I'm struggling to write a coherent review of how Versus is handling this year's Tour de France. Maybe its because of all those chic women shaking their booties for Bacardi or wondering who really is the biggest bad ass on Tapout (TIME!) or seeing that guy in that pig mask over and over again... I got the lead:
If you are watching Versus for your TdF coverage and you don't have a DVR so you can skip through the commercials you are truly insane. There's no getting around it. My advise to you is to get heavily sedated. Now. Don't read the rest of this review as your friends and family are in danger of what will happen when you finally explode. Or get yourself a DVR today.
There. That's by far the most important thing to say. Discussing the actual between-the-commercials interludes of actual racing is almost trivial in comparison- though now that I've done my public duty I will get serious and discuss those interludes. The great thing about Versus is that at least they let the TdF dominate their daily schedule with two different but similar productions, both of which are repeated during the day. Let's start with the live am broadcast with Phil and Paul before moving on to the Craig and Bob show. Be prepared for some surprising words from me below the fold.
Mornings with Phil and Paul
I suspect most of us watch this show. There are several ways to approach this show so I'll discuss them point by point:
- Production. By midway through stage three I think I started thinking about how much better Phil and Paul were here on the TdF then during their "Cyclism Sundays" shows of the past spring. I won't go as far as R Mc did in early May but I do agree that the Sunday shows were awful to watch, especially if one also has a Cycling.TV subscription and are watching Anthony and Brian covering the same race. I particularly noticed the discrepancy during the Giro when Versus had the exclusive broadcast of the Sunday stages: Phil and Paul were just not up to the levels of Anthony and Brian. So when the Tour rolled around I was worried that I was in for a long slog with only the PC crowd (that's you there) to help me through.
I have to say though that I am pleasantly surprised. Phil and Paul have upped their game, maybe not up to Anthony and Brian standards but close. Why? I attribute this to the fact that they are following the Tour as opposed to just dropping in on the various races weekly and that they get to do day after day of coverage. Who wouldn't want to be in their position moving from stage to stage and drinking in the atmosphere of the Tour as it unfolds? So why are they so good by my reckoning?
They are Comfortable. I see sports announcers as falling into one of two categories: they are either analysts, or they are parental figures. Phil and Paul are parental and IMO they are as good at doing parental as anyone else in any sport. What do I mean by parental? The biggest parental-type announcer in America today is John Madden, the US football guy and if you know how he announces you know what I mean. A parental announcer often is an older guy (not always) who's been around the sport for years but doesn't necessarily follow all the ins and outs of the current situation. ThAt their best they look for the Big Picture. What they do for their audience is to make them comfortable, relaxed. You get to trust these guys. There's not too much info for the audience to absorb (and they often get details like riders' names wrong) but they have a way of conveying the essence of the game/race that goes beyond analysis and that's what I mean by Big Picture. The Tour is much more than just a bunch of bike riders jockeying for position; its a metaphor for French culture, and more than that its a metaphor for life and how to live it. As such it makes sense that things like doping happens more around the Tour than the rest of the year because cheating and lying are as much a part of the human condition as winning and suffering. In fact you can't have one without the other.
Parental announcers do their best when they convince their audience that they understand all of this; that they understand the Big Picture and can/will make sure that the viewers will not miss that Big Picture of what its like to be in the race or to follow the race. When a stage hots up Phil's voice rises and Paul gets more urgent just like the peloton does. And that's the thing: in the Tour, those two become integral to the race since in actuality the announcers are for us viewers gatekeepers. Over these first two weeks Phil and Paul are giving us the Tour through their sense of morality and that's where they shine as I can't think of two gentlemen who are more civilized as these two are. They are like two wise uncles that for most of your life you thought of as kinda weird but as you yourself age learn to appreciate their wisdom. I can practically taste their dinners and I find myself thinking of the various wines of the different parts of France as they slowly move counterclockwise through the country. Strictly speaking we aren't watching the Tour directly, we are watching it through Phil's and Paul's eyes and mainly hearts and that is a good thing for all involved. I am very happy and I can imagine a tear in my eye as they sign-off in Paris for the last time: its happened before with me. Its like finishing a great novel. Isn't that the essence of the Tour?
To be fair, Anthony and Brian, while being of the school of analysts, can get into that mode too. I think a Grand Tour draws it out of anyone who follows along day after day. They did it in the Giro, and were fairly emotional on their last stage they broadcasted knowing that they had just shared a journey with us that was more than a bike race. I think it surprised them a bit too. But that's the strength of Phil and Paul: they've been around long enough that the roughness of life has smoothed their edges in the broadcasting booth and they understand beginning and ending so well. They are at their best during Cycling's biggest event and IMO we are lucky to have them.
Craig and Bob.
At the start of the Tour I was thinking of basically skipping the evening show and I did miss the first couple of stages. I still miss parts of this show but I find myself slowly being drawn in as its becoming fascinating on a different level than Phil and Paul and it all starts with Craig Hummer as I like him.
First impression of Craig: He's not Al! Whoo-hoo! Yeah his voice jolts my ears since its loud but I need to say it again: He's. Not. Al. Trautwig. There is a god.
But now that I've listed to Craig for several days now I'm finding that I like him more and more. Why? He asks good questions that demand more than simple answers- and that gets me to Bobke, Frankie, and Robbie because a decent pbp guy needs to have a decent color guy/analyst next to him. And that leads us first to Bobke.
Bob Roll. Pairing with Craig is making him work in a way he never does with Al and its both a good and bad thing. The good thing is that Bobke does know from Cycling and he can analyze a race. The bad thing is that most of the time he doesn't rise to the occasion. Not only that but he's lost much of his zaniness that he's noted for. I don't know if he misses Al or if he just doesn't have good chemistry with Craig (I suspect the later) but he keeps answering Craig's questions and observations with a rote four-line sound bite that's supposed to show his smarts but instead makes him look superficial. Sometimes he gets below the banal but if the night show were just Craig and Bobke I wouldn't watch. But I keep watching because Frankie and Robbie save the show.
Whoa there. I'm as surprised as you are to write that last sentence but there it is: there is surprisingly good chemistry between Craig and Robbie and particularly Frankie that is just missing with Bobke. At first I thought that it was because Bobke is older but he's only six years older than Andreu. Then I realized that Craig and Robbie and Frankie act younger because the three of them are just into analyzing the stages, predicting who will break, who will counter, looking at all the tactics and they are just better than Bobke at that. They are geeking out. Bobke, meanwhile is a parental type of announcer- but nowhere near as good at that as Phil and Paul. There have been numerous times when Frankie is on when Frankie just outclasses Bobke in his analysis and I think Bob knows it as he gets quieter and quieter and lets Frankie predict in detail the outcome- which he can do close to what Brian can do on CTV.
I find myself hoping that the network honchos see this and change the evening show to Craig and Frankie with Robbie and leave Bobke out all together as it would provide a great contrast to the Phil and Paul show but I'm thinking that would be too good to be true and probably Al will be back from this year's Olympics gymnastics stint to give us more inane pbp with Bobke. sigh.
There you go. Versus has blessed us with two different types of shows at this year's TdF. Cool and probably unintentional. Thus ends my surprisingly upbeat review the Versus TdF coverage. You, dear reader- well I can't believe you took the time to read all of this, but if you did then chapeau! and no doubt you have your own impressions which you can state below.