Sports Media

Hitting the ground running

Comcast show is off to strong start

By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / December 11, 2009

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Kevin Miller suspected he might be jinxing himself before the last word left his mouth.

“We really haven’t had any significant problems,’’ said Miller, the news director at Comcast SportsNet New England, while discussing the network’s latest - and most ambitious - programming addition, “SportsNet Central,’’ a live highlights and analysis program that airs at 6 p.m., 10:30 p.m., and 1 a.m. Monday-Saturday and twice on Sundays.

“I’d say we’re at 90 percent of where we want to be, what we’ll be when we’re running on all cylinders,’’ said Miller. “But for the most part, everything has gone very smoothly.’’

Then he laughed. “I really should probably knock on wood or something right now,’’ he said.

A few hours later, Miller no doubt found himself wishing he had taken the proper superstitious precautions as that night’s 6 p.m. telecast found itself facing an immediate glitch.

As co-anchors Mike Giardi and Carolyn Manno began introducing a segment with baseball reporter Sean McAdam checking in live from the baseball winter meetings in Indianapolis, a voice among the dozen or so editors, directors, and other personnel in the control room shouted four dreaded words into Giardi’s earpiece:

“Sean’s not hearing you!’’

As McAdam’s silent visage quickly disappeared from the screen, Giardi seamlessly segued to voicing over a highlight package of the day’s biggest story, a three-way trade that sent Curtis Granderson to the Yankees.

No more than 20 seconds later, another voice rose above the chaos: “Sean’s hearing us.’’

And with nary a pause, Giardi took the cue and turned back to McAdam.

There was no time to exhale. But as Miller paced an aisle, director Lucy St. Pierre found a moment to laud the collective grace under pressure.

“That’s OK, we recovered,’’ she said. “Good recovery.’’

Such are the perils of live television, of course, where every mistake provides an easy snicker for the La-Z-Boy-bound critics. But the peek from behind the curtain also symbolizes Comcast SportsNet’s invigorating but complex challenges of meshing different personalities from different media and different backgrounds in its quest to become a powerhouse in the Boston market.

When Comcast, the nation’s largest cable operator, decided to go for it, not only adding television programming, but also remodeling the newsroom, updating its equipment and studios, and beefing up an online component guided by longtime Providence Journal sports editor Art Martone, it spared no expense, hiring 50 new staffers in editorial and production.

The staff includes seven anchors/reporters, including New England Cable News mainstays Giardi and Chris Collins, who moved over to CSN full time not long after Comcast purchased full ownership of NECN in June. Three of the four beat reporters are familiar to Boston sports fans: McAdam, Tom Curran (Patriots), and Joe Haggerty (Bruins).

Celtics beat writer A. Sherrod Blakely arrived via Detroit, while other newcomers include anchors/reporters include Manno, Kevin Walsh, Jessica Moran, Jackie Pepper, and Kyle Draper.

The accelerated expansion is heady stuff for a network that not so long ago featured a mediocre-to-terrible Celtics team as the lone centerpiece. Comcast purchased Fox Sports New England in 2007 and has gradually added programming, beginning with “Mohegan Sun Sports Tonight.’’

“Look around,’’ says Collins, the longtime weeknight sports anchor at NECN, seated at his desk in CSN’s pristine Burlington newsroom. “It’s a great atmosphere, we’re aiming big, and it’s all about sports. You have to relish this opportunity. What more could you ask for?’’

Back in the control room, Giardi and Manno easily pull off the bantering-anchors routine as the show zips to a close. The early hiccup with McAdam was the only noticeable issue. As the first of the three nightly editions concludes, Miller stops pacing to offer his assessment.

“OK, good show. A bump at the start, but it went well after that.’’

NESN makes waves
Forget Granderson to the Yankees or Marco Scutaro to the Red Sox. The early winner of this hot stove season has been NESN, which improved its roster with two significant transactions, adding Peter Gammons and bidding farewell to Dave Roberts.

Hiring Gammons, whose 21-year run with ESPN ended, appropriately, at the conclusion of baseball’s winter meetings, is a coup of the highest order for NESN.

Gammons, a Groton native who became a sportswriting icon to a generation of baseball fans while at the Globe in the ’70s and ’80s, did not try to mask the sentimental aspect of returning to the city where he made his name, particularly when discussing a fellow NESN employee whom he saw play in high school.

“I saw Jerry Remy play out in Somerset in the summer of 1973,’’ Gammons said. “And I remember walking away and thinking, ‘That little guy is one heck of a ballplayer. He was just terrific.’ ’’

As for Roberts, after one season as an in-studio and color analyst, he departed to join new general manager Jed Hoyer’s staff as a special assistant to baseball operations with his hometown San Diego Padres.

It should not have been difficult to give Roberts the benefit of the doubt during his season with NESN. The camera caught his natural affability, and Remy’s early-season leave of absence while recovering from lung cancer surgery put the novice Roberts in a higher-profile role than he was prepared for.

But it was difficult. Roberts was almost too friendly, to the point where he was either reluctant to or incapable of criticizing players who had recently been his peers. And he maintained many of the same verbal tics at the end that he had at the beginning, such as the habit of saying “right there’’ or “great’’ when analyzing a replay. In the end, he proved how difficult the transition to television really is.

Adding some color
Don Cherry, the former Bruins coach who gained perhaps greater fame as a colorful - both in personality and wardrobe - analyst on “Hockey Night in Canada,’’ will join NESN’s Kathryn Tappen and Mike Milbury as a guest studio analyst Dec. 30, when the Bruins host the Thrashers. Cherry will appear during pregame and intermission coverage. He’ll be the one wearing colors you’ve never seen before . . . Reaction to the news that Fox Sports Radio had hired former ESPN screaming head Stephen A. Smith as its national morning host: It’s such a logical marriage of a subtle-as-a-sledgehammer host and a style-over-substance network that it’s a wonder it didn’t happen sooner.

Chad Finn can be reached at