Saturday, August 17, 2013

Finally, Fox TV Follows Fox (Me)

It's on!

Fox Sports 1 kicked off over the weekend. Nine years after I pushed for it in my very first effort for TheColumnists.com.

OK, so it's a decade late. But who's counting? Now flabby ESPN has competition. Another network is going round the clock with sports. And you better believe Fox will live up to our name. Just look at Fox News. It's No. 1 on the cable front. I'll bet Fox 1 carries that number right past the Mother Ship, as its old mate Dan Patrick calls it.

Here's what I predicted in January 2004:

If Fox television were related to me, I’d offer brotherly advice: Give ESPN a fight.

Right now, Fox’s sports channels look like twerps against ESPN’s muscle.

It’s an embarrassing mismatch. In the blue corner: Fox Sports Net’s lightweight graphics, jingles and broadcasters. In the red corner: ESPN’s slick logos, tunes and talent.

The Fox picture looks even weaker when its Fox Sports Net2 takes on ESPN2 and ESPN Classic.

It’s a rout. Fox hardly puts up its dukes against ESPN’s barrage.

I’m speaking for America’s fans when I say: Enough. It’s time to rumble.

ESPN is simply too big for its britches. It needs a good, clean clocking to give sports TV a healthier look so we fans can twist the Fox News creed into good use: You Report, We Decide.

We have no decision these days. It’s all ESPN all the time: covering baseball, football, basketball, hockey, tennis, golf, soccer, boxing, bowling, cheerleading, darts, pool, poker. It could squeeze in bridge if it weren’t for motocross.

When it catches its breath, the network features historical athletes and games. And to make sure you know ESPN is everywhere, Chris Berman surfaces at every event from the Super Bowl to the Stanley Cup Finals to golf’s U.S. Open to the World Series.

We watch it all because ESPN does it better than anyone. It obviously spends a mint to make every presentation look and sound professional, Berman’s hideous comb-over notwithstanding.

Take a typical morning in the college football season. ESPN broadcasts Northwestern-Purdue, and ESPN2 has Utah-Air Force. Both football games look and sound like major events.

The options? Fox Sports Net has women’s college volleyball, Fox Sports Net2 some puff piece on Pac-10 women’s basketball. Both have the feel of a high school class project. It’s as if Fox threw in the towel: We can’t do it like ESPN, so let’s not even try.

Enough. Buck up, Fox. Get in shape and give ESPN the battle we fans want.

We want good old American competition, which always makes for better men and products.

McDonald’s has Burger King. Nike has Reebok.

Derek Jeter has Nomar Garciaparra. Donovan McNabb has Rush Limbaugh.

They’re all better because of the heat.

Without a race to be best, you get stagnation. Which is why you stand in line forever at the post office.

If Microsoft really had another firm breathing down on it, you’d see computers turn on as quickly as TVs. If Shaq had to face serious centers every game, he’d get in shape and whip the Lakers toward 70 wins.

It took Fox’s leap into the NFL in 1994 to spark changes in TV coverage. The network’s fresh thinking produced the constant score block in the corner of your screen. Later, TV came up with running scores from around the league and the yellow first-down line.

Remember the old days when you’d ask the guy watching the game what the score was? Without competition, CBS would still be keeping the score to itself until it went to a break.

ESPN looks like it’s doing everything new and improved. But without a lean and mean network across the street, ESPN can only get fat and happy — and easily dismiss changes that would help fans.

ESPN once faced a contender. CNN’s “Sports Tonight” had top talent in Fred Hickman, Nick Charles, Vince Cellini and Jim Huber and gave fans a fun alternative to ESPN’s “SportsCenter” in the ’80s and ’90s. But no longer.

A Fox jab at ESPN would jar the Disney baby into smarter decisions, such as get out of the pompous drama (“Playmakers”) business and replace college football color man Mike Gottfried with a live body.

Fox can do it. Its main network proves it can stand up to anyone in sports. Fox’s NFL pregame show is No. 1 because James Brown’s team is sharp and funny, Jillian Barberie gorgeous and the whole package electric. Fox’s World Series coverage clicked because of edgy graphics, fine camera work and the Joe Buck-Tim McCarver combo. Buck is the brightest announcer this side of Bob Costas. McCarver says something you never thought of every inning.

So what must Fox do to compete with ESPN every day?

Brother, do these and you’re off the ropes:

. Rename the sports channel Fox Too. The current loser, Fox Sports Net, is too cumbersome. What is that Net? Probably Network, but it could be a tennis Net for all we know. Fox Too is short and fun. So the franchise would involve Fox, Fox News Channel and Fox Too.

