A continuation of today’s media column, the Q-and-A with Ed Goren, the recently retired vice chairman of the Fox Sports Media Group:
Q: Let’s talk about NFL pregame shows – the ones you started at CBS in the 1970s with Brent Musburger have come a long way, and are under the microscope lately with how they report news, especially with players involved in murder-suicides and others involved in DUI deaths. Each network seems to have a different way of reporting these things. How do you the purpose of an NFL pregame show, rather than just as an added a platform for advertisers and a place to raise the testosterone level for viewers leading into a game?
A: I think there are some separate issues there. First, I’m proud of the way (NFL on Fox pregame producer) Billy Richards handled those delicate stories over the last couple of weeks. I think it was a textbook example of how to show respect, understand we play a game but life gets in the way, and put on your journalistic hat.
As far as shows themselves, one of the most difficult things for a TV sports executive is the talent selection. There’s been a lot of misses through the years. CBS was in to it for a couple of years with “The NFL Today” before Musburger came, then Phyllis George and Irv Cross, then Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder. (Producer) Mike Pearl really created three-and-a-half national personalities – Irv was the half, because he was the only semblance of sanity on the set. When we started the NFL at Fox, that was going to be our signature show. What was Fox back then? Just Homer Simpson. But Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long and Jimmy Johnson became the faces of Fox Sports, along with Pat Summerall and John Madden. And that startup group 19 years later is one of the true success stories in the business.
Q: But has the philosophy of what constitutes an NFL pregame show changed over the years?
A: I don’t think so. We started by putting new elements in like a football field for demonstration purposes, having more audio effects, hot music and animation. Comedians. But the most important thing – make it entertaining. We’re in the entertainment business.
Q: But when a news event comes, isn’t it harder to change gears the farther you are committed to an entertainment format?
A: One of the things that has changed this business – not in the two situations mentioned earlier – is the Internet reporting more news. I will always say that I’d rather be second and right than first and wrong with a news report, but in today’s world, it gets more difficult to chase all the time. Do you report this NFL item that was on someone’s blog? You try to get a second source, but now someone will claim to break a story that was yours two hours ago because they have something.
Q: The problem recently with Bob Costas had going on the NBC pregame show and trying to do a commentary about gun control or drinking and driving, was that the right forum for it?
A: I’ve seen him interviewed since then, and I know when you’re squeezed for time, you don’t necessarily get to explain yourself as well as you’d like with your own point of view. I think that with a panel discussion, you always get more, whatever the issue.
Q: Fox has been known for taking risks, and neither you nor Fox president David Hill seemed to have any fear of failure. For all the successes you had, what do you think were the ones that didn’t stick for whatever reason?
A: When it was just the two of us, we often went with our gut, with no research department. So whether the Fox Box made sense, or enhancing audio or graphics or the 1st-and-Ten line, for the most part, we were successful when there was a valid editorial reason for this gadget or another. And if there wasn’t, then it was just another gadget. There was one point where ESPN was trying to show bat speed to viewers. It wasn’t that Joe Morgan couldn’t explain it, that’s just something that couldn’t be put into the right perspective. One of the real dumb things we came up with — it was after another long night of writing on cocktail napkins with wine stains — was to put a sky box into our NFL studio. The thought was to recreate the front row of celebrities like at a Lakers game. It didn’t wake long to realize that we could build that sky box, but to get an A- or B- or even C-list celebrity to get in there by 8 a.m. on a Sunday just to get their make up on — what was I thinking? We couldn’t get anybody.
Q: How did you not get some residual fee for the “Fox Box” after the way it has been incorporated into today’s sports landscape?
A: Hill once pointed out that if we had a quarter of a cent for every Fox Box used on our own network, we’d have been able to buy an island in the Pacific. That all goes back to how David was such a leader in our grouop. He allowed arguments and debates, and we fed off each other and kept pushing the envelope. We knew we’d get criticized for that Fox Box in week one. We got viewer mail — that’s how they did it back then. Some wise guy from the Bay Area left me a phone message one time and said we had ruined his experience of watching a game and if we didn’t get rid of it, he’d come to L.A. and find me. This was back when we had our offices on Sunset Blvd., near the 101 Freeway. A few days later, I came to the office and some windows had been shot out. We called the police and I said, ‘I’m not saying these things are related but I had this weird call …” The officer said that in that neighborhood, it wasn’t all that unusual for that to happen.
Q: With all the advancements in sports TV, do you care so much about how games are trying to introduce more things like Twitter and Facebook and fantasy football information? Does that take away or add value to the broadcasts?
A: It’s just what have to deal with these days. Certainly it plays to a younger demo and I don’t think it necessarly gets in the way. It can, but we’re not at that point. I don’t feel I’m at a point where I’m a viewer being hammered with it.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice for those who still want to get into the business today? Do you focus on the basics like English and reporting skills and people skills, or do you have to know more technology and master the mechanics of the business?
A: The people skills go back to what my father once told me: Be a storyteller, write with a sense of humor. I’ve known many talented producers who had zero people skills who didn’t long. The technology is always going to evolve, but it’s not the content. You may have the greatest piece of equipment, but it could just be that — equipment. I’ve been around so many talented people when we’d come up with something and we may have thought it could work this way, but they take it to a whole other level. A camera we used recently in the World Series, a super slo-mo, was something we had on golf telecasts to show swing analysis. So why not try it in baseball in a different way? We had an unbelievable shot in San Francisco of a bat breaking and the ball hitting the bat twice. I didn’t even know that was possible. So it’s all about how you use it.