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Media Roundtable, Part II — Networks And Programming

Part one of our Editors’ Roundtable on college football television focused on individual broadcasters. Today, we focus on networks, individual shows, and the various ways in which all television outlets can improve the level of content on their broadcasts. Once again, Matt Yoder — publisher of Awful Announcing — joins the TSS editors to explore the world of college football as it comes across on the tube.

This is an entertainment product, but as every college football fan knows, the way the sport is covered has had an awful lot to do with the composition of past championship game matchups. The stakes, in year one of the College Football Playoff, are higher than ever. You might not want to care about television coverage, but you have to.

For this reason, today’s roundtable offers an expanded list of questions.

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Question No. 1: What one thing can Fox Sports 1, CBS, and other non-ESPN/ABC outlets do to best serve the viewing public?

Matt Yoder:

On Twitter @myoder84

The best thing competitors to ESPN can do is to move their focus away from the need to debate college football 24/7 and focus on the action at hand and the reasons why we love the sport. Honestly, it’s become increasingly difficult to be a college football fan over the last decade. Not only do you have to cheer for your team, you have to defend your conference in some kind of regional warfare about which conference and which part of the country is better than the other. I’m sick of it.

Let’s get back to the traditions, get back to the rivalries, get back to the games, and get back to everything great about college football and not fake trials with Lou Holtz and Mark May. My hope is that at least some of these networks get that. Others… (cough… cough… Fox Sports 1) not so much.

Terry Johnson:

On Twitter @SectionTPJ

As I alluded to in yesterday’s roundtable, the biggest service that the networks can do for the viewing public is to keep the broadcasts about the teams on the field. That means no pieces telling people how they need to feel about social issues, no trying to persuade people how they need to vote on political issues, and certainly no discussing what schools a high school senior (or junior) might be considering. It also means no talking about other high-profile games in between snaps, unless the contest they mention has something to do with the teams on the field. After all, nothing aggravates a fan from a “mid-major” program more than listening to the commentators of their game shamelessly promote the SEC in between snaps. That’s just begging people to hit the mute button.

If/when that happens, I’ll find a radio broadcast from one of the schools that’s playing in the game. To them, the only thing that matters is what’s taking place right in front of them. That’s the way all broadcasts should be.

Bart Doan:

On Twitter @TheCoachBart

I think the first thing you have to do to come to grips with this is agree that networks “should” be “serving” the viewing audience. Sports isn’t news, so I’m not sure networks really owe anything to the viewer outside of entertainment or have a moral obligation to do such so much as I think the viewing audience owes it to themselves to make their own opinions and not be sheep to what is on the big color box in the corner of the room.

As far as what non-ESPN outlets can do … it’s simple … forge out programming that focuses on objectivity and caters to the football fan that wants highlights evenly spread across all conferences so whether fans are watching or media is, opinions can be gathered across the board and the opportunity to learn about different teams exists. Not everyone turns on the TV set wanting to hear two loud mouths bellowing out debates over a myriad of topics. Some of us would sit there and watch MAC or Sun Belt highlights deep into the night instead.

The viewer isn’t changing or working harder to find better programming. It’d be nice if the networks didn’t make them work so hard. Pro sports have their own networks that fans sick of the opinionated and slanted “debate” can turn to. It’d be nice if some avenue decided that was the route to go with college football too.

Matt Zemek:

On Twitter @SectionMZ

The short answer: Jump aboard the analytics train and incorporate emergent research into their broadcasts.

Full disclosure: I’m not someone who worships at the altar of analytics. At least, I’m not someone for whom analytics is the answer to every question or even 9 out of 10 questions. However, analytics is certainly a core reason that sports coverage continues to get better, more expansive, and more detailed in the present day. College football is the Wild, Wild West in terms of statistical analysis, because box scores are so limited in what they cover, all while there are so many components to a football game that don’t exist in a basketball game for numerous reasons.

