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Where Quantity Is Job One

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One of the semi-interesting developments of SMQ's week off was the Worldwide Leader's announcement of a new half-hour on our favorite pastime, to debut in July in the same boring, stare-at-the-camera format as the Leader's current lifeless studio coverage:

Looking to capitalize on college football's growing popularity, ESPN plans to launch this summer a weekday series, College Football Live. The 30-minute show will kick off July 23 and run through bowl season in January, says David Berson, ESPN senior vice president of programming.

Modeled after the network's daily NFL Live, the new show will be hosted mostly by Rece Davis and feature breaking news, features and analysis. Davis will be joined by a rotating mix of ESPN's college football talent, including Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit from College GameDay, Lou Holtz, Mark May, Bob Griese, Doug Flutie, Todd Blackledge, Craig James and Ed Cunningham.
"College football fans want more content," Berson says. "This has been a long time coming. It's a natural extension for us. We expect it to become a staple of our programming, like NFL Live and Baseball Tonight."

The show is already welcomed with much chagrin and presumed editorial failure, none of which SMQ will contradict, but he will ask critics why, exactly, we should expect better? SMQ, who on most days has a flexible enough schedule he probably could, has no intention of ever tuning to this flaccid roundtable unless he's desperately low on ideas and feeling mean-spirited about it. Any willing non-curmedgeon could recognize in a few hours the dozen or so blogs that are already doing whatever it is the stare-and-talk set is planning in the way of "analysis," and many times better. "More content" isn't so much about quantity, and that's all this is.

Remember: ESPN's primary goal, because no serious alternative exists on television, must be to attract people who are only peripherally interested in sports. Those of us actually obsessed by college football are already watching the Leader's coverage before, during and after games because the only comparable ventures in the sport's dominant medium are retreads - FSN et al - that manage to be even staler than the ossifying vanguard. Whatever schlock emerges as a result, at least ESPN has production values. As for insight, though, only if you're clueless to begin with. The network's baseball or college basketball guys, for example, sound substantially smarter to SMQ than its football guys on the few occasions he's had to listen to them, but this is definitely only because SMQ doesn't follow baseball or basketball closely enough to know what towering windbaggery is actually unfolding. If you know nothing, or next to nothing, then, yes, what ESPN does in its studio shows might suffice as a primer. Non contextual big hits and celebration clips are titillating enough. And where else will the hungrier media consumers turn? The Internet? is quaking in its overloaded servers.

Teach us a lesson, Lou.
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Remember also - and this is easy to forget - that lispin' Lou Holtz knows way more about football than any of us amateurs on the couch. There can't be much doubt about this. He's a former championship coach with decades of firsthand experience. But this fact is useless to his role in a studio, which requires him to babble on at a generalized level SMQ would place slightly below that of the average diehard fan in terms of insight, and much farther below for actual entertainment value (Exhibit A). The existence of his job is based on his knowledge as a coach, but it doesn't give him any opportunity to employ that knowledge in a potentially enlightening way, i.e. assessing players and strategy from the perspective of a coach. Holtz and ex-sideline cohort Lee Corso serve mainly to apologize for current bosses (a coach, employed or not, will never under any circumstances levy a public indictment against another coach, unless the judge happens to be Steve Spurrier), spout "this kid is a special player" vagary and act kind of batty. LD at Gunslingers nails this with piercing consistency. The only thing that separates those talking heads from anyone with Internet access is the ability to converse in a reasonably professional manner on television, and that talent is almost certainly either overrated in its conventional sense or fairly easily acquired.

Any fan can point at Reggie Bush, for example, and whoop about him getting OMG JACKED UP!!!! in the Saint playoff game against Philadelphia, a clip SMQ saw for the 20,000th time last week amidst a pointless countdown segment in the usual succession of quick-cut replays [Disclosure: Much as he'd argue it has nothing to do with the larger point here, SMQ is well into his second decade as a partisan for the Saints]. What SMQ has never seen is anyone point out the strategic result of that hit, which came on a play the Saints ran regularly, usually with success (Bush's long touchdown against Dallas, for example, if anyone ever saw any more of it than hundreds of highlights of his end zone flip at the end), throughout the season. On the second play of the game against the Eagles, Sheldon Brown sent a pretty resounding message that Philly would not be fooled by this, and a key element of New Orleans' offense was taken away from the outset. So the Saints adjust: if the Eagles are keying on the quick screen to Bush, take Bush out of the equation. New Orleans ran the exact same play to Deuce McAllister in the third quarter for a go-ahead touchdown, no doubt facilitated in large part by the fact McAllister hadn't slipped out on that little route all season; it was ostensibly Reggie Bush's play. The early hit had a clear, critical effect on strategy and playcalling later in the game and, eventually, in the game's outcome. But more importantly, aw shit, Reggie Bush got JACKED UP!!!!

