Commentary

Three's company, can also be a crowd

So far, ESPN's new MNF trio proves deft at the difficult dance of a three-man booth

Originally Published: September 16, 2009
By Don Ohlmeyer | ESPN Ombudsman

It's football season, and for many of you, America's No. 1 sport leads to America's No. 2 sport: plopping down into something comfortable and becoming that most dangerous of all athletes, the Armchair Quarterback.

Second-guessing is part of the great fun of following sports, and we all do it. According to ESPN's "Outside the Lines," during the average football game, the ball is in play only 17 percent of the time -- and that leaves countless hours for those in the audience to criticize everything from the coach's play selection to the QB's arm, from the referee's call to the prevent defense -- and of course, one of the favorite targets, the announcers.

How the audience feels about an announcer is a very personal matter. One man's steak is another man's Brussels sprouts. In one national survey, Howard Cosell, one of the most influential characters in sports television history, was voted the most-liked commentator in America -- and the most-hated, at the very same time.

Last year, the ombudsman mailbag overflowed with criticism of the "Monday Night Football" announcing team. "Make it stop" was a common cry. Tony Kornheiser's well known fear of flying finally caught up with him and forced ESPN to look in a new direction. So, in 2009 the battle is joined as a new contestant enters the arena. Thus far, you've given thumbs up as Jon Gruden joins the Monday Night fray.

Paul, Clearwater, Fla., ESPN viewer: "Gruden has polish, excitement, knowledge … he was awesome."

Bruce, Raleigh, N.C., ESPN viewer: "Who knew! Is the Jon Gruden from MNF the same sour-puss who roamed the sidelines and never slept? He's the best thing to happen to ESPN's NFL coverage …"

Ted, Orinda, Calif., ESPN viewer: "…Gruden in on Monday night. My God, have I died and gone to heaven?"

In his early appearances in the MNF booth, alongside Mike Tirico and Ron Jaworski, Gruden has been a surprising blast of fresh air. Tumbling out of "Chucky" is a zest for the game, a competitor's heart and a storyteller's soul. He seems to have quickly and naturally mastered the difficult art of observing the obvious with a sense of discovery.

In a preseason game, Gruden told a story about how, as a Green Bay coach, he had to repeatedly hand-signal Brett Favre because while the QB could remember the plays, he kept forgetting the formations. Gruden's comedic recollection took the viewer behind-the-scenes. It was concise, well-told and entertaining -- qualities few had associated with the taciturn coach.

Many coaches-turned-broadcasters lack Gruden's unvarnished honesty, in part because they still harbor ambitions of coaching again. Gruden seems of a mind to "tell it like it is" without concern for repercussions for his criticisms.

Some ex-coaches seem more focused on the intricacies of the systems than on the individuals who make them work. When John Madden burst on the broadcasting scene, he brought life to telecasts by reveling in the grit of the unsung "toilers of the trenches" as much as the stars who touched the ball. To Madden, Cover 2 was never more important than the two who were doing the covering. It's far too early to start comparing Gruden to Madden in any measure but attitude, but so far he seems of the same mind.

A three-man booth is a difficult dance. For it to work, each should have a clearly distinguishable voice. In the early days of MNF, there was no mistaking who was speaking: Frank Gifford was the clipped Californian, Howard Cosell the classic nasal New Yorker and Don Meredith pure Texas drawl.

With ESPN's new trio, there's no confusing the analysts with the play-by-play, but often my ears had difficulty distinguishing between Gruden and Jaworski -- except when Jaws reverts to his "Philadelphia" pronunciations. It's a technical trick, but that need for distinction could be addressed, potentially, by an audio equalizer putting more bass in one voice and more treble in the other.

In addition, there must be distinctive points of view. With Gifford-Cosell-Meredith, there was no question about perspective. Frank, always the optimist, thought most everything about the league was terrific. Dandy Don thought the players were gladiators, and the owners rascals. Howard, cynical by nature, thought the whole mess corrupt -- except for the things that met with his approval.