Football’s pace makes it easier to track than basketball, for one thing. Moreover, a turnover is much more likely to be a seismic event within the course of competition, whereas you’ll find at least 25 turnovers if not more in a typical college basketball game. The very notion of downs, and the reality of drive starts (from a specifically numbered and marked spot on the field), both lend statistical depth to football in a way basketball can’t match. Yet, it’s in basketball where analytics developed before football, at least in a mainstream context.

Fans crave more detailed stats. Guys such as Bill Connelly of SB Nation have pioneered the effort to fill this large, yawning gap in college football. Connelly, or someone like him, should have been on the College Football Playoff selection committee to provide this perspective (and a leavening voice) at the table. In the absence of that, the non-ESPN networks should try to give the best analytics practitioners a spot on television, and an appreciably central one at that. More straightforward analysis of teams’ merits, and less time devoted to narratives and talking points, would instantly and profoundly win the attention of viewers.

Question No. 2: When you compare a typical college football television schedule to a typical NFL television schedule, what do you like most and least about each? Where does college football scheduling get it right, and where does the NFL get it right? 

Bart Doan:

To be fair, comparing the way the NFL runs its business to anyone else is basically like waking up in the morning and Rachel Bilson is in lingerie cooking you bacon and eggs and comparing it to pretty much anything else in the morning. It’s completely unfair. The first thing the NFL does is force balanced scheduling. You win the division the year before, you play champions from other divisions. If you’re a lousy team the year before, your schedule is, in theory, easier, so it keeps fans engaged longer as well as assures heavyweight tilts every week of the season.

The other thing the NFL does is it works its ass-end off to make sure the viewer is getting the elite matchups even at the inconvenience of the fans in attendance or the players. They call it “flex scheduling.” Yes, you get some underwhelming early season matchups as teams end up not being as elite as they were thought to be coming in, but late in the season every game is edge of the seat action. College football, on the other hand, sullies its drawers with underwhelming matchups and teams finding unique ways to avoid one another. FCS games have exploded as rules allowing those games to count to bowl eligibility were enacted.

As far as what the NFL can do more like college football, I’d say increase fans’ access to the teams they want to see. The NFL is so large, so popular, and so demanded, it really isn’t far fetched to me that if it existed, each division could have its own channel and get decent viewership a la conference channels. But really, college football wins in the fact that no matter who you root for … from Utah State to Southern California … your team is on somewhere and you normally can get it.

Contrast that to the NFL, which forces you either to get DirecTV, suffer through idiots at a bar, or try to find a stream online to watch out of market teams. As the world gets more transient and people have less and less money to pay on luxuries like expanded TV packages, the hope is that this changes. The NFL has done such a great job marketing all of its teams with its NFL Network, Thursday Night Football, and traditional Sunday and Monday coverage, it has to understand not everyone wants to watch the local team and would like to choose who they watch. Live sports is the last venue that ala carte television hasn’t started to make inroads on, and for the sports fan’s sake, I hope that is something that changes.

Matt Zemek:

College football needs to become more like the NFL by embracing the concept of flexed games, the best part of an NFL schedule each season. In the NFL, flexing a game means changing the network assignment as well as the time slot. In college, the notion of the flex game should become something different… and bolder. In the future, college football needs to enable one conference game and one non-conference game to remain unknown in advance of the season. (In the Big 12, obviously, this could not happen within the realm of conference play.) The date and the location would be agreed upon, but not the opponent. November would be the workable month for these games to be played.

Turning November into a blockbuster month, instead of FCS Cupcake Day on the third Saturday of November in the SEC, would hugely improve college football’s overall product. It’s in ESPN’s interest to create this kind of situation, and while the above system might not become reality, I am confident that the WorldWide Leader will bring a BracketBusters-like format to college football before too long.

