How Fox Sports could improve its U.S. Open coverage, more Media Circus
Fox’s much-anticipated (and, in some quarters, dreaded) inaugural telecast of the U.S. Open had as many severe ups and downs (and humps and bumps) as Chambers Bay. So wrote my colleague Dick Friedman, an SI Golf Plus and SI Golf Plus Digital contributor, as part of his review for me in yesterday’s Media Circus column.
You can read my thoughts, as well as Friedman’s, on Fox’s U.S. Open coverage here, and given 24 hours to reflect on what I wrote, I wish I had mentioned that Fox failed to provide viewers with Jordan Spieth's reaction after Dustin Johnson's eagle or birdie putt. Cameras capturing the winner in the scoring trailer or locker room is a standard part of golf coverage and that was huge miss for viewers. In Fox’s autopsy of the coverage, they’ll undoubtedly be focusing heavily on the post-round coverage of the final round. (As a prominent television producer emailed me on Sunday night: “A disaster on every level.”) But the good news for Fox is they will surely improve. Golf is a massive television enterprise and its second go-around at a major will be better.
I thought it would be interesting to panel some golf-inclined sports media people who watched Fox’s coverage to ask them the following question: What would you advise Fox to do for next year’s U.S. Open coverage? The question was intentionally open-ended, and here’s how the panel responded:
Neil Best, Newsday sports columnist:
Fox will have some obvious advantages at Oakmont compared to Chambers Bay, such as green grass, which is a much better background than beige for viewers trying to spot a white ball. But the best thing about next year is the word "next," because what the Fox crew most needs is experience and refinement. Golf is the most difficult sport to cover on television, with countless moving parts, and NBC and CBS have been at it for decades.
First of all, Fox should keep all of the technical gizmos and gimmicks it rolled out, with some tweaks, because most or all of them worked, especially the enhanced on-course audio. Joe Buck proved he can toggle from football and baseball to golf seamlessly, but he might have to be a tad more hands-on guiding a hodgepodge crew of analysts in the right journalistic direction. Greg Norman, the lead analyst, has the personality and knowledge to make a go of this, but he'll need to learn to speak up at important times. For example when a guy faces a putt on the 72nd hole to win the U.S. Open, then faces a putt to tie the U.S. Open, then faces a putt to lose the U.S. Open.
As for that second "studio" desk . . . not necessary. Keep it on the course, in the interview area and at the 18th tower. That's enough.
David Dusek, Golfweek Magazine, senior writer:
A major criticism I heard was viewers had trouble simply following the ball. Next year’s venue, Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh, Penn., is green and lush, so the ball should stand out more clearly. But I hope Fox keeps liberally using the tracers off the tee. However, Fox needs to do a better job of providing the “down and distance” that golf viewers need. Whenever a shot is shown, you’ve got to tell viewers who is hitting and what hole he is playing, what number shot he is playing, and how far he is from the hole. For example, “This is Adam Scott, playing his second shot on the fifth hole. He’s got 170 yards to clear the front bunker and 182 yards to the hole.” Fox got better at this on the weekend, but Thursday and Friday there was not enough scene setting for my taste.
Greg Norman also needs to explain to viewers what the players are thinking, what they are feeling, and why a particular shot may be difficult or easy before the player hits. Norman's value to Fox is that he can talk from the perspective of a former No. 1 ranked player, a major winner, and a player who let majors slip through his fingers. If the cameras show me what the players see, I want Norman to tell me what the players are trying to do and what they are thinking. Johnny Miller did this really well.
Dick Friedman, SI Golf Plus and SI Golf Plus Digital contributor:
OK, here are my two recommendations. (I assume Fox will get the technical stuff ironed out.)
1. If they don't have one already, hire a TV golf historian. Someone who knows all the great moments and calls—triumphant and crushing. One of your commenters mentioned how yesterday's denouement evoked the epic Costantino Rocca 60-footer that forced a shocked John Daly into a playoff at the British Open. Exactly right. Have these highlights cued up and ready to be summoned to fit the situation.
2. Better casting. You need not only strong, distinctive views but also strong, distinctive voices. Most important: You need a foil for Greg Norman (and it shouldn't be Joe Buck, who has enough to do). A big part of NBC's success was having Roger Maltbie (or Gary Koch) stand up to Johnny Miller, often humorously. On munis all over America, hackers amuse themselves imitating Johnny and Rog: "Looks like it breaks right about three feet, Rog." "Well, John, actually it goes left about six feet." (Doesn't take much to make us hackers crack ourselves up.)
My guess is that Shark would be more effective and comfortable as a responder to questions (or even a needle or two) and as a counterpuncher. In other words: Tee it up for him. Left to his own devices, he'll trend toward the diplomatic. Maybe that's not the way you draw up your lead analyst's role--but it might make for a better show.