So far, it's tough to see any major philosophical diversity in the new MNF trio's attitudes, beliefs or approaches to the game. And deeply ingrained personal points of view can't be manufactured just for the sake of a telecast. This can be a real trap for the trio. Will they counterpoint one another, complement each other or just share air time?

The assignment of clear-cut responsibilities is also important. Gifford's was straight play-by-play with some sidebars. Cosell handled news, human interest, and the tossing of an occasional verbal hand grenade that could stun the audience and the rest of the booth. Meredith did replays and observations (both straight and humorous) and, over time, Don developed the audience-pleasing habit of puncturing Howard's balloon after a windy diatribe.

How will Gruden and Jaworski's responsibilities differ? Will one focus on defense and the other on offense? The system vs. the individual? Strategy vs. tactics? Or will they just alternate doing replays and making observations?

With a well-versed play-by-play announcer and two very knowledgeable experts, the decision of "who does what to whom and when" is key for the production staff. The basic choreography: Play-by-play is in control from the breaking of the huddle until the ball is dead and the new down and yardage is set. Then it's the analysts' time for replays, featured players or generic topics, culminating just as the huddle breaks. There are multiple variations of this, of course, but without a strategically designed pattern, three can become a free-for-all.

When a trio works well -- as it did with MNF in the '70s and in college basketball with the team of Dick Enberg, Billy Packer and Al McGuire -- the viewer senses that a likable, interesting, knowledgeable gang of pals is sitting right in the living room, both entertaining and offering a guided tour through the intricacies and drama of the event. Announcing done well brings an added dimension to the audience's enjoyment. Done poorly, however, it becomes an irritant that can drive viewers to turn off the sound.

And that brings us to the most important discipline for a three-man booth: self-editing. Broadcasters spend between 15 and 40 hours preparing for a national telecast -- memorizing uniform numbers, reviewing game film, combing stats sheets, reading player profiles, interviewing coaches and players, observing practice, and digging for information in myriad other ways. If they don't do their homework, they won't last long. The well-prepared broadcaster makes it look effortless; the unprepared just seems lost.

What the announcers can't know before the game unfolds is whether it's going to be a "classic" or a "dog" -- and they need to be ready for both. In so many ways, a truly great game is the easiest to do. If it's Giants vs. Steelers in a 35-34 nail-biter, all the announcers need to do is be accurate and competent and stay out of the way -- the pictures and natural sound will say it all.

When good broadcasters earn their salaries, though, is when the visiting team wins a 35-0 blowout, and the crowd is as flat as the play on the field. That's when interesting personal stories, instructive replays, interviews, humorous observations and fascinating statistics can save a telecast -- and keep the viewers.

Having done the preparation, announcers need to be unselfish enough to sacrifice their "amazing tidbits" for the sake of the telecast. Having interesting points is not enough. Recalling and revealing them at the appropriate moments is a real skill. A broadcaster goes into the game with a mental list of worthy discussion points, as well as written notes. In a great game, he might have time to use 40 percent of that information because of the action on the field. In a mediocre game, he might need 60 percent, and in a blowout, he might use 85 percent. There is rarely enough room in a telecast to cover the game action and include all the announcers' prepared information. This is exacerbated with a trio.

In addition to the coordination among the announcers, there must be synchronization between the booth and the rest of the production team. Sometimes the director in the truck follows what the broadcasters are discussing; other times he leads with the pictures and the booth provides the captions. The announcers often are commenting at the same time the producer is talking in their earpieces, counting down to commercial or guiding them to the next element of the telecast.

Replays, graphics, interviews, promos, updates and sideline reporters need to be integrated. A television production is organized chaos, not for the faint of heart. At its best, it seems professionally seamless; at its worst, amateurishly sloppy.

Great sports telecasts allow the event to "breathe." They allow the audience time to revel in the roar of the crowd, the barking of the signals, the crashing of the helmets or the silence preceding a dramatic moment. And they recognize that most of the audience tuned in for one basic purpose -- to watch the game -- and not to listen to wall-to-wall commentary.

A very wise man once said, "A picture is worth a thousand words." An unemployed announcer once said, "For every picture, I have a thousand words."