The NFL needs to become more like college football in one key respect: time slots. It baffles me that the NFL allows eight or nine early kickoffs to all start and end roughly at the same time. NFL RedZone is great, but why not have four or five games end at one time, and then have four games end later, and then four more games still another hour or two later? The NFL should start its Eastern time zone games at 1 p.m., its Central time zone games at 2:30 p.m. (ET), and then the Pacific time zone at the usual 4:25. Part of the beauty of college football is that in the evenings, you can catch the end of the CBS SEC game at 7 Eastern, and then find an ESPN2 game already in the second quarter, with the ESPN featured game at 7:45 (sometimes) and the ABC game at 8:10. You know, as a viewer, that you’ll likely be able to catch one game’s ending sequence at one point in time and then manage to catch a different endgame 30 or 60 minutes later. That’s a feature, not a bug, in college football’s scheduling.

Yet, as good as college football is in terms of offering more games in more time slots, the sport still isn’t as evolved as it ought to be on this issue.

Ask yourself this question: Why has college football (especially a non-ESPN network) failed to establish a Game Of The Week in the 1:30 or 2 p.m. Eastern time slot? With a wall of games starting at noon (or 12:21 for the SEC Network) on the ESPN family of channels, why wouldn’t non-ESPN nets carve out a separate niche at 1:30, being able to thereby command the 3:30 to 5 window when the ESPN family’s next big window of games gets started? Counterprogramming at 10 a.m. (ET), 1:45, 5:30, and 9:15 would diversify a Saturday’s schedule to an even greater extent. Viewers would be able to catch the endings to games that, up to now, they might not have thought to sample. There’s so much more both college football and the NFL can do in terms of time-slotting their broadcasts.

Matt Yoder:

I really believe both college football and the NFL get it right with regard to their television scheduling practices. With the NFL only consisting of 32 teams, it’s sensible to have a much more structured lineup that consists of games at 1 p.m. ET, 4:30 p.m. ET, and primetime standalone games in the evening. You can argue that a Thursday night game is a bit much for both college football and the NFL, but as long as there is an appetite for it, it isn’t going anywhere.

With the college football schedule, there’s something for everyone on almost every night of the week. From #MACtion to the Thursday and Friday night offerings to the non-stop parade of games on Saturdays there is a weekly smorgasbord of action. The best games usually get the prime timeslots on the best networks, and now with the advent of conference networks and streaming devices, there’s more games available than ever before.

Terry Johnson:

If college football is smart, it will stick with the existing model, and ignore what the NFL is doing.

Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying: the NFL does a brilliant job with the way it promotes the league. It puts a top quality product on the field every week, which is why it continually draws a large number of fans throughout the season. Whether it’s 1 p.m., 4 p.m., 8 p.m., or Thursday/Monday night, you can count on people tuning in.

However, college football is a completely different animal. Unlike an NFL game, where people attend the contest and then hope they make it home in time to see the second half of another game, a college football outing is literally an all-day event. To the average season ticket holder, there is no other game in town.

Don’t think this is a big deal? Consider the following example. Let’s assume one of the networks decides to move the Boise State – Wyoming game up a few hours to get better TV ratings. While that doesn’t seem like a big deal at first, the earlier start time will certainly draw the ire of many Cowboy fans, some of whom drive up to seven hours each way to be there just in time for the coin toss.

Does a network really think an earlier kickoff with a half empty stadium is better than starting it two hours later with a capacity crowd and electric atmosphere?

Of course not. As any successful business person will tell you, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

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Question No. 3: Which program or broadcast could do so much to improve the way college football is discussed on a national level, yet falls short on a regular basis? (This can include a game broadcast.)

Rece Davis is widely loved and universally recognized as an excellent broadcaster. It is therefore all the more remarkable that College Football Final manages to disappoint, and even offend, a large number of college football fans. Rece has virtually nothing to do with it. It's all the result of Mark Mary, Lou Holtz... and ESPN's belief that a college football version of First Take is good for business.

Rece Davis is widely loved and universally recognized as an excellent broadcaster. It is therefore all the more remarkable that College Football Final manages to disappoint, and even offend, a large number of college football fans. Rece has virtually nothing to do with it. It’s all the result of Mark May, Lou Holtz… and ESPN’s belief that a college football version of First Take is good for business.

