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  • This year's NFL coverage completed its transformation to reality television, and ratings spiked across the networks. But at what cost?
By Jacob Feldman
April 28, 2019

Looking back on the best scenes from this weekend’s NFL Draft coverage, I can’t help but feel guilty.

In the moment, D.K. Metcalf’s call with the Seattle Seahawks (watched nearly 3 million times online) had me as emotional as that Endgame scene where [redacted] [redacted]. A gif of Rashan Gary crying—made by the NFL—still gets me. Meanwhile, my favorite draft analysis came when the Giants passed over Dwayne Haskins to select Daniel Jones, as a camera picked up Haskins smirking, shaking his head, and shrugging, all while staying glued to his phone at his draft party.

This year the Draft completed its genre transformation from a procedural into a reality show. Analysts and producers focused more than ever on players’ stories rather than draft boards or schematics, with ABC leading the way on a tears-heavy debut. Fans responded positively. Despite a dearth of A-list storylines, ABC’s coverage rated 25% better than FOX’s offer last year for the first round. Friday reportedly brought a total viewership high across ABC, ESPN and NFL Network. Prepare even more tissues for next year’s draft party as more and more publishers on more and more platforms hunt for sentiment. But at what cost?

New NFL players got a needed reminder that, now pros, they should act as if there is always a camera on them. That said, I’m not sure NFL fans should internalize the lesson that we’re entitled to all that access all the time—to the point of voyeurism. These young men deserve some modicum of privacy with their families and their new bosses, don’t they?

I’m even more skeptical that we should continue blindly trusting the behind-the-scenes gems as authentic. After all, we know what happens on reality television. Cameras’ omnipresence around the draft stage and in prospects’ living rooms across the country will surely change how players react. Even if Clayton Thorson leaving his brother hanging was unplanned, someone is going to stage a remake. Haskins’ draft party already started with a script this year. Artifice is coming.

We might not be treated to this many raw reactions again, and we might not deserve to be.

So yes, I enjoyed the real human emotions on display in Nashville—the tears, the hugs, and the always surprising satisfaction SEC players display when picked by Great Lakes teams. Soon though, I’m going to wonder if they’re playing for the cameras.

It’ll take years to properly grade the 32 teams’ 254 selections. But for the three networks, some of the hits and misses are already obvious.

HITS

• “It’s the first time really that the College Gameday brand has been a part of the draft on a Thursday and a Friday night,” Kirk Herbstreit said as the ABC gang awaited pick No. 93 Friday. “It’s usually been Mel and the guys on ESPN, more X-and-O football…. So often it’s just about what’s his 40-time. Here we got to go, 'Wow, I learned a little something different about this guy,' and kind of pull on your heartstrings a bit.” Pull they did. Hosted by Robin Roberts, Disney promised a more storytelling and entertainment-driven show for mainstream viewers on broadcast TV. For the most part, it delivered. Producers created moving profiles for a shocking number of draftees, while Herbstreit and his colleagues filled in their own analysis and perspective.

Hopefully ABC brings back the show next year, and advances it another step. At times, the production felt more like a mishmash of ideas rather than a cohesive presentation, bouncing between in-depth college football talk and non-sports interviews with the likes of Taylor Swift. Given the company’s sister show on ESPN, ABC could cut even more of the draftnik stuff and chat the way casual fans do—focusing on the biggest stars and most interesting storylines. With a full year to ideate and pitch, a new name for the program would allow for that creativity, in-line with other ABC one-night specials like Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve (a comparison host Rece Davis even made on air).

• Daniel Jeremiah looked and sounded the part of a lead NFL Draft analyst, having taken the NFL Network reins from now-Raiders GM Mike Mayock. Host Rich Eisen normally let Jeremiah kick off the conversation after each selection, something I wish ESPN did more often on its version. Jeremiah was also comfortable going beyond selection talk—his take on the Cardinals not trading Josh Rosen before the draft was the best on set. Ultimately, he correctly predicted as many first-rounders as Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay. With Joel Klatt on-set Friday, NFL Network provided a smart, laid-back alternative to Disney’s options for those looking for football-heavy conversation.

