James D. Smith via AP

How did the major sports networks do in 2018? We analyze the offerings, hires, new intiatives, innovations and more for each. 

By Jacob Feldman
December 14, 2018

Here is this week’s edition of SCREENSHOTS, a weekly report from the intersection of sports, media, and the Internet.


Today, the end feels a little less nigh. A year ago, Facebook, Amazon, and Google seemed ready to dominate the sports media industry, gobbling it up like they have so many other domains. 2018 saw the old guard fight back.

While the disruptors faced crises of their own, broadcast networks won marquee negotiating battles for the rights to Thursday Night Football, UFC, and the PGA Championship into the next decade. Digital foibles from newcomers bolstered the argument that leagues ought to continue selling their best games to their longtime partners, while those partners began laying direct-to-consumer foundations themselves.

This week, SI handed out its annual Sportsperson of the Year award while also looking back at 2018’s most memorable moments and making predictions for the year ahead. The SI Media team will unveil its awards next week. For now, here’s a more thorough accounting of the year for sports on TV, with report cards for each of the major networks, breaking down the pluses and minuses for each. Like any good grading system, this one is utterly subjective, devoid of thorough explanation—and no, there isn’t an opportunity for extra credit. There is, however, homework for the year ahead.

ESPN: B

+ SportsCenter is back. The cornerstone franchise added two new editions (at 7 a.m. and noon) while returning to its highlights and analysis roots. Even if they aren’t long-term fixes, the changes heralded ratings results.

+ The best thing you can say about Jimmy Pitaro’s ESPN presidency is that it’s hard to believe he’s only been in charge since March. That’s not a slight! The former Disney exec quickly put his stamp on the network with focuses on audience expansion and innovation. Since then, Pitaro has (mostly) avoided controversy.

+ “We’re really just getting started here,” Pitaro said, announcing the launch of ESPN+ in April. “We’re proud of what we’ve done, but it’s really still the first inning.” Plus has quietly grown since then, hitting a million subscribers in September and adding solid content like Peyton Manning’s Detail show. The $5/month subscription is still far from a must-have, but at this point the smoothly integrated offering is already the best sports OTT product. The first UFC on ESPN+ Fight Night in January wil usher in a new era for the service.

 

– A week before ESPN+’s debut, ESPN’s other big bet of the year debuted to much more scrutiny. Get Up! lasted until August before being shaken up. Michelle Beadle left the show days after saying she was boycotting the NFL, replaced by a rotating cast of guests. The show was also cut from three hours to two. As the show now settles in, it’s worth revisiting host Mike Greenberg’s quote from the launch. “We will launch on April 2nd and if you watch the show on May 2nd, we will look totally different,” he said. “I believe we will be a good show when we launch Monday, and I believe strongly we will be better a month later and better still a year later.” Football season has boosted the show’s initially lackluster ratings, and Jalen Rose should prove more valuable when the NBA returns to the fore. Still, the show’s first few months offered several hard lessons.

Speaking of bumpy launches: Just about every aspect of the new Monday Night Football has taken criticism. Joe Tessitore is too much of a salesman. Jason Witten can’t speak. What is Booger McFarland sitting on? And what’s with this ad-free halftime show that’s more like one long ad for a car brand I’ve never seen anywhere else? Ultimately, better chemistry between the three leads could solve all those problems, and the show’s rhythm has improved over the last couple weeks. But shaking the stink currently over the group might take more than that.

Despite the company’s best efforts, there’s no reversing or ignoring the TV bundle’s current decline. In fiscal 2018, ESPN lost two million subscribers.

ESPN remains the worldwide leader in sports. ESPN2, on the other hand, is under siege. John Ourand reported recently that the channel—for the first time since its launch 25 years ago—won’t be the second most watched sports station this year, with both NBC and FS1 passing it. Contenders continue ascending on other platforms as well. Pardon My Take beat the Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz for most popular sports podcast on Apple’s platform while Turner Sports netted more social actions every month this year than any other company, including ESPN. Suddenly, ESPN’s sports hegemony over the next two to four years feels a lot less like a sure thing.

2019 homework: Who is ESPN’s rising star? With veteran faces across the brand’s top properties, ESPN needs a fresh voice to keep the Barstools of the world at bay.

FOX: B+

+ Thanks to FOX, Thursday Night Football finally feels worth watching—like a primetime affair on par with Sunday and Monday nights. This week’s Chargers-Chiefs matchup was only the latest major midweek battle after the network paid $3 billion for a beefed up package this year. The NFL needed stability in the time slot and a champion. FOX has delivered both, with a big-time pregame show hosted by Michael Strahan. In return, it’s gotten strong ratings, including the most watched TNF event ever.

+ Before the football season, FOX extended its contract with Joe Buck, keeping the face of the company’s biggest sports properties around for at least another three years.

+ After moving on from the UFC, FOX added five years and $1 billion worth of WWE Smackdown to its Friday night lineup, which will often mean three straight days of live sports with TNF and college football games sandwiching wrestling.