Matt Zemek:

It’s College Football Final, and it’s not even close. When writers, broadcasters, and other assorted commentator-pundits finish a long day of work, they turn to CFB Final for discussion, highlights and analysis of games they missed. Rece Davis is an A-plus broadcaster, but having the hyperpartisan Lou Holtz and the puerile Mark May on the set with him constitutes a waste of what could be a genuinely informative hour. ESPN would rather have First Take-level bombthrowing than substantive, illuminating discourse. It’s an awful shame within the context of sports broadcasting. I will occasionally watch CFB Final if an unforgettable game created a special kind of buzz, and I wanted to see how the guys processed it. However, on the two or three occasions per season when I do check the show, it always disappoints. There’s a reason it’s barely on my radar screen anymore.

Terry Johnson:

In a nutshell, I agree with Matt 100 percent. Given the amount of resources ESPN has at its disposal, College Football Final should dominate the market. Since most fans care more about scores than they do about the pregame festivities, there’s no reason this show shouldn’t have higher ratings than even GameDay.

Here’s a simple tweak which will allow that to happen. After Rece, Lou, and Mark review all the games in the top 25, the broadcast would shift to a series of panels to break down what happened in each conference. Each league would have its own panel of experts, and would receive an equal amount of air time. This way, the show will cover all of college football, rather than just a handful of games.

This approach would also provide ESPN with additional college football content throughout the weekend. The network could easily slot in a few “lessons learned” segments into SportsCenter as it leads into NFL Sunday Countdown. In addition, ESPNU could use these spots on Sunday morning as well, giving everyone – even the oft-ignored fan bases of the Sun Belt, MAC, and Conference USA – a chance to find out what yesterday’s action on the gridiron means to them.

For you ESPN execs, who I know are out there listening, you can contact me via Twitter @SectionTPJ. I’m here to help.

Bart Doan:

I feel like if I go with something other than College Football Final, I must be off my rocker since the other three guys have pegged it as basically the Limp Bizkit of college football viewing. I can’t say I watch it, because it’s blathering nonsense and uneven highlights the rare times I have seen it. So we’ll just go with that. I prefer finding some West Coast football fare or just simply calling it a night.

Matt Yoder:

What more needs to be said about College Football Final? The May-Holtz dynamic, and ESPN’s continued insistence to promote their tomfoolery, is simply insane. Rece Davis deserves so much better. From a network that does so many good things in relation to its college football coverage, with an Alabama-esque depth chart of quality analysts, the fact that ESPN thinks May and Holtz arguing and pretending to be lawyers is good television is absurd.

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Question No. 4: How central is College GameDay to your non-game-watching media diet? If it’s not a part of your viewing habits, has Fox Sports 1 captured your attention instead, or do you not watch GameDay for different reasons?

Chris Fowler is a legitimate superstar in the world of college football broadcasting. He has made College GameDay the juggernaut it is. Yet, one can love everything about Fowler and still watch Premier League Soccer or Masters 1000 tennis from Europe on fall mornings. Why? Because live games trump pregame shows and their chatter every single time.

Chris Fowler is a legitimate superstar in the world of college football broadcasting. He has made College GameDay the juggernaut it is. Yet, one can love everything about Fowler and still watch Premier League soccer or Masters 1000 tennis on fall mornings. Why? Because live games trump pregame shows and their chatter every single time.

Terry Johnson:

The only time I watch GameDay is in the final few minutes, and only on those Saturdays when I have a noon Big Ten game on ESPN to cover. The show has become more about pop culture than it is about previewing the games, which is the only reason I would watch a college football show to begin with.

Until the focus of the program is more about who’s going to win and less about what headgear Lee Corso is going to wear, I won’t be tuning in.

Matt Yoder:

Sadly for Fox Sports 1, it captured nobody’s attention, which is why Erin Andrews’ Fox College Saturday was dumped after one year.