In the early 1980s at NBC, we did a national NFL game without announcers. It was controversial and garnered substantial attention from the public and the media -- and racked up a much higher rating than the meaningless matchup deserved. We experimented for two reasons: One was to send a message to announcers that it was possible for an audience to follow a televised game using natural sound and graphics. The other was to remind viewers -- who seem to enjoy complaining about announcers talking too much -- that there is, in fact, value and enjoyment provided by effective, salient commentary.

A classic case in point was this week's opening-night double-header on MNF -- two exciting finishes handled in totally different ways. Coming from behind, the Chargers scored a TD in the final minute to beat the Raiders. The final dramatic drive was covered by non-stop hyperkinetic chattering in the booth, filled with more opinion than relevant information. The announcers excitedly talked over the top of each other at times, leaving no room for the climactic moments to breathe.

On the other hand, Tirico, Jaworski and Gruden's handling of the dramatic finish of the Buffalo-New England game was first-rate. The play-by-play was totally controlled, hitting the key points. Both analysts, judicious in their comments, never strayed from the intensity of the moment. All were enthusiastic, yet restrained -- a tough order when the adrenalin is flowing as strongly in the booth as it is on the field. The trio let the drama build and unfold with intentional moments of silence that enhanced the tension. When the Patriots scored the winning touchdown, there was a long pause in the booth -- allowing the audience to enjoy the pandemonium around the stadium. This doesn't happen by accident. It was a conscious choice made by the booth and the truck, and it was excellently executed.

Adding Gruden to the booth gives ESPN a fresh start on its MNF adventure. In the next few months, the audience will make its judgment on how well the trio and the production team put the pieces of the mosaic together.

Standards & practices

A major advertiser on ESPN's college football kickoff weekend was the movie "Sorority Row," described by Fandango as having strong bloody violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and partying -- your basic slasher film. A number of you raised the issue of ESPN's agreeing to carry an advertisement for such a movie in programming that some parents watch with children.

Sarah, O'Brien, Fla., ESPN viewer: "I find it hard to believe that during an NCAA football game your organization would allow promotion for a horror movie depicting the slaughter of college co-eds."

Although ESPN's programs aren't aimed at children, approximately 8.5 percent of its college football audience is age 18 or under. The notion of creating "safe harbors" for young viewers has challenged broadcasters since television began. In the '70s, there was the concept of the "family hour," which the National Association of Broadcasters enforced through its members, determining program content that was deemed inappropriate and unacceptable for young viewers.

Lawsuits prompted federal courts to rule the family hour unconstitutional on freedom-of-speech grounds. Since then, it's been every network for itself, which unfortunately means they rely on their own constantly evolving social standards to make their decisions -- and children rely on their parents to be the TV police.

When a sales opportunity presents itself, it's incumbent upon ESPN to consider particular circumstances that could give some viewers added concerns about potentially tasteless advertising. Such a case arose in the Sept. 7 Florida State-Miami telecast.

Jay, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., ESPN viewer: "Those of us who lived in sorority houses at Florida State when Ted Bundy entered the Chi Omega house (in 1978) and murdered our friends, are beyond offended. A great football night was repeatedly interrupted with bad memories because someone chose to remind us of a terrible winter night that changed many of our lives forever."

You can't help but feel sympathy for those who were unexpectedly catapulted back into what was so clearly a traumatic event. A serial killer should be the furthest thing from a viewer's mind when watching the Seminoles play the Hurricanes. However, it's difficult to fault ESPN for not catching the Bundy-Florida State connection. The tragedy happened more than 30 years ago and wouldn't necessarily be a top-of-mind consideration for someone reviewing a commercial for air.

The larger question: Should ESPN be airing commercials for violent movies or video games during college football games, period? Clearly, from the advertisers' point of view, there's a perfect market connection. But that doesn't necessarily make it appropriate. Taste is a constant struggle between a network and its audience. In a 500-channel universe and with ESPN servicing 100 million homes, values vary among diverse viewers.

