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Judd Zulgad: Barkley gave ESPN telecast breath of fresh air on Monday night

  • Article by: Judd Zulgad
  • Star Tribune
  • September 21, 2007 - 12:11 AM

The masterminds at ESPN seemed to be sabotaging their own product last season by parading an endless stream of guests into the "Monday Night Football" booth. The criteria for making an appearance seemed to be this: You've been in a movie in the past 10 years? Come on in.

That's not to say all Monday night guest appearances are a bad idea, and it's too bad one guy in particular -- Charles Barkley -- can't become a regular part of the show. Barkley showed up for the third quarter of the Philadelphia-Washington telecast on Monday and the entertainment needle immediately took a sharp turn to the right.

Barkley is a basketball guy. Who cares? This guy being anywhere near a microphone equals good television, and it's too bad ESPN and TNT, which employs Barkley for its NBA coverage, can't work out a deal to get Sir Charles more air time on Monday nights.

What makes Barkley such a breath of fresh air is that he's willing to speak his mind and doesn't care if there is any fallout. If you're offended by Barkley's opinion, that's your problem. He's the perfect addition on Monday nights because his presence makes the game feel more like an event -- something ESPN execs have been attempting recapture from the show's glory years on ABC.

The problem last year was that many guests -- see Slater, Christian -- made the telecast feel like more of a sideshow. This is not to say ESPN has perfected how to handle its guest appearances. Somebody needs to tell the production crew that the majority of the audience wants to watch the game and not the people sitting in the booth.

Once Barkley took a seat alongside Mike Tirico, Tony Kornheiser and Ron Jaworski, it seemed as if focusing on the field became secondary to showing the broadcasters. Barkley being heard and not seen was good enough.

Big Ten blackout

The Big Ten Network's lack of carriage on the three major cable systems in Minnesota could have an impact on Gophers hockey fans. The team's television schedule was released Thursday and, while FSN North will carry 32 regular-season games, five more games will air exclusively on the Big Ten Network.

This includes a Feb. 22 game against Wisconsin at Mariucci Arena. Also included on that list are Nov. 23 at Michigan State; Nov. 24 at Michigan; Jan. 11 against St. Cloud State; and Feb. 8 at Denver. The first two will be carried on a delayed basis.

The Big Ten Network will have a total of 13 men's hockey games.

Elizabeth Conlisk, a spokeswoman for the network, did not seem very hopeful Thursday when asked about possible deals with Comcast, Charter and Mediacom cable systems. "Don't expect an agreement anytime soon with any of them," she said.

FSN, meanwhile, will begin its telecast schedule Oct. 12 when the Gophers play RPI in the Ice Breaker Invitational at Xcel Energy Center. The network also will air the first round of the WCHA playoffs and Final Five.

Fine-tuning

Ted Johnson, the Timberwolves' senior vice president of marketing and communications, said the team is hoping to meet with four or five candidates over the next couple of weeks to fill the team's vacant radio play-by-play position.

• Longtime KFAN program director Doug Westerman, who most recently held the same job at KTLK (100.3 FM), was let go by Clear Channel this week. Westerman also was an executive producer of the Vikings Radio Network; his extensive knowledge of sports radio in this market means he shouldn't be unemployed for long.

• FSN is dropping its "Gophers Weekly" program and replacing it with shows that will focus on Gophers football and men's basketball. "Gophers Football with Tim Brewster" will debut at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday and "Gophers Basketball with Tubby Smith" will begin Nov. 23 ... The network also is adding outdoor programming, with "Kent Hrbek Outdoors" set to air at 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays and "Due North Outdoors" with Bill Sherck and Laura Schara at 9:30 p.m. Thursdays. Hrbek's show will continue to be seen on KARE (Ch. 11) as well.

jzulgad@startribune.com

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