To be honest, I know GameDay is still in the upper echelon of studio shows, but I’m usually watching Premier League soccer on Saturday mornings at 10 a.m. ET. Perhaps that says something about the television industry as a whole, but there’s only so much talking one can take in without searching for an alternative. If the choice came down to watching a game or watch people talk, I’m choosing the former every time. I’ll check in on GameDay every now and then if there’s a great feature running or for the picks segment at the end of the show to see Lee Corso do his thing, but it’s not a prime commitment in my viewing habits.

Bart Doan:

College GameDay is the appendix of my personal viewing experience. It’s there. You know it’s there. But at no point do you acknowledge it, use it, and you pray to God you never have to because it means something went terribly wrong. Personally, I cannot remember the last time I watched College GameDay. It has to be at minimum, 5 to 7 to 10 years. I find no reason to pay attention to things that aggravate me and add no value to my life. It’s like hating a band but continually buying their albums.

From what other people tell me, College GameDay has pretty much morphed to a several hour-long infomercial for the SEC. I’m not particularly interested in that either. Others make it sound like it’s basically a roundtable of mothers talking about their kids’ youth soccer teams. Theirs is the best, and don’t even try suggesting otherwise.

Fox Sports 1 has not captured my attention either. I tried it on for five minutes last year and realized that I’d rather do just about anything else than watch it. Nothing about either broadcast is compelling and beautiful Saturday mornings are better spent if not at games, on the golf course.

Matt Zemek:

Is GameDay fun? Sure. Is Chris Fowler an elite superstar-level broadcaster (whose life I want to have, being a huge tennis-and-college-sports guy)? Yes. Is Kirk Herbstreit a quality college football analyst? Without question. Does Tom Rinaldi create great television? Indubitably. GameDay is a fine product… as entertainment. The people on the show know what they’re doing… as entertainers.

However, much as I can respect that a horror film might be done well as a matter of craftsmanship and production, but would not watch that same horror film if I had the chance, so it is with GameDay. It’s the gold standard for its type of program, but few things in the world of sports television interest me less than pregame shows. The play’s the thing, as Shakespeare said, and in a television world with so many choices, I will spend an October or November Saturday watching Tennis Channel’s coverage of a late-season indoor Masters event at 7 in the morning in Seattle. I don’t need to watch a pregame show before the college football day kicks off at 9 a.m. in the West. It’s nothing personal, GameDay. I don’t do horror films or pregame shows.

The one thing GameDay could stop doing (not that it will), however, is to use Lee Corso as a prop. I have found the show’s treatment of Corso to be genuinely dehumanizing at times over the past three seasons. Chris and Kirk are terrific in expressing their affection for Lee both on and off the air, but that doesn’t excuse or wipe away ESPN corporate’s decision to continue to trot out the old man before a camera as little more than a part of the staging and theatrics of the show.

As for Fox Sports 1… well… I still don’t do pregame shows. However, I will certainly pay more attention to studio analysis when I get the chance this season. Getting Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandel has certainly caught my attention (and respect).

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Question No. 5: For the regular season, the bowls, or both, what broadcast-media storyline is most likely to capture and maintain your attention?

When the College Football Playoff Selection Committee gathers to make its big decision on Sunday, Dec. 7, will it be driven by narratives and box-office appeal, or will the 13 people entrusted with this enormous responsibility exhibit a willingness to grade teams strictly on the merits of what they've achieved?

When the College Football Playoff Selection Committee gathers to make its big decision on Dec. 7, will it be driven by narratives and box-office appeal, or will the 13 people entrusted with this enormous responsibility exhibit a willingness to grade teams strictly on the merits of what they’ve achieved?

Matt Yoder:

The entire dynamic of the College Football Playoff selection committee will dominate the news cycle this season. I’m most interested in how the media narratives will have an impact on the committee. It’s a topic I just wrote extensively about at AA. For too long, college football champions have been decided by rankings, narratives, and perceptions instead of reality. For once, we can finally be free in college football of the pollsters setting the tone for the season from the outset.

