executive turned FS1 executive Jamie Horowitz’s philosophy of one man yelling at another man about why he’s wrong. It’s the Cheez Doodles of television producing and this show should do better than embrace debate nonsense.
5) I think the NFL’s leverage over its broadcast partners for its Thursday Night Football package is increasing rapidly. There was never any doubt that the TNF games would draw higher ratings with the move from cable (the NFL Network) to network (CBS). But this year’s numbers are eye-opening: The first two games of TNF have averaged 19.2 million viewers, up 20 percent from last year’s 16.0 million. CBS has done an excellent job with the production and provided the NFL with all it could ask for as a broadcast partner, but if the league puts the package up for bid with Fox, NBC and ABC/ESPN, it’s going to make a killing. The NFL has intentionally signed a short-term deal with CBS (for one-year deal, with an NFL option for the second) to keep the market open for future deals.
6) I think you should take a look at Buffalo’s schedule for the next six weeks. If they play up to their potential, the Bills should be 7-2 after nine games. There’ also an outside shot they run the table (vs. Giants, @Titans, vs. Bengals, @Jags, vs. Dolphins, @Jets) for an 8-1 record heading into Foxboro for a Monday Night game against the Pats on Nov. 23. What changes the perception of how you should look at the Bills is quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Against the Dolphins Taylor competed 21 of 29 passes for 277 yards and three touchdowns; he had no interceptions and a passer rating of 141.5. He also showed resiliency late against the Patriots in a 40-32 loss on Sept 20. Keep in mind that LeSean McCoy has barely contributed anything over the first three games with a hamstring injury. The Bills look like a playoff team.
7) I think it’s been a long time since I’ve heard something compelling from Michael Strahan as an NFL studio host. Don’t get me wrong. Strahan is a terrific television performer—likeable, charismatic, a crossover talent—but he’s become a very average NFL analyst in my opinion. Regardless of how I feel about Strahan, the NFL analyst, I admire what he’s done in his post-football career. He is the template for any athlete who wants to branch into morning television.
8) I think we are in a glorious era of wide receivers. The position has always been my favorite, and what a group of 27-and-under wideouts the NFL has right now: Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Antonio Brown, Dez Bryant, Amari Cooper, Odell Beckham Jr, and Demaryius Thomas among others. I’d argue it’s the best group of young receivers the league has ever seen, but maybe I’m a prisoner of the moment.
9) I think I agree with something ESPN’s Jemele Hill tweeted on Saturday. Hill said if she were LSU sophomore running back Leonard Fournette, she would sit out the 2016 college football season. As a true sophomore, Fournette is not draft-eligible until 2017 because the NFL requires that prospects be three years removed from high school. Running backs only have so many miles in them, and if Fournette stays injury-free and continues looking like Adrian Peterson, he won’t improve his post-college market next year. He owes himself the opportunity to maximize his market, and providing LSU with free labor is a foolish risk. I would find trusted business advisors, enroll at a high-performance facility that specializes in training NFL prospects, and educate myself on the business of the NFL from the summer of 2016 to the 2017 combine period. If you think Fournette’s draft status will go down because he leaves college, it’s exactly the opposite. He’ll create a better market by not giving scouts more film to pick out flaws.
10) I think this is what women in the sports media have to deal with daily. Here’s what Hill experienced (warning: graphic language) after she tweeted her thoughts on Fournette: https://twitter.com/jemelehill/status/647915204668465153
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