Sports anchors fight fatigue

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Posted by on August 09, 2008 at 12:29:46:

Behind the Mike: Fighting Favre fatigue
Even for local sports anchors, saga has dragged on 4-ever

In retrospect, the Brett Favre soap opera -- As the Favre Turns -- was a blessing and a curse for Madison's television sports anchors. Despite ESPN's overwhelming presence and impact on such a fluid story, WMTV's Robb Vogel, WISC's George Johnson and WKOW's Jake Zimmermann tried to follow every plot twist while keeping the Favre content fresh for their viewers.

The blessing?

"Usually, this is a relatively quiet time in sports," said Johnson, the Ch. 3 sports director for three years. "So I'm happy as a sportscaster because Favre has given me some product to give to my audience."

The curse?

"I'll run into people at the mall or in a store, and they'll give me an earful on how they're sick and tired of hearing about Favre," said Zimmermann, the Ch. 27 sports director for a little over a year. "At the same time, you have to report it."

The challenge?

"Trying to find some different angles," suggested Vogel, the Ch. 15 sports director for just over four years. "For so much of the Favre story, we haven't had anybody talking on camera. So we've tried to use sound from past press conferences that might have given some insight."

Since July was a ratings month, it was not difficult convincing a news director that Favre deserved some billing in the first segment of the news block. And the story was often teased accordingly, with the requisite "person-on-the street" interviews to enhance the local coverage.

"The biggest hurdle was trying to decipher what was fact and what was not," Zimmermann said of the speculation surrounding Favre and his next move. "I will tell people, 'Here's what we're hearing, and here's where we're getting it from,' whether it was ESPN, Fox or the NFL Network."

ESPN is obviously a mega-giant in the cable industry, with its resources, manpower, exposure and credibility. It can cast an awfully long shadow on local sportscasts. Johnson, though, is unwilling to assume that everyone in his viewing audience is a sports fanatic or an ESPN junkie.

"I know that there are a lot of people who watch me who aren't big sports fans," Johnson said. "They don't watch sports all day long, because they've been doing other things with their lives. So this is going to be the first time they're going to hear the things that I'm giving them."

Each of the sports anchors conceded ESPN was "Must See TV" from their own viewpoint as far as keeping abreast of the Favre developments. "We were constantly looking at the breaking news ticker on the bottom of the screen because the story was changing so much," Zimmermann said.

There was another ESPN influence that was more subtle. "From a production standpoint, we were watching and trying to learn things," Vogel said. "While we're not directly competing with ESPN, our viewers expect that kind of production value and that kind of quality to be put into your work, even on a local level."

To what extent did Vogel, Zimmermann or Johnson feel like they could pass along their own editorial comments on Favre or the Packers? "In some respects, I wish we were able to do a little bit more," said Zimmermann, echoing the others' sentiments. "But we were more into presenting the facts and what was being reported."

The fact is, none of them have much air time to devote exclusively to any one subject, including Favre. In the 6 p.m. newscast, Zimmermann and Vogel each get 3 minutes for sports. Johnson gets about 3 minutes, 30 seconds. That's pretty standard.

Given such a small window, how do they budget and balance their shows? The Packers and the Badgers are generally in a league of their own, though the preps command a lot of attention on Friday nights during the football season. But what about the resurgent Milwaukee Brewers?

"You can argue the Bucks are more of a Milwaukee team," Zimmermann said. "But the Brewers are a statewide team, and if they're in the playoffs, we'll be there."

Up until recently, Vogel had another forum for features and opinion: Wisconsin Sports Sunday, a 30-minute show that followed the 10 p.m. news block. But it was discontinued in June after a four-year run. Finances and a reduction in staff size factored into the decision.

"It became a difficult proposition on a week-to-week basis to deliver the content that we wanted," said Vogel. "So we're still trying to do some of the segments that we created within the show at 6 and 10."

WMTV (NBC) and WISC (CBS) each have three people on their sports staffs. WKOW (ABC) has five full-timers but shares its workforce with WMSN/Ch. 47, the Fox affiliate in Madison. The sports directors offer their own diversity in the market by virtue of their backgrounds.

Vogel is from Minneapolis, Minn., and St. Cloud State; Johnson is from Pittsburgh, Pa., and Howard University; Zimmermann is from Poynette and the University of Wisconsin. But they all agree on one thing.

"There will be one big collective sigh of relief," Vogel predicted, "when all of this (As the Favre Turns) is finally over."

(Cap Times)

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