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Friday media column: ABC's unique NBA approach; Barkley off selection show



One NBA rights-holder offers up a studio analyst who displays no regard for political correctness and cracks, “You can’t fine someone for being a nitwit.” (You’re absolutely right about that, Charles Barkley.)

Another rights-holder gives us a lead analyst who ventures off on odd, amusing tangents and even criticizes the commissioner. (Yes, there’s nobody quite like Jeff Van Gundy calling games.)

There’s something different and fresh and unique and envelope-pushing about elements of national-network NBA coverage that you simply don’t see on several other sports.

And ABC this season has crafted another one: the first host-less studio show, a program with four “analysts” but not a single person trained at being an anchor – the one who smoothly navigates in and out of breaks, narrates highlights and elicits insight from the analysts.

The ESPN executives who run ABC’s sports division hoped that ditching the host (Stuart Scott or, less often, Hannah Storm) and instead using a fourth analyst (Chris Broussard) would produce more lively, free-flowing dialogue among the talking heads: Broussard, Magic Johnson, Jon Barry and Michael Wilbon. Magic agreed to increase his workload – something ESPN sought before telling Scott he was no longer needed on ABC.

Give ESPN/ABC credit here: The blueprint has worked. No, none of the four generate chuckles like Barkley does on TNT. But there are more meaty, thought-provoking debates, more spirited exchanges, and as an offshoot, more of an incentive now to tune in, even though some South Florida fans disdain Barry for perceived anti-Heat bias.

At least give Barry credit for being self-deprecating: “I was an average to below average player depending on what family member we ask,” he said.

The dialogue was especially lively last Sunday when the four men debated LeBron James’ late-game tendencies and whether the Lakers should send a message to the Heat by committing a hard foul. All advocated a hard foul except Broussard, who reasonably said, “Hard fouls get you suspended. You can’t risk a suspension.” Wilbon said of Wade’s All-Star Game foul on Kobe Bryant – breaking his nose – “If the Lakers take that, they’ll stand for anything!”

None of the four analysts have embarrassed themselves voicing over highlights, and Barry and Wilbon have capably weaved in and out of commercials.

Is this the wave of the future, the preferred new format for studio shows? Generally, no. Imagine how lost Barkley, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal would be without Ernie Johnson. And TV sports’ other premier hosts – Bob Costas, James Brown, Chris Fowler, to name a few – add elements that would be sorely missed without them.

But in this forum, ABC not only hasn’t lost anything by dropping a trained anchor, it actually has made its product more watchable.

### WPLG-10’s 13.9 rating for Heat-Lakers last Sunday was its second-highest ever for an ABC regular-season Heat game. For perspective, Dolphins games averaged a 17.7 local rating last season.


### Good news judgment by NFL Network to cancel taped programming Tuesday night and go with wall-to-wall Peyton Manning coverage. Yes, all the speculation gets repetitive, but the idea is to keep refreshing the story for viewers who are just tuning in. Meanwhile, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen continues to distinguish himself on the story, getting it right and often getting it first.

### ESPN will reinstate anchor Max Bretos in the next two weeks, after completing a month-long suspension for using the idiom ‘chink in the armor’ when discussing Knicks guard Jeremy Lin. Anthony Federico, an ESPN on-line producer, was fired for the same offense.

The view here is that neither punishment should have been as severe, because both employees made a convincing case that they were merely using a common cliché without considering the racial overtones. Even Jason Fry, who reviewed the incident on ESPN’s web site as part of the Poynter Institute review project, said Bretos’ punishment was excessive because his comment was merely a slip of the tongue and “there was no sign he was trying to be snarky or clever.”

But Fry raised a valid point, largely overlooked, for why some punishment was justified: In the week before both Bretos and Federico uttered the phrase, ESPN twice warned employees to be racially sensitive in discussing Linn. ESPN issued a memo to all content groups “urging staffers to be cognizant of how Lin was discussed.”

Why the difference in punishment for the two ESPN employees? Federico had the time to go back and change the headline. Bretos, on live television, obviously could not get a do-over.

### Only five or six of the Marlins’ 162 games will not be televised. One of the five is the second regular-season game ever at Marlins Park: April 13 vs. Houston. The others: Rockies on May 23, at Arizona on Aug. 20, at Washington on Sept. 8 and Reds on Sept. 14. The one game in question is July 1 against Philadelphia, which might be an ESPN Sunday night game.. Fox Sports Florida will carry four spring training games, including 1 p.m. Saturday against St. Louis. ESPN has Monday afternoon’s Marlins-Red Sox game.

### A few changes to NCAA Tournament coverage: Barkley and Kenny Smith have been removed from CBS’ selection show on Sunday but will remain studio analysts on Tournament games. Also, Kevin Harlan replaces Fox’s Gus Johnson as one of the play-by-play men working the regional semifinals and finals (Jim Nantz, Marv Albert and Verne Lundquist are the others). Like last year, CBS, TNT, TBS or TruTV will carry every game nationally.

### Classy move by UM, with an assist from Drew Rosenhaus, for allowing Southern Connecticut University tight end Nick Mandich – youngest son of the late Dolphins player/announcer Jim Mandich – to participate in UM’s Pro Day on Thursday. Mandich has spoken to Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland and hopes to latch on with an NFL team after the draft.