By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
8:30 PM EDT, May 18, 2013
Whether it's a Sunday night football game or the third Saturday in May at Pimlico, when NBC Sports floods the zone with members of its A-Team, the telecast is almost always a winner.
That was again the case for the 138th Preakness Stakes -- thanks to airtight production, sure-handed direction and enough talent to cover three or four races.
Sure, the NBC analysts were wrong in picking Kentucky Derby victor Orb (or, in the case of Michelle Beadle, Mylute) to win the Preakness. But did anyone on the planet have Oxbow? The incorrect prediction didn't spoil my enjoyment of the coverage. And since this is part of the Triple Crown, after all, I expected an overload of coverage and predictions favoring the Kentucky Derby winner.
And yes, this was not the best I've ever seen Bob Costas. He stumbled over a word or two in the opening and he congratulated two jockeys at the end of a pre-race interview when he actually meant to thank them. (In both cases, he corrected his mistake immediately.)
But Costas on his B-game is still better than just about any other sportscaster on his or her A-game. Overall, Costas gave NBC's pre-race show coverage a sense of authority, grace and intelligence.
The opening block of coverage was textbook in how a major sports event should be presented.
NBC's cameras panned down from an overhead shot of the grandstand and the track to zero in on Costas, who would set the stage.
"And hello from just outside the cupola here at Pimlico," Costas said, laying out the 20-degree change in temperature from Friday to today and the damp, gray weather now in place.
And then, producer Rob Hyland and director Drew Esocoff (of "Sunday Night Football") took viewers on a whiparound of NBC analysts and reporters: Bob Neumeier, Mike Battaglia, Donna Brothers, Kenny Rice and Michelle Beadle.
The pacing was superb. And outside of Beadle, who seemed to think she had to tell us something about herself every time she opened her mouth, viewers were given one solid piece of information and analysis after another about the race.
And then, back to Costas, to offer the perfect synthesis on what we just saw.
"So, that's the deal," he said. "All the atmospherics, arithmetic and analysis leading up to the Preakness."
And then, to the first commercial.
The camera work and Esocoff's direction of it was on the money as the horses were led to the gate, during the race itself and through Brothers' on-track interview with winning jockey Gary Stevens. I love her post-race interviews on horseback. And, by the way, the jockey she was interviewing is a former NBC Sports racing analyst who went back on the track at age 50 after being part of the network's outstanding team.
I'll tell you what I didn't love Saturday: the tone of WBAL's coverage starting at 1 p.m. prior to NBC taking control.
I applaud WBAL for all the resources the station puts into its coverage: from the helicopter overhead giving us a sense of the size and scope of the infield crowd, to all the reporters and photographers on the ground and the skilled presentation of their work. Technically, WBAL's production of such big events is absolutely big-league.
But the dippy, chirpy, twerpy, silly banter among the hosts and reporters is bush-league all the way.
Gerry Sandusky and Donna Hamilton sitting in chairs, acting as phony as a couple from a 1950s family sitcom, is almost too much to bear.
In making his prediction for the race, Sandusky told viewers, "I'd say it's Goldencents, but when was the last time I made much sense?"
"That's true," Hamilton said laughingly.
But Deborah Weiner, who I have often praised for her reporting, was even worse.
She was almost giddy, saying, "I've decided I have three goals for today. My first is to prepare a Black Eyed Susan for someone. My second is to meet George Clooney or at least spot him -- as a celebrity. And my third is we have to get into the Under Armour tent this year -- I'm not giving up."
Meanwhile, Jennifer Franciotti is standing alongside Weiner acting like her colleague is saying some of the most fascinating and exciting stuff she's ever heard.
I get that they're not covering a triple murder, and it's OK to have a little fun. But there is a way to cover an upbeat civic event without being rinky-dink.
I might blame their goofiness on the hats Hamilton, Weiner and Franciotti were wearing. But then, how do explain the bareheaded Sandusky being just as small-market silly?
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