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Sunday, August 18, 2013

LET THE COMPETITION BEGIN

It has been a momentous few weeks in the media business.

You've seen the headlines: The Graham family, sainted patrons of investigative journalism and Social Washington, agreed to sell the Washington Post to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos for $250 million. The D.C. insiders wailed about the "end of an era." The New York Times Co. dumped-off the Boston Globe to John Henry, Red Sox' and Roush Fenway Racing partner, for a mere $70 mil, a tiny fraction of what it paid for the paper. Big Mouth/Bigger Ego Should-Have-Been-Farmed-Out-to-Pasture-Long-Ago Globe columnist Bob Ryan called it "scary." I would suggest Ryan deal with it or quit.

Given the troubled state of the newspaper and print businesses, I bet those who get to keep their jobs thanks to Henry will have a vastly different opinion.

We'll see what much-needed new ideas Bezos and Henry will bring to these iconic enterprises. And how the actual journalism is impacted. It's difficult to imagine how the Globe could increase its reporting on the Sox. But will criticism be tolerated by ownership? I got an E-mail asking if I thought NASCAR would now get more coverage in the Globe. I said: No.

Not to worry. NASCAR recently completed its long-term TV deals with more races (eventually, including part of the Nationwide series schedule) on the various Fox networks and a move off ABC/ESPN to NBC/NBCSN. At a reported total of more than $8 billion, this again proves the MONEY in U.S. motorsports is in NASCAR. The chatroomers can criticize all they want, but that is the true bottom line.

But the REAL action began Saturday with the launch of Fox Sports 1, which replaced fade-to-black Speed Channel. Combine FS1 with NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus, becoming just NBCSN) and CBS Sports cable channel, and suddenly, ESPN has REAL competition for the first time. EVER. This reminds me of when CNN had the cable news space all to itself and basically dictated terms of what was -- and wasn't -- "news." And how that "news" was covered. Then, along came MSNBC, and -- far more importantly and successfully -- Fox News Channel.

That's the way it's been for decades with ESPN. It could arrogantly do as it pleased and decided what "news" was "worthwhile" for SportsCenter. I'm hoping competition will make that a thing of the past. I remember when I worked at the Philadelphia Daily News and we, for a time, had four competing daily newspapers. It made us better.

Besides various NASCAR programming and, starting next year, the United SportsCar Series, FS1 has loaded-up on popular sports, including baseball. Last week, Fox grabbed the rights to USGA golf from NBC -- golf being a new venture for the network. I'm hoping the additional resources and higher emphasis from management will lead to better auto racing production. (Are Phil Parsons and Hermie Sadler the best it can do in the Truck series? Really?) It's a new era and, in part, that should mean the end of the weak pit-road microphone-holders who make speeches instead of asking crisp, meaningful, to-the-point Chris Economaki-esque questions. THAT'S what viewers APPRECIATE. THAT'S what viewers WANT.

More than anything, I'm hoping for some good, honest news reporting from FS1. That will largely come from its late-night version of SportsCenter. Will sports whose rights aren't owned by Fox get the bottom-feeder treatment we've come to expect from ESPN over the years? That would be a mistake, for a lot of reasons. CREDIBILITY needs to be established at FS1 and I'm hoping all involved know that and will act accordingly.

Yes, I know, there will be gimmicks and nonsense. But, please, FS1, not to the degree now found on SportsCenter. NFL guy Sal Paolantonio is actually a very good reporter, but he's recently taken a big back, back, back step with his Chris (Buffoon) Berman style. Why the NFL and Pro Football Hall of Fame permits an MC with an ego that overshadows the HoF honorees is beyond me.

Finally, sadly, is the impending Howard Beale ESPN2 show. A few days ago I saw an interview with ESPN President John Skipper in which he said the hiring of Beale is in keeping with the net's tradition of "smart." I guess Rutledge Wood was otherwise occupied.

Here's an easy prediction: Skipper, in the end, won't look too smart in giving Beale yet another chance.

Oh, how standards have fallen. Please, may true competition raise the bar.

[ more next Monday . . . ]