Media Circus: ESPN's latest 30 for 30 sparkles, football still ratings king

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At a screening in New York City last week for a documentary chronicling his remarkable life, former major league pitcher Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez admitted he was a bit of an emotional wreck.

“I wasn’t going to cry again, but it is impossible,” Hernandez said.

Once you see the film, you’ll understand why. On Tuesday ESPN will air "Brothers in Exile," a 90-minute documentary on how half-brothers Livan and Orlando Hernandez left Cuba to star in the majors with the Marlins and Yankees. It ranks, in my opinion, as one of the five-best documentaries ESPN Films' 30 for 30 series has produced. The doc premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.

While Cuban imports in baseball have become somewhat commonplace these days, the film revisits just how remarkable a journey both Hernandez brothers went through to pitch in the majors. In a deft bit of filmmaking, director Mario Diaz weaves each brother’s journey over the larger narrative of what an individual will do to achieve freedom. Orlando’s journey to the United States, in particular, was astounding. The Cuban government banned him from professional baseball in Cuba for life because he was suspected of having helped other players defect including Livan. He was also harassed by authorities and became excommunicated from his sport outside of pickup games on grass fields.

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Guilt-ridden over leaving his daughters but wanting the opportunity to ply his trade, Orlando and six others set out in a sailboat from Cuba for the United States on December 26, 1997. The U.S. Coast Guard found them on a deserted beach on Anguilla Cay in the Bahamas and took them to a Nassau detention camp. Costa Rica eventually offered asylum and Hernandez was able to sign a four-year, $6.6 million contract with the Yankees. Less than a year after escaping Cuba, he started Game 2 of the 1998 World Series for New York as part of a sweep of San Diego. (When Livan Hernandez defected in 1995, he went to Mexico and then sought asylum in the Dominican Republic.)

Diaz, who previously directed the ESPN-aired "The Clemente Effect," said he was transfixed by the story of Hernandez after reading ESPN senior writer Steve Fainaru's "The Duke of Havana" which examined then-Cuban sports bureaucracy and what Orlando dealt with following Livan’s defection. The filmmaker’s godfather is Orlando Cepeda, and with Diaz’s connections to Orlando Cepeda Jr., an advisor to Orlando Hernandez, he was able to meet with the two former players in Miami. They quickly agreed to tell their story.

"More than a documentary, this film is a privilege," Orlando Hernandez said in New York. "I have a lot of mixed feelings watching it — sadness, happiness, memories. Thankfully I am here today so we can enjoy the fruits of all this work."

The film was shot last February and March, and Diaz edited it for five months. One of the truly fantastic things about the piece (it was produced by MLB Productions) is the archival footage of the Hernandez brothers playing in Cuba, something U.S. audiences have, for the most part, never seen. Diaz said Cuban television initially got rid of all the footage involving Livan and Orlando when they became persona non grata on the island. But a baseball fan was able to procure much of it before it was destroyed, and a Cuban filmmaker eventually used the archival material as part of a film on the country’s baseball players. Diaz said he bought the archival footage from the Cuban director and it instantly changed the look of the film.

"It was a deal where literally I went to a Miami hotel with cash and paid him $3,000," Diaz said. "It makes the film."

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​Diaz said his initial plan was to film much of the doc in Cuba. He even sent letters to the Cuban government, but never heard back from any government official. Diaz said that Livan and Orlando would have returned to Cuba to film scenes there for the doc. He ended up using footage shot by "Outside The Lines" when that program traveled to Cuba last year, and Cuba is one of the main characters in the story, beauty, warts and all.

"I remember as a kid I was told the Yankees were bad, but you can see you in the movie that the Yankees were not bad," said Orlando Hernandez, now 49 (maybe). "We will leave it to people’s imagination who the bad people are."

THE NOISE REPORT examines some of the week's top media stories

1. The drumbeat of negative headlines, the collective outrage over the actions of Ray Rice, Greg Hardy and Adrian Peterson, blowouts seemingly every Thursday night. It doesn’t matter. You keep watching. Last week, I examined the NFL viewership numbers at the midway point of the season. What’s clear is there has been no Ray Rice/Greg Hardy/Adrian Peterson effect on viewers. NFL television ratings remain strong as ever: My piece for The MMQB.

