Chris Berman has lost his fastball.
Once the ace of the ESPN announcing crew, Berman—who has been with ESPN since the network first went on the air in 1979—has become the TV equivalent of a junk-ball pitcher, throwing the same stuff at audiences for years in hopes that something still works.
The problem with junk-ball pitchers, in the context of increasingly savvy TV audiences at least, is that nothing gets by us anymore. You can't just fool the audience into thinking he still has the spark when his talent is fading. The competition evolves and gets better, which is part of the reason why Berman has become so polarizing for viewers of ESPN's programming.
Do a simple Twitter search for "Chris Berman" during any live event he works to get a sense of how social media feels about him. It has become a dangerous place, not just for Berman (who certainly isn't reading the public's comments) but also ESPN executives (who have to read everything we say about everyone they employ).
John Wildhack, Executive Vice President of Production at ESPN, was kind enough to answer some pointed questions about Berman's role at the Worldwide Leader in Sports, specifically regarding the snowballing level of disenchantment from viewers.
We have people on our air that may be polarizing for different reasons and that doesn't mean they aren't successful or popular. Some of our commentators are polarizing because of their viewpoint on a specific sports discussion. Some may be polarizing because of their strong opinions. Some may be polarizing because they went to a school or played (or coached) for a team that is polarizing.
Chris has been in this business for more than three decades. We recognize that his work will never be praised universally.
It seems that at times, criticizing Chris has become a pastime for some, as opposed to presenting an actual review of the work he does. What's important is he works hard, he’s prepared, he's extremely passionate about it and he is a huge sports fan which allows him to connect with the sports fans we serve.
There are people who still love Chris Berman. For those at ESPN, there aren't many, if any, who will say a bad word about him. Everything coming from inside the walls of Bristol's campus speaks to how nice a man he is, how genuinely likable he is off the air and how much he cares about doing good work.
But with Berman, it's not about how passionate he is, but that he genuinely thinks he can still get a strikeout with the same schlock pitches he has been throwing for 25 years. The audience is left staring at a man—and a self-made media institution—who is either unable or unwilling to change.
The comments are especially unkind when Berman branches out beyond his traditional perch as the anchor for NFL Countdown. Last weekend, during the first two rounds of the 2012 U.S. Open, the Twitterati seemingly had enough.
Is there a chance that Berman can be kept in NFL-only situations? Perhaps ESPN would entertain moving him into a role like Bob Costas has at the U.S. Open, conducting interviews and being the TV presence who reminds fans of how big an event we are watching, while not stepping over the more traditional golf commentators.
"Obviously his primary role is NFL coverage where he is one of, if not the best, in history in the studio chair," said Wildhack. "His work on Countdown and hosting NFL highlights, specifically with Tom Jackson, is the foundation of what he does and a great showcase of his tremendous skill.
Currently, the event portion of Chris’ schedule is less than his NFL studio role. With that said, the U.S. Open Golf assignment is something he's been doing for a long time. He is an avid golf fan, knows the sport and players extremely well and the USGA supports his involvement every year.
This is an "agree to disagree" situation for many viewers. Calling a golfer Jason "Bad To The" Bohn is just terrible announcing. Maybe the nicknames and references to old songs still works in the safe haven of his NFL studio show, but it just doesn't play to a sophisticated golf audience, especially not when juxtaposed with the reverential treatment the U.S. Open was given by the likes of Mike Tirico and Scott Van Pelt.
The response from Wildhack to comparisons between Berman and other ESPN commentators was understandably neutral.
We have hundreds of commentators across our entities. It's safe to say we have people with all styles. It's a mix and again, there is not one of them who is a hit with every single sports fan. Diversity makes us better for fans and for our business.
Again, it's not that Berman doesn't want to be the best at his job. Clearly, he still has the fire to stay at the top of the ESPN food chain. He simply doesn't see the criticism.
To paraphrase an ESPN insider, Berman is so painfully unaware of the public's perception of him that he's even unaware at how unaware he's become. And nobody at ESPN seems willing to tell him about it.
None of this is to suggest Berman—or his signature bombastic style—is not without millions of fans. His popularity has never been in question. What is in question, and should be of concern to the powers that be at ESPN, is where the balance lies between the positive and negative feedback.
