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ESPN Is Now On the Clock

If you ever need proof that television is a powerful medium, forget about breaking coverage of a major news happening, a program with the ability to both educate and inspire, or even a landmark televised event that draws a massive audience from across racial, gender and socio-economic demographics. No: You want incontrovertible evidence of television's ability to captivate, to enthrall, to turn its audience slack-jawed with dumb wonderment, then look no further than ESPN's coverage of the NFL draft.

In theory, the NFL draft should be eye-glazing, well-nigh unwatchable television -- hour after hour of slightly overweight middle-managers and pencil-pushers barking orders into helmet-shaped phones while a parade of increasingly obscure college seniors is trotted up to the podium and handed a baseball cap decorated with the logo of their new employer. Occasionally, we're treated to an interview with the head coach, who heaps general platitudes upon the young man who he's just going to wind up cutting after the first week of training camp in August. But mostly, the NFL draft is a mind-numbing string of especially meaningless statistics -- 40-yard-dash times mixed with endless reports on intangibles and high ceilings and other draftnik jargon. It's five minutes worth of action crammed into 17 hours of coverage spread out across two days. Counter-program the draft against the sight of paint drying, and you'd be hard pressed to say which event would make for more compelling television.

I know all this about the NFL draft -- the monotony, the tedium, the unending and ultimately fruitless discussions about the merits of selecting a punter from Georgia Tech over a interior lineman from Texas A&M -- and yet I cannot turn away. Every now and again on Saturday, I flicked on the TV, flipped over to ESPN just to see if I could get a score or something, and noticed the draft coverage. I'd sit down just to watch a few minutes, and the next thing I knew, a baker's dozen of picks would fly by, Chris Mortensen and Mel Kiper would be arguing about the wisdom of the Patriots drafting another cornerback, and I'd hear myself saying things like, "What about his 40-yard-dash time? Dear God, how are we supposed to process this information without his 40-yard dash time?"

And then I would feel shame. And then I would keep watching.

Maybe it's the tickers. ESPN festooned the screen with crawling news tickers dispensing draft-related information the way CNBC tells you that Cisco dropped three points. A rolling ticker at the very bottom of the screen recaps who's been picked lately. A ticker on top of that tells you what team is picking now and how much time it has left to make its selection. And then, a third ticker scrolls vertically down the left of side of the screen -- Can tickers scroll vertically? Doesn't this defy the laws of physics? -- showing team-by-team picks and dispensing draft factoids. This is the third year the Cleveland Browns have selected a running back on the draft's opening day. The Oakland Raiders received their next pick as compensation from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Hey, buddy... want to know some 40-yard-dash times?

Maybe it's the sheer volume of the coverage. In addition to the eight dozen anchors, reporters, talking heads and hangers-on live at draft central in New York, ESPN had a studio's worth of analysts jibber-jabbering from Bristol, Connecticut, another pair of commentators blathering on from outside of Washington and still more weighing in with their very deep thoughts from an ESPN Zone restaurant somewhere. Times Square? Anaheim? Roanoke? The Quad Cities area? I'm not sure -- none of ESPN's tickers would say. And, just to ensure that this draft received more comprehensive coverage than most presidential elections, the ESPN crew interviewed assorted head coaches and general managers using video phones -- jumpy, wavering images that made it look like San Diego Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer and Houston Texans exec Charlie Casserly were conducting their draft day operations while embedded with the 101st Airborne outside of Mosul.

Maybe it's NFL draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. and his alarming ability to speak definitively about hundreds of college football players who are probably unknown, even to the universities who enrolled them. And if you're not wowed by Kiper's savant-like gift for instantaneously distinguishing between Dejuan Groce (cornerback out of Nebraska, good on bump-and-run coverage) and Jordan Gross (Utah offensive tackle, versatile blocker), then consider the man's hair. Look at his hair! The sheen! The luster! The immaculately manicured widow's peak! To stare directly at it is to know, just for a second, what sets apart a first-round draft pick from a mid-third rounder.

Yes, the NFL draft is television at its absolute finest -- an orgy of overkill, trivia and white noise, and, really, aren't those the things that make for memorably surreal viewing experiences? And yet, in the same way that art aficionados mull if Da Vinci truly achieved perfection with the Mona Lisa, that students of music contemplate the impact of changing one note in Mahler's ninth, the way film critics debate whether Welles spends too much of "Citizen Kane" focusing on the sled and not enough time showing off some skin, I wonder if it's possible for ESPN to improve its draft coverage any -- to take this masterpiece and make it better.

After giving the matter considerable thought -- and drinking a considerable amount -- I am willing to go out on a limb and say that the answer is yes. Yes, it is.

Take the clock, for example. Each team gets 15 minutes to make a selection; when the time expires, the next team in line gets to pick whether the first team is ready or not. This year, there was a considerable foofaraw in the first round when the Minnesota Vikings -- apparently still trying to come grips with their four Super Bowl losses in the 1970s -- allowed their 15 minutes to elapse without ever drafting anyone. That prompted a mad scramble, as each of the teams drafting behind Minnesota dashed up to the podium to announce their draft pick, lest the logy Vikings awake from their slumber and draft a player somebody else wanted. When all was said and done, two teams managed to make their selections before the Vikings pulled the trigger. All 36 ESPN announcers on the scene seemed quite excited by this dramatic turn of events.

Which got me thinking, why not extend the clock to other aspects of the draft? In addition to giving teams 15 minutes to select a player, why not give them 15 minutes to sign him, too? Audiences would thrill to the breakneck speed of negotiations, the rushed decisions and the bitter recriminations afterwards. Lives and careers hang in the balance, with everything wrapped up in a quarter-of-an-hour. It'd be just like those old shopping-spree game shows Lifetime used to air. Only without those discomforting commercials for hygiene products.

The NFL also drops the ball by breaking up its draft into two days. Instead, the league should switch to a continuous format, and ESPN should adopt round-the-clock coverage, and forbid its anchors from leaving the set for food and bathroom breaks. If you think the NFL draft is compelling now, imagine the fun of turning on the set at 4 a.m. Sunday when Chris Berman and Chris Mortensen are barely able to remember their own names, let alone whether the Packers just drafted a kid out of Duke or Duquesne. And if Mel Kiper Jr.'s total recall of the quirks and idiosyncracies of every college-football-playing college senior in the country is impressive now, imagine how astounding it will be when he's delusional from lack of sleep and nutrition. As an added bonus, ESPN could even allow viewers to submit fake names in a sort-of "Stump Mel" segment, just to see if the NFL draft guru can be tricked into spouting off made-up biographies of non-existent players. Anyone who successfully stumps Mel gets an ESPN prize package. A t-shirt, maybe, or a chance to bid on the Anaheim Angels.

And if it does nothing else, there's one change ESPN should make in time for next year's draft: take the green room where all the top draft picks wait to see which team picks them and place it 40 yards away from the podium where they're handed those logo-bearing ballcaps. I'm as curious as anyone to see how accurate those 40-yard dash times really are.


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