1a. Yahoo's Shutdown Corner on why the NFL ratings remain strong

1b. The Jay Cutler blasts continue. Here’s CBS NFL analyst Bill Cowher on the Bears quarterback: "If I were to sit there and assess Jay Cutler I would just say this: I think he’s a good quarterback but a poor leader. I think that’s the thing at times a quarterback may not have to be the greatest quarterback but they need to be the leader and take control when the bullets start to fly. And sometimes I feel like when the bullets are starting to fly around Jay he’s not at his best. And at times I think he’s a detriment; just his body language, his inability at times to take the moment and seize it and be a leader. All the great quarterbacks, and you watch them, it’s when the bullets start to fly, they take control of the situation ... I still think he’s a good quarterback. I think he does have leadership -- it's not one of his strong suits. But at the same time you can win with him.  But he needs to have a better defense around him that gives that team a chance."

1c. The Saints-Panthers game on Oct. 30 drew 6.9 million viewers for NFL Network, topping LeBron’s return to Cleveland (4 million) by a healthy margin.

1d. Sports Business Daily staffers Austin Karp and John Ourand examine how Thursday Night Football did for CBS and the NFL.

1e. The Lions-Falcons game on Oct. 26, with a 9:30 a.m. ET kickoff from London, drew 8.526 million viewers, a terrific number given that time of day, which should portend more games from Europe with a similar kickoff time.

1f. NFL Network’s Andrea Kremer interviewed Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, Warren Moon, Joe Namath and Roger Staubach about Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. 

2. Let’s get the canard out of the way first: Baseball is not dying. Yes, the national ratings are significantly challenged — especially the 50-something median age of its television viewers — and the World Series is no longer close to destination programming compared to the NFL playoffs, NBA Finals and the championship games in college basketball and football. But baseball remains a strong television regional sport, and getting more than 10 million Americans to watch any sporting event is still a solid result.

Not surprisingly, Fox sent a Yao Ming-sized press release last week to highlight all the accomplishments of the World Series, and part of the network’s job is to sell the soap for Bud Selig. The good? Game 7 drew 23.5 million viewers, which was 22 percent higher than last year’s Series-clinching Game 6 between the Cardinals and Red Sox at 19.2 million, a series with two large television markets.

Overall, the 2014 World Series averaged 13.8 million viewers, down seven percent from 2013 but up nine percent in audience from 2012, the least-viewed World Series on record. The Series final peaked at 27.8 million viewers from 11:00-11:29 p.m. ET, when San Francisco pitcher Madison Bumgarner recorded the final out.

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​​The not-so-good-news: The Giants-Royals ranks as the third-lowest World Series audience in history, only beating 2012 (Giants-Tigers) and the five-game Phillies-Rays series in 2008.

2a. For Game 7: Kansas City posted its highest metered market rating for any MLB game on record: 58.3. San Francisco’s 38.8 rating was the best MLB rating for the Bay Area since Game 7 of the 2002 World Series.

2b. FOX Deportes' telecast of Game 7 was the most-watched MLB game ever in the network's history, with 373,000 total viewers.

2c. Austin Karp notes that FOX's coverage of Game 6 drew 13.4 million viewers last Tuesday, which did not deliver an overall primetime win for FOX. CBS won that night behind "NCIS" and "NCIS: New Orleans."

2d. Richard Sandomir of the New York Times offered a critique of the FOX World Series booth, much of which focused on Harold Reynolds’ propensity to avoid quiet and salient points. Tom Hoffarth of the LA Daily News went further, calling for wholesale changes in FOX's on-air staffing. Sports television executives do not like to admit mistakes, but they have missed here on some talent assignments.

2e. Outgoing MLB commissioner Bud Selig spoke to his employee and good pal Christopher Russo (of MLB Network’s and Sirius XM Radio) about whether baseball was served by playoff games being on FOX Sports 1.

"The FS1 thing is something we're going to have to review in the offseason; there's no question about that," Selig said. "I really like FOX. They've been a great partner. And I know there was some concern although, frankly, it was interesting, I hear ... a lot of mail, a lot of phone calls from people on a lot of subjects. I didn't get a lot on that."

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2f. Some recent championship Games 7:

Heat-Spurs (2013): 26.3 million viewers

Giants-Royals (2014): 23.5M

Bruins-Canucks (2011): 8.54M

3. With the NBA tipping last week, Sports Illustrated had its annual season-opening check-in with Turner Sports NBA analyst Charles Barkley. Part 1 of our Q&A included Barkley’s fallout with Michael Jordan (they no longer talk), his future with Turner Sports (he has two years left on his current contract) and why he thinks Anthony Davis is the league’s next mega-star.