"Given that our company mission is to serve sports fans anywhere in every way, ESPN is extremely aggressive about research," Wildhack explained. "We have different areas of the company, including a fan research group, that track what fans want and like. Any feedback we get in a public way -- either through traditional media, social media or otherwise -- is generally a theme we've heard directly through our own research. We find some form of mixed feedback from different fans on virtually everything we do and everyone who works here.
In terms of Chris Berman, to many of our fans, he is an institution and a fixture on NFL Sundays. As a result, he has some of the highest awareness and affinity scores that we measure.
The fact is, Berman isn't going anywhere. Not only did he re-up for a multi-year deal with ESPN in 2010, but the non-NFL events like the U.S. Open and Home Run Derby are written into his contract. Even if ESPN wanted to remove Berman from these events, they technically can't.
Keep in mind this kind of deal is not exclusive to Berman. Most contracts—certainly most for high-profile TV personalities—include specific details like what events will be covered each year. As an ESPN spokesman explained, "That's pretty standard. That's how you figure out how much to pay someone."
Therein lies the problem with Berman. He has been such a key member of ESPN's talent base for so long that he is completely overpaid for what he can offer the company now. Berman is the former ace who is still compensated like one, only to become a liability on the ESPN mound.
There are, after all, other options for a lot of what Berman brings to ESPN. NFL Countdown is an ESPN institution, but it's not the only pre-game show. The NFL Network continues to grow its audience every season. Even CBS and Fox are able to siphon off viewers from ESPN during the final hour before games begin.
Perhaps executives are concerned about losing the fans who are loyal to Boomer—or even more nervous about losing fans because they choose a bad replacement, much like the situation the Today Show is in with Ann Curry right now. That said, ESPN is in no way close to being passed in the ratings like Today has been passed by Good Morning America this year.
As good as the ratings have been for the NFL Network's draft coverage, those numbers are the equivalent of a flea on back of the giant barking dog that is ESPN.
Still, the concern must be growing inside ESPN as fans are becoming less and less tolerant of the old ways of sports media. We get our next chance to criticize Berman's robust style in a few weeks at the Home Run Derby. Yes, he will be calling the event this year, leading his detractors "back, back, back" to social media to voice their displeasure. (Sorry, I had to.)
Is there ever a chance Berman might read some of the comments and tone it down a little, so as not to overshadow every event he covers?
"It’s a delicate balance for sure," Wildhack admitted. "Our goal as a content team is to provide an entertaining presentation with authority and personality.
Obviously, the balance may change by event. The Home Run Derby is a fun, exciting program that gets huge viewership. With that said, its popularity and significance is not essentially based on who wins or loses like events such as the BCS Championship or NBA Finals. Our production approach – including where our cameras/microphones can go and how our commentators approach the telecast – reflects that.
To some, Berman is the loud, booming gift that keeps on giving. To others, he has become a reason to find sports content elsewhere. To ESPN, he is and always will be a founding father. Without Chris Berman's signature style of broadcasting, there would be no SportsCenter commercials or anchor catchphrases we have grown to love, and hate—but mostly love.
Without Berman, half the athletes in the NFL wouldn't have nicknames and a generation of sports fans would have totally forgotten about Glenn Frey and the Eagles. The "Frozen Tundra" may have just been a line NFL Films legend John Facenda never actually said, instead of a line we all think he did. Without Berman, the Bay of Pigs invasion may be nothing more than botched invasion of Cuba in the early 1960s, not a way to describe the Packers playing the Buccaneers.
Without Berman, who would circle the wagons?
Sports fans really do owe a lot to Berman, and while it's really easy for the next generation to ignore what he has given to sports television over the last 30-plus years, morphing him into more of a punch line than his well-respected contemporaries at the network (Bob Ley, I look in your uncompromisingly-professional direction), it cannot be easy for ESPN to give up on Berman at our say-so.
ESPN is paying Berman to be their ace, so they will keep putting him out there until they realize that he's not. To quote a popular Bermanism, "tiiick tick tick tick tick."
Truth be told, when Berman's time at ESPN will end is really anyone's guess. Maybe the Swami knows.