• Booger McFarland’s Monday Night Football role remains undetermined, but on ESPN Thursday and ABC Friday, he demonstrated what he brings to the table (literally). Joining two different shows, each featuring analysts with more marquee studio analysis experience, he made his presence felt. It helped that the top of the draft was dominated by defensive linemen, and McFarland’s Louisiana ties provide an asset on multiple occasions. But most of all, his smile and his energy elevated the group—as did his chuckle after the Raiders picked Clelin Ferrell fourth overall.

Bonus:

• A record $93 million contract extension means we won’t see Dabo Swinney, professional commentator, for a while, if ever. But sitting on the NFL Network set pre-draft and then smiling around the green room as his players got picked, Swinney convinced me he’d excel at the gig. Say what you want about his opinions on amateurism; the man’s personality is infectious.

• Good on ESPN for spending several minutes Saturday calling out and thanking the behind-the-camera help that gathers everything necessary for the dayslong coverage to come together. Rewind to pick 245 on your DVR to get a sense of the work that goes in.

• The timing was unfortunate, coming right after the Giants picked Daniel Jones, but otherwise I had no problem with Taylor Swift on the ABC broadcast.

• Maria Taylor deftly handled hosting duties on Friday as she continues to get more play on ABC in general.

• My three favorite pick announcements came from the Ravens, Bills, and Colts. Meanwhile, Pat McAfee put on a show for any ESPN execs watching.

MISSES

• The NFL Network has received earned criticism for not mentioning the sickening Tyreek Hill audio that a Kansas City outlet published an hour before the draft Thursday. Draft night is for celebration, so I wouldn’t expect the channel, run by the NFL, to devote significant time to the development. However, at the very least, a news break of some kind would have gone a long way towards fans seeing the network as a reliable news source. As of Sunday morning, the Hill news has one mention on NFL.com’s homepage—a quick AP blurb.

• As the league grows its draft into a citywide event as well as a broadcast TV draw, it needs to better balance the two. Obviously, a Nashville-hosted draft needs some music, but much of it came off as muddy background sound for viewers, especially when layered over cheering fans, talking commentators, and traditional TV sound effects. The on-stage house band also seemed to hamper analyst discussion. Eisen called it out repeatedly, while McShay said Saturday—on a set distanced from the stage—that he was still having trouble hearing his colleagues. In Las Vegas next year, maybe the NFL can find some quieter performers.

• Lee Corso is a sports broadcasting legend. But the 83-year-old was not put in a position to succeed Thursday night. Struggling with the aforementioned noise, he mispronounced Dwayne Haskins’s name before putting on a massive Haskins head as the Cardinals prepared to make the first pick. Of course, Arizona took Kyler Murray as expected instead, and Corso had left the show by the time Haskins was eventually taken. The headgear stunt, a GameDay mainstay, would’ve worked better to close out a pre-draft show. His pre-planned departure, meanwhile, could have been explained properly at the time rather than being played as a surprise.

Bonus:

• Sorry, ESPN. College students don’t crowd bars to watch the draft.

• While Swift’s quick appearance was fun, Luke Bryan’s on-set visit went on too long for my taste, spanning six picks and nearly 45 minutes. At least give us a picture from Bryan and Herbstreit’s fishing trip in exchange for the brand promotion. 

• Credit to Steve Smith for the off-the-cuff “they have a draft every year, buddy” line, but otherwise his anti-Josh Rosen screed did not go over well.

• According to Kiper, Cardinals wideout Andy Isabella is “Danny Amendola with more speed.” Reggie Wayne previously made the same comparison. And the trope of white receiver comparisons lives on.

Bad map graphics strike again.

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