. Shift Fox News boss Roger Ailes to sports. He’s the George Steinbrenner of TV. A tough winner. Ailes made Fox News Channel exciting to watch. That’s why it miraculously decked CNN. Now have Ailes pull a Roone Arledge, who three decades ago masterminded ABC’s “Monday Night Football” and then turned ABC News into a heavyweight. If Ailes worked in the sports corner, Fox Too would come out swinging.

. Hire Suzy Kolber back from ESPN. And make her the face of Fox Too. She’s the quickest and most screen-friendly broadcaster at ESPN, yet way underused since they hired her away from Fox. That’s what happens when you have a monopoly. Steal her, jack up salaries, and the talent will flow Fox’s way.

. Fix the sets. Not to mention the aforementioned logos, graphics and music. Fox Sports Net’s “National Sports Report” died because it lacked in all those categories. Its follow-up shows look and sound just as sophomoric. This is an area Ailes would fix faster than a Roy Jones uppercut.

Get off the canvas, Fox. Honest TV sports competition — not to mention our name — depends on it.


OK, so Fox Sports 1 hasn't corralled Kolber. Yet. It does feature Erin Andrews, the knockout of Pac Man proportions. The photo above clinches it.

Uh, we can live with that.

Good for you, Fox.


Bucky Fox is an author and editor in Southern California.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Infatuated With TV's 'Loving Leah'

The old Catskills comedian Milt Kamen had a routine about Western movies. He loved them. You could kick back, relax. The good guy was killing the bad guy. End of story. 

In particular, Kamen applauded "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral": "I saw it before, but that's why I went. Because a lot of times I want to know what's coming. I don't want any strain, nothin'. I just want to sit, you know. Because the world is changing all around us, and at least that stays steady." 

Exactly my sentiments with Hallmark Channel. Its movies are as predictable as a first-date rejection. And I devour them.


No torture. No treachery. No complications. Just a kiss at the end with understood married bliss forever.


You can take the terror of "A Clockwork Orange" and repugnance of "Pulp Fiction."


Give me "The Magic of Ordinary Days" and "Loving Leah."


Both are Hallmark landmarks living off the channel's formula: Man and woman hook up, don't realize how great they have it, then wake up in time for happily ever after. 


Hey, I'm 58.  I don't need a heart attack. 


So I watch these two favorites ad infinitum.


I'm so into "The Magic of Ordinary Days," I get a kick out of the little country tune when Keri Russell's Livy character drives off with her antique find.


I'm so hooked on "Loving Leah," I can't get enough of the kitchen kissing, the hottest scene of all time. 


And here I am laughing at my sister Pam for once watching "Leave It to Beaver" reruns on a loop. And my wife, Maria, for focusing on The Filipino Channel. At least they catch variety. I'm on a broken record. And reveling in it. 


Hallmark's "The Magic of Ordinary Days" is tops enough — yet just below the book.  The show made me check out Ann Creel's novel, and it's a doozy. It packs American, Colorado, European and WWII history alongside real people issues and the forced-marriage-yields-to-ardor theme into a wonderfully written book. The metaphors alone are worth turning the page. Seriously, Kreel's work left me with one adjective: jealous. You can only look up at her talent. 


Then there's "Loving Leah."


If I watch it anymore, it'll pass "Dr. No" on my DVR replay run. To say I'm addicted makes a mockery of monthly pancakes. I watch "Loving Leah" once a week. And can't recall what life was like before the flick filled our living room flat screen in late June.


It's so bad, I'm consumed by Jeff Beal's music setting up scenes. His effort landed an Emmy for a reason. The melodies capture each moment — the memorial, the comedy, the sorrow, the romance — with perfect pitch. I'm not sure whether he used a clarinet to transition to the Jewish burial near the opening, and I asked him about that on Facebook, but the tone is spot on. 


That alone reflects my obsession with "Loving Leah." How many nonmusical comedies leave their melodic impression on you? None. With me, I'm into the "Lawrence of Arabia" score, but figured that was it. Until now.  


"Loving Leah" came out years before I became aware of it. Its first TV showing was in January 2009. Where have I been? Watching the Lakers, Jets, Mets, Mizzou, Bond. Really just got fixated on Hallmark this year. Comes with age. 


Besides Beal's music, what's the hook of "Loving Leah"?


The cast. Lauren Ambrose (the "Six Feet Under" redhead) should've landed an Emmy for her kissing approaches alone. If chicks did that all the time, dudes would never get out the door. Ambrose's facial expressions also spark, but what really flashes is her overall look. Her Leah starts as a dowdy widow and ends as a pillar of sophisticated beauty. Adam Kaufman, as her beau Jake, comes through with funny faces and lines. Also on target are Susie Essman (the Larry David screamer) as Leah's Jewish-to-the-hilt mama, Mercedes Ruehl as Jake's joyous mom, Natasha Lyonne as Leah's cool sister and Ricki Lake as the equally guy-named Rabbi Gerry. 