Understanding ESPN's process won't necessarily change opinions. In questioning Ed Erhardt, president of ESPN's customer marketing and sales, we learned that the network has a separate standards & practices department that focuses on the propriety of what goes on its air. ESPN screens every commercial for content and regularly rejects spots or demands changes to those deemed unacceptable.

"Our biggest issues generally come from movies and video games," Erhardt said. "Some are tough calls, and we spend a lot of time trying to make the right decisions. The time of day the commercial airs is an important consideration. A spot we might air at night could be found totally unsuitable for play earlier in the day when more children are in the audience."

The standards group is, in theory, independent, and is supposed to have the viewers' tastes in mind. Those folks don't want to reject a big sales opportunity, but they don't want to alienate the audience, either. Although putting this movie's ads in ESPN's kickoff weekend was a grand slam for the producers and marketers of "Sorority Row," it was a strikeout for ESPN's standards & practices.

If you wrap yourself in the mantle of college football to the extent ESPN does, you might have to make an occasional financial sacrifice to protect it. Put the "Sorority Row" spots in "SportsCenter," NFL, MLB or other such programs, but a campus slasher movie strikes too close to home in a college football game.

Little League reviews

Your reactions to youngsters playing a grownup game also had a subtle message.

Brian, Mahwah, N.J., ESPN viewer: "The ESPN coverage has been phenomenal. It may be a cliché to say that the innocence and purity of watching these kids play is refreshing, but it is certainly never tiring."

Ken, Peoria, Ill., ESPN viewer: "Was there ever a sporting event more fun to watch than Chula Vista's come from behind victory in the Little League World Series?"

The reactions in the mailbag to ESPN's coverage of the Little League World Series were almost unanimously positive. The ratings were good, the coverage was first-rate and the announcers remained true to the storylines of the games. The sidebars were informative, humanizing, touching and uplifting. The cameras told the story of the pressure on the players, as well as the pressure felt by their parents. To paraphrase an old saying, "For the parents of a Little Leaguer, a baseball game is simply a nervous breakdown captured in six innings."

But an underlying thread in your letters seemed to go beyond just praise for the telecast -- and perhaps there's a lesson here for ESPN and the sports world it covers. Can it be that the fans crave events contested by "sportsmen" regardless of their age or the level of their performance? No, it wasn't "big league ball," but the competition was intense and the players were talented and passionate. Each home run captured the unbridled joy of the hitter, the deep anguish of the pitcher, and the viewer could revel in both.

One moment exemplified what viewers found so enthralling. As a young Californian circled the bases after hitting a game-tying home run, one of the Georgia infielders gave him a smile and a congratulatory tap on the shoulder. A brief but touching reminder of what true sportsmanship is. But it wasn't the only example. There were no glares from players questioning balls and strikes. There was no arguing the tag at home. There was no showboating or taunting.

Contrast this with what's seen on "SportsCenter" or any local newscast -- the look-at-me egocentrism, bench-clearing brawls, DUI crashes, sexual assaults, paternity suits, drug infractions, union disputes, near-bankrupt cities building billion-dollar stadiums for teams that can afford $200 million payrolls.

There is no question that all these things need to be covered along with the scores and incredible feats that make up today's world of competition. Sports have always been popular because they encompass the incredible highs and lows of triumph and tragedy. But today's ever-increasing curse of a dark underbelly that reflects the seamier side of our culture is real, and it's part of life.

The Little League World Series was a pleasant reminder that, at their core, sports can be about the dreams of the players, their teammates, their coaches, their parents and their towns. And watching 12- and 13-year-old kids play a game for the sheer joy of doing it can teach us all valuable lessons about life.

Until next time. …

Don Ohlmeyer is the public's representative to ESPN, offering independent examination and analysis of ESPN's media outlets. One of television's most successful innovators as a sports and entertainment producer, programmer and network president, the longtime NBC and ABC executive was honored with 16 Emmys, including the Lifetime Achievement Award, and two Peabody Awards. He will critique decision-making, coverage and presentation of news, issues and events on ESPN's platforms. Ohlmeyer will have an 18-month tenure and succeeds ombudsmen George Solomon and Le Anne Schreiber.