Forget about the individuals, although Holly Sonders showed she isn’t ready for prime time. The biggest item on Fox’s to-do list is addressing the overall production. Too often, the telecasts felt disjointed. There were several glitches, way too many baffling decisions, and a general lack of seamless flow that viewers have come to expect from NBC and CBS.
For instance, NBC golf producer Tommy Roy isn’t showing an interview with Louie Oosthuizen with Dustin Johnson getting ready to hit the paramount approach on 18. Viewers would have gotten Johnny Miller’s complete breakdown of the shot.
There is a steep learning curve in airing an unwieldy event like a U.S. Open. Fox and producer Mark Loomis need to learn quickly if they want to step up their game for the 2016 U.S. Open.
Michael Walker, New York Post, deputy web editor
From a technical standpoint, Fox Sports' U.S. Open coverage was excellent. Though controversial among golf fans, I suspect the shot tracer will become the industry standard in five years everywhere but the tradition-bound Masters. Drives by Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson were even more impressive with shot tracer, and you could also follow wayward shots like Brandon Grace's tee shot onto the train tracks at 16 easily as well. I liked the camera work too. The wide shots took advantage of the spectacular Pacific Northwest setting. The Goodfellas-style tracking shot of Jason Day walking to the 4th tee went on way too long, but these touches gave the broadcast a cinematic feel and I hope we get more of them at Oakmont next year. Going commercial-free for the last 45 minutes added to the breathless drama of what had to be the most exciting major finish since the 2012 Masters or maybe even the 2008 U.S. Open.
The lead broadcast team was more problematic. Joe Buck's a total pro and he'll be among the best after a few more Opens, but Greg Norman was a disappointment. I'm a Norman fan but I felt like he was dialing down his personality. Nobody can replace Johnny Miller at the U.S. Open. The event meant so much to Miller and he cared so much about how players performed there. Like CBS's Nick Faldo, Norman is most engaged when talking about himself. That something the CBS team embraces, setting up Faldo to talk about how he would have played certain shots, what he thought of certain courses, etc. Next year, Buck needs to put Norman in a similar position and Norman needs to run with it. For the Fox Sports' U.S. Open coverage to come into its own, Norman needs to put his own stamp on the broadcast. In a sense, the Fox team has the same problem as Tiger Woods: they need more reps but with a limited schedule, it's hard to see where they're going to get them.
First of all, I have to admit I didn't catch every minute of the broadcast, as I was out on the course and interviewing players for a fair portion, but I caught enough of it to form an opinion. I think overall Fox did a good job with the coverage considering it was the really the first time broadcasting golf (yes, they covered the four-ball at Olympic in April, but that was merely a warm-up), not to mention a major championship.
Fundamental things you've come to expect with golf coverage is where Fox dropped the ball—or need more work and experience—but the chances they took with pushing the envelope with innovation and technology were fantastic (which you might expect to fail). Some examples: cameras on drones, intrusive microphones "eavesdropping" on player-caddie conversations, and advanced graphics showing carry yardages to bunkers and such, along with the slopes and contours of the course. It was great that their mics picked up on Jordan Spieth calling the 18th, which was playing as a par-4 on Friday, the "dumbest hole I've ever played." Same goes for the conversation between Spieth and his caddie Michael Greller as they discussed the second shot into 18 on Sunday.
I think Fox could improve on some of the basic things that regular week-to-week golf viewers have come to expect, but most of my criticisms will come with more experience. It was great that they had a leaderboard in the corner showing the top six or so, but they seemed to rarely show the full leaderboard, whereas on CBS/NBC telecasts are displayed regularly before each commercial break, with the host/analyst providing commentary on notables or interesting tidbits about the lesser known players in contention. The on-course announcers should provide more insight into the players and what's happening on the course. They also failed to consistently provide yardages and (the correct) club selection.
The random features that interrupted showing the actual golf seemed like they would fit better during the pre-game or post-game shows. The on-air talent lacked chemistry and didn't have the regular banter we're used to hearing between them, but that's something that will come with time. There was also not enough reaction to shots, especially during crucial moments of the telecast. I'd hire more on-air talent that covers golf regularly, not to mention perhaps a few with more charisma. It was obvious that some of the guys (and gals) weren't familiar with the players, misidentifying them or their nationality. There seemed to be a lack of insider knowledge on most of the players. I'd have more coverage from reporters who regularly cover golf providing those insights, especially when they show players warming up on the range.
Fox focused mostly on a core group of big-name players and didn't show some of the lesser-known guys in contention. For the first round, I don't think I ever saw Colin Montgomerie or Miguel Angel Jimenez, who were both under par and interesting characters who are familiar with regular golf audiences. There was also little-to-no mention of the qualifiers who were playing well, most notably Cameron Smith—I don't think I ever saw him hit a shot. It would be nice to see more random players hitting interesting or good shots, as well, but perhaps that was more of a logistical issue with cameraman having difficulty getting around the treacherous terrain at Chambers Bay. At the same time, they could have utilized the drones in those cases.