The religion. When "Loving Leah" isn't maneuvering through its title, it's spotlighting Jewish life. My dad was a Jew, but he knew more about Army helmets than yarmulkes. We kids grew up Protestant under our mom's tutelage. Now I'm back in the Catholic fold that Mom's way-back-when Italian relatives no doubt practiced. Part of me wonders what it would've been like to take the Jewish path of my cousins Rusty, Ronnie, Stephie and Ira. 


"Loving Leah," thanks to P'nenah Goldstein's brilliant script, spells out the Jewish culture that so many of us don't know. She has Leah and her sister uttering vayzmeer, Yiddish for oh, brother. The playwright also shares the observant and shrugging Jewish sides, with Leah and Jake landing in the middle. When Goldstein is done, she's left a gold stone of a treasure. 


I could go on a few more paragraphs. I know this flick by heart. But you don't want the plot ruined. The only thing left to add is a note to Goldstein and the penetrating producer Michael Besman: Please make a sequel. And call it "Lasting Leah."



Bucky Fox is an author and editor in Southern California.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Pete Rose Still Swings


Pete Rose hits.


Thirty-five years after he gave Joe DiMaggio's streak a serious run, the Hit King contends 56 is reachable.

Twenty-seven years after he smacked his last hit — the record 4,256th — Rose adds up his production against the greatest pitchers.

Thirty-seven years after sparking Cincinnati to its dynastic sweep of the Yankees, Charlie Hustle calls those Reds tops in entertainment.

Pete is plugged in, period. He might be 72. He might be three decades removed from capturing three world titles, three batting crowns, 17 All-Star honors, a National League MVP trophy and a World Series MVP award. But he's still the Hit King.

He still has it. It's something that draws fans to Mandalay Bay's sports memorabilia shop in Las Vegas. Two of those Pete partisans are Tommy Tutt and I — a couple of bald buddies having a ball recently with their idol.

Here's how deeply Rose affected my teen years. As he closed in on 1,500 hits in 1970, I kept a daily total on acetate on my bedroom wall. Talk about obsessed.

Seven years later, as the Reds reigned as world champs, Rose spent generous minutes talking to a cub reporter  — me   in their clubhouse at Houston's Astrodome. I was spellbound. 


Now here we were, Tutt and Fox, pitching questions to the Hit King:

The streak. Since your 44 straight in 1978, no one has come as close to DiMaggio's 56. Kostya Kennedy devoted a book to it — "56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports." Is it truly the record no one will break?

Rose: "It's not untouchable. Here are two records that no one will break: Cy Young's 511 wins and Johnny Vander Meer's two straight no-hitters. I mean, you'd have to throw three straight to break that. Forget it.

"But 56 straight? You'd need a little bit of luck for two months, but it could be done. Guys like Ichiro (Suzuki of the Yankees) and (the Angels' Mike) Trout could do it. Then there's (Detroit's Miguel) Cabrera, who had the Triple Crown last year. You saying he can't do that? I had seven streaks of 20 or more, so I know."

Hits: Who were the toughest pitchers to figure out?

Rose: "The greatest pitcher I ever faced was Sandy Koufax. A guy recently texted me my stats against the top pitchers. I had 64 hits against Phil Niekro. Those were my most against one guy. I hit .308 against Bob Gibson. Here are my other stats: 60 for 177 against Don Sutton, 42 for 142 against Tom Seaver, 42 for 138 against Gaylord Perry, 42 for 123 against Juan Marichal, 17 for 32 against Warren Spahn."


The Big Red Machine: Owning the coolest nickname of any monster team since Murderers' Row, the Reds of Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez reamed rivals in the mid-1970s. How do you rank them among all-time teams?

Rose: "I don't want to rank us. But we were definitely the most entertaining team in history. Just take this point: We were the only team with a white Hall of Famer in Bench, a black Hall of Famer in Morgan, a Latino Hall of Famer in Perez and a Hall of Fame manager in Sparky Anderson.

"Sparky was the best, and I played for 12 managers. Sparky was the best, but I was the smartest because I played for myself."


That was during Rose's 1984-86 run as player-manager with the Reds. He lasted four more years as their skipper before Major League Baseball bounced him for gambling.

That betting side sure doesn't bother Tommy and me, especially on this day living it up in Vegas.

We simply see Rose as a Hall of Famer, exactly what Kennedy calls him in "56."


Bucky Fox is an author and editor in Southern California.