 

FOX was dealt a bad hand when the U.S. failed to qualify for the network’s first World Cup since winning the rights back in 2011. The opportunity for a good first impression was then fully squandered when the network opted not to send all of its broadcast teams to Russia. Combining those factors with time zones less friendly than Brazil’s, the tournament’s ratings dip was pretty much expected. But FOX did get a bit of good soccer news as the 2026 World Cup will take place in the U.S.

Five years into its existence, FS1 still lacks a signature daily show. This year’s new entrants moved away from the channel’s opinion-heavy backbone, but neither interview show Fair Game with Kristine Leahy nor a step into the gambling world with Lock It In has yet broken through.

2019 homework: Consider this a makeup assignment. FOX has a chance to get back into the soccer community’s good graces when it covers next summer’s Women’s World Cup from France.

WarnerMedia: C+

+ At their best, TNT and HBO’s sports shows remain nearly unrivaled. Inside the NBA continues to be a leading studio show, Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel often carries the torch for serious sports journalism, while The Shop debuted this year and showed what you can get out of athletes when you do more than stick a microphone in their faces. HBO’s documentaries, from Andre the Giant to Momentum Generation (see below), are also top-notch.

+ Jointly managing NBA League Pass, Turner Sports gets credit for the new, quarter-by-quarter pricing available for fans tuning into a game late. The offering is well beyond what any other sport provides, and the changes haven’t interfered with a smooth experience.

 

TBS’ first-ever official NCAA Tournament selection show did not go as planned.

With Time Warner’s merger with AT&T waiting for regulatory approval, Turner was reportedly unable to make a serious bid for the WWE or UFC. The network also opted not to continue its relationship with the PGA Championship, meaning there would be no splashy follow-up to its 2017 Champions League grab.

Simply put, B/R Live continues to make more sense from a business perspective than for fans. The direct-to-consumer platform launched in April hasn’t changed much since. Flexible pricing options are nice, as are the how-to-watch guides for events not available to stream on the service. But the app doesn’t offer the stability or media controls of its top peers. It seems to exist largely for Turner to recoup its Champions League costs, putting matches behind a paywall after they were available on cable when FOX controlled them.

While Turner execs remain keen on some sort of sequel to The Match, technical failures at the point of purchase put a black eye on the Tiger vs. Phil special. Good on the company for making the event free and eventually offering refunds for those who did pay, but hopefully it won’t need to go to those measures again in 2019.

2019 homework: Unburdened by merger minutiae, WarnerMedia needs to prove its various properties can cooperate without appearing too corporate. Turning The Match into a sustainable franchise would go a long way.

 

CBS: A-

+ Jim Nantz and Tony Romo might not be getting the weekly rave reviews they earned during Romo’s first season broadcasting, but they remain one of the best NFL pairings, and CBS’ NFL roster is deep, with three of the top five booths by Jimmy Traina’s estimation.

+ SEC on CBS continues to dominate the college football landscape. Jamie Erdahl smoothly joined Gary Danielson and Brad Nessler, who himself stepped in for Verne Lundquist a year prior. The package averaged ratings 13% higher than 2017, with the national championship rematch in the SEC title game becoming the most watched regular season game on any network since 2010.

+ The PGA Championship’s move from August to May should make it more valuable for CBS, which also locked in a new deal with the tournament to continue carrying it for the next decade.

 

CBS earned the highest grade this year, but it also has taken on the easiest course load. The company’s cable network is less ambitious than its competitors, opting to largely avoid the live rights bidding war, while the broadcast brand has put much of its energy behind scripted programming for its subscription service.

CBS Sports had a good year but the company as a whole is in a shakier position. Faced with sexual abuse allegations, CBS Corporation CEO Les Moonves resigned in September. More recent reports have pointed to failures by other company leaders to provide a stable working environment. How, if it all, that turmoil affects the sports operation remains to be seen.

2019 homework: Romo’s first Super Bowl in February provides a chance for him to cement his standing among sports analysts.

 

NBC: B-

+ Between coverage of the Olympics, the NHL playoffs, a record Premier League season and more, NBCSN had a banner year, leading NBC Sports Group to take home Sports Business Journal’s Best in Sports Media award.

+ NBC made the right call in embracing a more diverse set of teams as part of its NHL coverage this year, even if it hasn’t brought a ratings bump.

 

With the Olympics in Korea, NBC got to air primetime coverage live across all time zones for the first time but left with the least-watched Olympiad on record. Unfortunately, it missed Ester Ledecka’s shocking super-G win on borrowed skis live and the U.S.’s curling triumph came far too late for most viewers on the east coast.

Normally unassailable, Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth left room for criticism after their Super Bowl call, with Michaels flubbing a couple lines and Collinsworth failing to accurately predict a pair of debatable touchdown calls. At the end of a tumultuous season, ratings fell to a nine-year low.

NBC was forced to issue a mea culpa after airing a controversial anti-immigrant ad backed by the Trump campaign during Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers’ Sunday Night Football battle earlier this fall.