In the final round, I would've liked to see Jordan Spieth and his caddie Michael Greller nervously watching Dustin Johnson finish on the 18th in the scoring trailer. We also didn't get to see his immediate reaction. (I might be wrong on this.) Usually, on CBS and NBC, they always have a camera on the player waiting to see what happens. Overall, Fox did a good job and improved tremendously over the weekend. Most issues will come with time and experience and as viewers become more familiar with the on-air personalities. Perhaps even if they don't have the rights to regular PGA Tour events, they should employ more regular coverage from reporters on-site, like ESPN often does.
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines some of the week's top media stories
1. The final round of the U.S. Open averaged 6.7 million viewers on Fox, up 44% from last year’s final round on NBC (4.6 million) but down significantly from the 8.4 million NBC had for the final round in 2013 and the 9.6 million who watched the U.S. Open the last time it was held on the West Coast in 2012.
1a. Sports Business Daily reported that Fox drew a 4.8 overnight rating for the final round of the U.S. Open, up 45% from NBC’s record-low 3.3 overnight last year. The publication said the 4.8 overnight was the third-lowest figure for a Sunday telecast of the U.S. Open on record, ahead of only 2014 and 1988, the first year for which figures are available.
1b. Fox said it averaged a combined 3.5 million viewers each day across FOX and FOX Sports 1 and worth noting is the company aired just under 40 hours of live coverage of the U.S. Open, the most in the championship’s history.
1c. The primetime portion of Sunday’s telecast peaked with 11.2 million viewers from 10-10:30 pm ET. For comparison, NBC’s primetime coverage of the U.S. Open in 2013 peaked at 13.7 million.
1d. The always-excellent Anthony Crupi of Ad Age reported that Fox drew $27.8 million in U.S. Open Ad sales.
1e. Here's something you don’t see on most sports networks: criticism of a network’s television coverage by a member of that network. Take it away, Fox Sports 1’s Mike Francesa (courtesy of RN’s FunHouse).
2. The seventh episode of the SI Media Podcast features ESPN broadcaster Bob Ley, the longest-serving commentator at ESPN (he started work as a "SportsCenter" anchor on September 9, 1979, the third day of operation for ESPN), the host of "Outside The Lines" and the lead host for its World Cup coverage for ABC and ESPN. In the podcast Ley discusses how "OTL" chooses its topic, why ESPN has repeatedly changed the show’s time slot, the future of soccer on ESPN, why "OTL" dropped a Hope Solo story on the eve of the Women’s World Cup, how long he wants to work at ESPN, just how important his golden blazer is to him and more.
2a. Speaking of "Outside The Lines," reporter T.J. Quinn and ace producer Willie Weinbaum broke a major story on Monday afternoon centering on Pete Rose. The reporters said new documents obtained by "Outside the Lines" indicate that Rose bet extensively on baseball and on the Cincinnati Reds in 1986. The documents go beyond the evidence presented in the 1989 Dowd report that led to Rose's banishment and provide the first written record that Rose bet while he was still on the field.
2b. I emailed Fox Sports on Monday night for comment on ESPN's Rose story. Here is their statement:
"FOX Sports has no comment on the recent news pertaining to Pete Rose other than his status as a guest baseball analyst for FOX Sports 1 is unchanged. Pete is next scheduled to appear on America’s Pregame, MLB Whiparound and FOX Sports Live on July 1."
3. Yesterday’s media column focused on ESPN’s TV coverage of the NBA draft and analyst Jay Bilas’s thoughts on the first five picks.
3a. ESPN Radio has the radio coverage with the three-person team of Marc Kestecher, Ryen Russillo and P.J. Carlesimo
3b. NBA TV will have live draft day coverage beginning Thursday at 5 p.m. ET with a Draft Preview special, hosted by Matt Winer. Following the draft, the network will air a 2015 NBA Draft Review starting at midnight.
4. Loved this Fox Sports feature on U.S. National Team star Abby Wambach. Full marks to the Women’s World Cup features group, headed by Jennifer Pransky. Those behind the Wambach feature include producer Mark Ruberg; Jonathan Belinski (director of photography); Wilfredo Garcia and David Lamb (editors); Fulton Dingley (audio mixer) and Anthony Reda (production assistant and digital bonus piece producer).
5. "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel" returns on Tuesday (10 p.m. ET/PT) with the 219th edition of the HBO show. The stories include: the lack of head trauma protection in girls’ youth soccer, GoPro impact on extreme sports coverage, and reexamining Qatar’s 2022 World Cup bid.
5a. Tennis fans: Here’s ESPN’s Wimbledon coverage schedule.