3a.Part 2 of my Q&A with Barkley included the topics of Russell Wilson and race; Blake Griffin's foul complaints; and shortening NBA games.

3b. LeBron James’ homecoming game against the Knicks averaged 4 million total viewers, up 111 percent among total viewers compared with TNT’s average audience for an NBA regular-season game last year (1,870,000 total viewers).

3c. CBS drew the highest-rated college football game (4.0 rating) this weekend with its airing of Florida-Georgia. ESPN’s airing of Ole Miss-Auburn drew a 3.8.

3d. Florida State’s win over Louisville on ESPN beat LeBron’s game handily. It finished with 4.972 million viewers.

3e. Kudos to FOX Sports management for placing the women’s basketball game between Mt. St. Joseph College and Hiram on FOX Sports Go. The game featured Lauren Hill, who was diagnosed with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG) after doctors discovered an inoperable brain tumor, playing for Mt. St. Joseph in her first college basketball game — a goal of hers. Hill joined FOX announcers Brad Johansen and Debbie Antontelli after scoring the game’s first basket on a layup. A poised and courageous young woman.

3f. ESPN College GameDay analyst Lee Corso got emotional on Saturday after watching a feature on his 249 career headgear picks.

4. Sports pieces of note:

• Al Michaels reflects on his time with Howard Cosell in his new book with SI’s Jon Wertheim.

New York Times columnist Michael Powell spent time with the father of Giants ace Madison Bumgarner. Fantastic stuff.

• This David J. Roth piece on an Alex Gordon rookie card is excellent. 

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​• The Game Of Sports Ghostwriting, via Richard Fitzpatrick of The Irish Times.

The New York TimesMagazineprofiled the ageless boxer Bernard Hopkins.

New York Times reporter Tyler Kepner with great postgame stuff on Madison Bumgarner. Terrific reporting and details. 

• ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi on the bond between Auburn wide receiver Sammie Coates and a 12-year-old Leukemia patient.

Non-sports pieces of note:

• Heroes, all. Braving Ebola.

• Via the Washington Post: A Father’s Scars: Creigh Deeds and the son who nearly killed him.

• Fascinating piece on Germany’s divide 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall: Germany is still divided.  

How Family Weekend Turned Into Parents-palooza.

Why Internet access in the US is so frustrating.

• Theo Padnos, an American journalist, on being kidnapped, tortured and released in Syria

100 Great Children’s Books, from the New York Public Library.

• Via Boston Magazine: Memories of being a Southie kid and black in a mostly white neighborhood.

• A fragment of Amelia Earhart’s plane was identified for the first time since it vanished 77 years ago.

• Via Salon: Why America must abandon Bill Cosby.

• Via New York Times: This is your brain on drugs.

5. Props to NBC Sports for how it handled the post-race controversy after the Breeders’ Cup Classic. At the start of the race, the winning horse, Bayern, took a sharp left out of the gate and rumbled into pre-race favorite Shared Belief (owned by sports-talk host Jim Rome). Given that mess at the start, the race was under inquiry at the finish and NBC quickly went into action, airing a series of interviews with winning jockey Martin Garcia (conducted by the always excellent Donna Barton Brothers), trainer Bob Baffert (who correctly predicted that the stewards would likely keep the result) and Mike Smith, the jockey of Shared Belief who told NBC that the bump ended any chance of his horse winning. Tom Hammond led analysts Jerry Bailey and Randy Moss in a smart discussion of what might happen with the inquiry. As a viewer, you felt like you were updated every step of the way in a fast-moving situation.

5a. The Breeders’ Cup and the NBC Sports Group signed a 10-year media rights partnership extension that will keep the event on NBC and NBCSN through 2025.

5b. The Oct. 24 Manchester United-Chelsea draw averaged 1.29 million viewers on NBC, the most-watched Premier League game since NBC Sports Group took over BPL coverage in August 2013. The game ranks as the second-most watched live game in the U.S. in Premier League history behind FOX's coverage of Manchester United-Chelsea on Feb. 5, 2012. That game drew 1.38 million viewers.

5c. Last Saturday’s Sounders-Galaxy game on NBC, Landon Donovan’s final regular-season MLS game, drew 699,000 viewers to rank as NBC Sports Group’s most-watched MLS game ever (including playoffs).

5d. NBC Sports Network got quite a surprise on Friday when jockey Rosie Napravnik announced her retirement live on its airwaves.