I want a selection committee that doesn’t just look at Florida State and Alabama as the two best teams in the country as the default until one of them loses. I want the committee to actually rank teams based on what those teams have earned throughout the course of the season and not what they were ranked beforehand.

But we all know it won’t be that easy.

These committee members aren’t going to be in isolation booths throughout the season. Just how much will they allow the narratives, the debates, and the conceptions affect their view of reality? Today’s media thrives on tribalism-fueled debate, and no sport quenches that thirst like college football. Will it be toned down this season now that there’s a selection committee in place and fighting for rankings points don’t matter? Or will it only increase as the pressure grows on individual committee members from lobbyists within the sport?

Bart Doan:

I don’t think we can drink a giant stein of delusion and simply assume with a new system that networks will be able to finally turn on their long-desired tap of objectivity. So the same teams are going to get the same support from the same analysts. The crux of this answer being embedded in what MY above is talking about … and that’s how integral it is to the mindset of the Selection Committee.

Look, biases rule every single decision we make: From the clothing we put on in the morning to the food we buy at the grocery store, we’re showing some sort of bias even when we’re not trying. But the big issue with the AP poll and the Coaches’ Polls over the years is how much viewing do the voters really put into “all” of college football? Or is it easier to pop on highlight shows, fill out a poll, and not have indents in your couch from your backside sitting there all day?

My question will be just how much the Selection Committee eschews the desire to get college football in a microwave and instead slow cook it on the grill. If it’s just plopping on highlight shows and maybe viewing the major game or two of the day, you’ll get the same used cat litter on a plate that you’ve been getting. If the committee members are serious about watching a swath of college football all day long because they take it that seriously, then we’re probably on to something. Eventually, we’ll learn what makes the members of the Selection Committee tick in terms of what they’re looking for. It’d be a damn shame if that was mostly just highlights on Saturday nights.

Matt Zemek:

How ESPN covers the College Football Playoff selection process is an obvious choice, and I’m sure other panelists here will mention it in some form and to some degree. As someone who lives in the West (I’m the only one on the panel who does), an important story for me to follow this season is the Pac-12’s attempt to play more of its games earlier in the day, reducing the late-night Saturday kickoffs a lot of Eastern time zone viewers don’t (or won’t… or, for DirecTV customers, can’t…) watch.

The Pac-12 realized that while it might own the midnight Eastern to 2 a.m. Eastern window on a lot of Saturdays, the ownership of that block doesn’t amount to much. The league saw that it had to command more attention in the heart of the day and early in the evening in order to matter.

It could very well be that this year’s Pac-12 will not produce an elite team which will qualify for the CFB Playoff. (I’m inclined to think that dark scenario has an excellent chance of unfolding. We’ll see.) However, if there’s a close race between the Pac-12 champion and the Big Ten champion for the fourth and final spot (as would have been the case last year between Stanford and Michigan State), it will be fascinating — and significant — to see how the Pac-12’s team is treated in the discussion, regardless of the final outcome.

Terry Johnson:

The most important story this year is the College Football Playoff.

With that in mind, I expect broadcast media to cover it objectively. As Bart pointed out previously, ESPN — and to some degree, CBS — have a vested interest in the SEC’s success. Rather than promote propaganda to earn more dollars, I expect these networks to evaluate the teams from each conference based solely on the merits.

That means the media needs to scrutinize how the Selection Committee attempts to quantify strength of schedule. Remember, unlike the BCS, which used a set formula to measure strength of schedule, the College Football Playoff leaves it up to the individual committee members to determine which team(s) played the toughest slate, and whether its enough to get a team in the field over a conference champion. While the media shouldn’t have any bearing on the final decision, it does have a responsibility to hold the Selection Committee accountable for its actions. If it doesn’t the new playoff system will have absolutely zero credibility.

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