Controversial QBs Send Stations Scrambling

Reporters learn what NFL defenders have long known—Michael Vick is hard to catch
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The NFL season may not start for another few weeks, but newsrooms in Philadelphia and the Twin Cities are already in mid-season form. The re-emergence of Michael Vick and Brett Favre generated monster headlines, offering a level of news value that transcends sports.

“We have some of the most incredibly passionate football fans in the country, and there's also a huge contingent of viewers who are very concerned about pets,” says KYW Philadelphia VP/News Director Susan Schiller. “So you know you're going to get a lot of reaction.”

Stations are going full-speed to sniff out the scoops. Vick's arrival in Philadelphia has been an intriguing test case for the Local News Service (LNS) arrangement between Fox O&O WTXF and NBC O&O WCAU, as that alliance kicked off the nationwide stations-sharing trend early in 2009. Both stations have LNS departments in their buildings and work with them to cover static events, such as press conferences, to free up resources for other stories.

The Philly collective has been busy chasing the new Eagles quarterback the past few weeks. “It's worked exactly the way it's supposed to work,” says WCAU VP of News Chris Blackman. “LNS covers the things that need coverage, such as practice and press conferences, which allows us to have reporters do other stories related to Vick.”

Blackman mentions man-on-the-street interviews and stories on Vick jerseys selling at area shops as sidebars to complement LNS footage. WTXF VP/News Director Kingsley Smith says the setup enabled a reporter to get an interview with Pennsylvania SPCA board member Jennifer Utley—wife of Chase Utley, the All-Star second baseman for Major League Baseball's Phillies. “LNS has expanded our coverage and given us a lot more opportunity and flexibility,” he says.

(For her part, Schiller says KYW is hardly lacking without a content partner. “We've been on top of the story every step of the way,” she says. )

Stations in the No. 4 DMA have come up with novel ways of covering Vick, including asking viewers to give their impassioned two cents. NBCPhiladelphia.com offers a Mood meter, which allows users to share their degree of anger/sadness/joy on the topics of the day. Some 59% of respondents were “Furious” about Vick becoming an Eagle—considerably less than were “Furious” about Phillies centerfielder Shane Victorino being doused with a beer by an opposing fan.

WTXF is soliciting viewer comments on its Website, and peppers most on-air Vick reports with e-mailed color. “Just what we need, another murderer in Philly,” wrote one person.

CBS O&O KYW used its corporate connections to get an interview with sports reporter James Brown after he sat with Vick for a 60 Minutes segment that aired Aug. 16. Sports Director Beasley Reece got face time with Tony Dungy, Reece's teammate from their NFL days who is now advising Vick, right after the press conference.

Eagles pre-season games aired on WTXF last week, and will air on ABC O&O WPVI Aug. 27 and Sept. 3; Vick is permitted to play in the latter two. (WPVI did not comment on its Vick coverage, citing the controversial nature of the topic.)

Station managers are curious about what sort of access they'll get to Vick in the coming weeks and months; a call to the Eagles about Vick's media accessibility was not returned. They also want to see how Vick fits into the community, and what sort of efforts he makes to educate people on the evils of animal abuse. “We want to see how he puts his words into action,” Smith says, “what animal groups and community groups he works with.”

Favre's new challenge

Over in Minneapolis, being a serial retirer like Favre is hardly akin to championing dog-fighting. But the former Green Bay Packer's signing has stirred up a range of emotions as well—especially among the sizable Packer base in Minnesota. “He's a divisive character in this community,” says WCCO Minneapolis News Director Scott Libin.

According to Libin, WCCO broke the story on the Web at 9:55 a.m. Aug. 18, a source tipping off longtime sports anchor Mark Rosen (though FoxSports.com had set the stage a day earlier). As numerous national outlets, including ESPN, were citing WCCO as the source, page views on WCCO.com topped 100,000 between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m.—nearly triple the norm.

Like his scrambling Eagle counterpart, gunslinger Favre has the power to stoke passion, controversy—and ratings. “It's just a great story,” Libin says. “It's about much more than football.” —Additional reporting by David Tanklefsky

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