2019 Homework: Sunday Night Football remains the sport’s best telecast, and maybe the best production in all of sports. Whether it’s shrinking game times or incorporating advanced stats and gambling information, the leader has a responsibility to continue innovating on the future of broadcast sports.

 

Updates from the Back of the Class

Amazon: Prime Video’s Thursday Night Football production continues to grow. Combined with Amazon’s reported RSN interest, the company is currently the most likely digital newcomer to seriously shake up the sports media ecosystem.

• Facebook: There’s still a user advantage, and the network’s “Watch Party” feature represents a significant step toward a shared viewing experience online, as do Oculus’ social VR elements. But the platform still hasn’t offered a major sporting event and leagues could be wary to partner with it given its suffering reputation.

• Netflix: No matter how often he’s asked, CEO Reed Hastings continue to say “we don’t do sports.” For now. Still, the streamer will air a 10-hour Michael Jordan documentary in 2019.

DAZN: Launching this fall, the sports-only subscription service has done everything right thus far, earning significant ground in the boxing world while beginning to branch out. But the international entrant still has a large marketing hill to climb in the U.S.


THE RARE SPORTS DOC THAT ASKS, WHAT NOW?

Surfing might be a good metaphor for life, but don’t expect Momentum Generation to make the comparison. It does take courage to paddle out into unknown waters, luck to find a perfect wave, and skill to seize the opportunity. But this film is more interested in what happens after all of that, when a surfer shoots through the shimmering blues and golds of a perfect barrel to find the real world’s swirling mix of salt water, sand, and foam. What now? is a question rarely asked by sports docs, since it involves focusing on everything except what made its subjects famous, yet directors Jeff and Michael Zimbalist (Two Escobars, Youngstown Boys) largely pull it off.

There are gorgeous beaches in this movie and plenty of stunning surfing shots, but it’s the terrestrial archival footage—culled from 150 sources—that gives the movie its titular momentum. The story traces eight surfers who bond over their broken homes between chasing big waves in Hawaii. They go on to dominate the competitive surfing world, with Kelly Slater emerging as an unstoppable force. But eventually, of course, the good times come to an end. Feuds split the group apart. Years take their toll. An unexpected tragedy leaves them without easy answers. That’s when Momentum Generation gets interesting, in the second hour, when the eight boys who grew up surfing together have to find second acts and new meaning.

Mistah F.A.B. Denies Conversation With Steph Curry As Reported by Marcus Thompson

As cheesy as it sounds, they ultimately discover peace in each other. A movie about friendship is hard to convey, especially when the present-day cast is rarely shown interacting with each other and there are so many individual arcs to maintain. Still, as the doc wraps up, you’ll be happy to see the gang get together again, even if you’ve just learned most of their names 100 minutes earlier. Momentum Generation won’t get you to consider a surfing lesson, but don’t be surprised if you wind up grabbing your phone and reconnecting with an old pal.

SCREENSHOTS

• Bryan Curtis has put together an 18,000-world oral history of how FOX changed football forever after buying the NFC package 25 years ago.

• The NBA on TNT VR app will show its first game after relaunching December 27th, with one game a week through the rest of the season shown on Google Daydream and Samsung Gear VR headsets. The updated presentation features improved cameras, the ability to move between four positions, and VR-only audio pointing out in-arena details.

• Head to The Athletic for the inside story of how the Mavericks ended up inviting The Ringer to perform a parody song about Dallas rookie Luka Doncic during a timeout.

• Sunday Night Baseball games will begin at 7 p.m. ET next year, moving up an hour largely to help players who have to travel following the games.

• In a FOX RSN update, Disney is now expected to split up the 22 networks as it continues looking for buyers.

• The New York Times caught up with Ada Hegerberg, Norwegian soccer star, the first female Ballon d’Or winner, and the subject of that viral clip.

• Dan Le Batard is launching a new podcast “South Beach Sessions,” which so far sounds a lot like the Bill Simmons Podcast: “a series of weekly in-depth, one-on-one interviews featuring Le Batard interviewing a guest from sports, music or entertainment.”

• Uproxx’s Robby Kalland spent some time with Stephen A. Smith, “The Hardest Working Man In Sports Television.” Smith expressed a desire to one day move beyond sports. “I can host an afternoon show like Steve Harvey or Ellen [DeGeneres],” he said. “I could do a late night show if somebody writes [an] opening monologue, I could do a late night show like [Stephen] Colbert and [Jimmy] Fallon and those boys. Or I can host a show on CNN or Fox News.”

• Smith’s First Take sparring mate, Max Kellerman, will be sticking around after signing an extension.

• Jeremy Schaap talked to Awful Announcing about the latest 30 for 30, “42 to 1,” which he co-directed.

• Front Office Sports has a nice story on The Checkdown, an NFL-run social channel that has promoted the game while also monetizing content.

• Fortnite star Ninja commentated Thursday Night Football on Twitch this week for tens of thousands of viewers.

• B/R Live will begin broadcasting coverage of Singapore-based MMA organization ONE Championship in January.

THANK YOU, INTERNET…

...for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Mary Poppins Returns press tour, which might bring as many smiles as the movie itself.

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