This attitude is the default for every sport. Fact or Fiction: College Football Live will trot out the toothless opinion, self-serving apologia, humorless conjecture, shallow lists and pat personal sap that has defined ESPN's studio production for a decade. SMQ's going to have to go with fact on this one, unfortunately, and also with a more interesting way to while away an idle weekday afternoon until Mark May uses his experience as an all-American offensive lineman to, for example, demonstrate the cause and effect of line splits in the pass-oriented attack setting records at Texas Tech and the run-oriented spread opening mile-wide holes at West Virginia.

It doesn't have to be that way. It would be easy to dismiss the ability of television to produce a nuanced product that did justice to diehard interest if it wasn't for the network's one genuinely hopeful studio model, NFL Matchup, which regularly shames the rest of the Leader's analysis into obsolescence. Merrill Hodge is expendable, but Ron Jaworski's position is probably the most essential of ESPN's coverage of any sport. SMQ's soon-to-be-constructed personal television Hall of Fame will have a Jaws wing based on his breakdown of the Patriots' Asante Samuel and the "togg" route alone after New England's playoff win over the Jets in January. Here was an analyst using experience and insight far beyond anything possessed by the typical viewer to make long-term connections and show that plays like Samuel's clinching interception return in that game don't happen in a vacuum: Jaworski showed Samuel jumping on the same route for picks on three prior occasions over the past two or three seasons, disguising his intentions in exactly the same way each time, baiting the quarterback before breaking easily in front his throw, and capped the clip by dropping in on a teammate gloating with Samuel on the sideline after his latest return, "They ran the togg on you? On you? Don't they watch film?" Anywhere else, the same guy is saying "We gotta make plays" or some other generic nothing. It was the perfect segment in every way, and a typical example of the exceptional, educational X-O work Jaworski turns in on a consistent basis. But only once or twice a week, and only during the season, and only in the most obscure possible time slots. Stu Scott, in the meantime, would like to rhetorically query colleagues about which institution Ray Lewis attended in college. And then again, and again, and again, all morning. Boo-ya!

Photoshop Merrill Hodge’s face for the ref’s, and this is still pretty much how Jaworski spends his Sundays. Whatever the dispute here, he is definitely right, for the record.
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Two possible excuses for eschewing strong analysis in favor of cheap sentiment and speculation:
It's too much work. His own often sketchy work ethic prevents SMQ from passing this sort of judgment on pundits who are often working two or three jobs of various levels of stress, and who have other consistent demands on their time. But analysts don't go to work in Bristol and study the teams they're covering in-depth. They have a meeting or two, learn the names and basic stats they need to learn, and go on camera armed with a teleprompter, their broad knowledge and their personality. Delivering insight beyond what your average blogger is able to look up himself in a few seconds would require a full-time staff devoted to more labor-intensive, yeoman work.

It might drive away the casual fan. Ah, the rub. Again, the obsessed are already watching because we are giddy lab rat puppets where anything related to college football on television is concerned, and if they aren't, there are presumably more people interested in something like "ESPN Mobile" or the stupefying, self-parodying orgy of "ESPN: The Weekend," anyway. We may be in a burgeoning golden age of television because of increasingly intricate storylines, but the basic rules still mandate not going over viewers' heads, nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence, etc. Yammering on about passing news flotsam and a half dozen ordained contenders for an irrelevant individual award is the cost-efficient model, and much as Jaworski is appreciated, it will still likely take a niche cable channel along the lines of NFL Network to give the professional-quality breakdown a little bit of its on-air due.

Speaking of parody, ESPN's non-game coverage frankly begs for it pretty much across the board, and sometimes even takes up the task itself in more intentional ways. This was achieved most effectively on occasion by the Sklar Brothers on the usually decent but not exactly lamented Cheap Seats, and so maybe it's a telling sign of the media times that they're back on the weekend SportsCenter now, doing a very, very bloggy  mock tournament of snark called "The Bracket." SMQ doesn't know what the audience is for completely arbitrary comparisons of Shaq's role in Kazaam and Dennis Rodman circa 1996 as Jean Claude Van Damme's sidekick in Double Team, but it's apparently at least as sizable as the one for a comparative breakdown of respective coverage schemes by Texas, Michigan and Florida against Ohio State last season. Contemplating ways to freshen up its programming, what are the odds the latter was even considered, market-researched to the appropriate demographics? LD has always been right when he warns how thoroughly ESPN sets the tone for perception and coverage of every sport, and it's clearer all the time the network prefers that tone to be very "human," driven by personality at the expense of maximum understanding of what's actually going during games. So College Football Live, right, whatever.