Discord and Unrest: Current and Former Employees Describe Life at NBC Sports Philly
Both Kevin Kinkead and Kyle Scott worked on this post.
We got a ton of feedback on a story published last week, titled “Some Thoughts on Whatever the Hell NBC Sports Philly is Doing.”
Beyond the reader replies, we were contacted by a number of current and former NBCSP employees, all of whom felt like the station was headed in the wrong direction due to a number of unpopular talent cuts and a wonky revamp of both the television and digital product.
We talked to a half-dozen people – a combination of off- and on-camera folks representing a variety of departments – who were interested in speaking anonymously about the issues. Leadership, money, and a lack of direction were the three topics that came up most frequently in discussion.
Before we get to that, it’s worth considering the important crossroads at which NBC Sports Philly, and all sports networks, regional and national, find themselves at the moment.
Once an indispensable part of sports fandom, cable sports networks have become less relevant in recent years. Gone are the days of fans needing to tune in for highlight shows or roundtable discussions to get brought up to speed on the news and topics of the day. New and social media, along with the continued success of sports talk radio, has rendered almost anything a sports network can show you during traditional news-block hours useless, at worst, or redundant, at best.
For the Philly sports fan, SportsNite with Neil Hartman and Leslie Gudel, or SportsRise with Ron Burke used to be appointment viewing. What’s more, it was novel in the both the breadth and depth of local coverage it provided, beginning in 1997.
The height of the cable news boom, the late 90s were shaped largely by the new and varied niches cable networks could cover, from Music TV to Court TV to sports. Not only did a network like CSN air the games, but they offered nearly around-the-clock coverage of the teams. Until then, local fans were served during off-hours by only the newspaper, sports talk radio, and a few minutes of nightly news broadcasts.
Michael Barkann, Hartman, Gudel, Burke, Dei Lynam and Derrick Gunn became mini rockstars to local sports fans. CSN was essential in a sports-dominated market.
That landscape has completely changed.
The value added by highlight, roundtable, and, to a lesser extent, debate shows is gone. The web fills that vacuum admirably while providing a platform for the average fan to engage and create. You’re now literally part of the sports conversation, whereas before you were only in branding– the voice of the fan. Suddenly, the back-and-forth of static studio shows feels boring and contrived compared to lively Twitter debates, in-depth podcast discussions, and the comment sections of social media posts. We don’t need to hear what Joel Embiid said after the game, because we can watch him celebrate or lament live on Instagram. Highlight shows serve only to reinforce the importance of clips we saw online four hours earlier, or sometimes eight hours earlier. Sites like this one (and many others) provide the continuous updates without readers having to wait for a scheduled broadcast window. Even self-important branding plays, like a “CSN Insider,” which is actually just a beat reporter who, often, is no more inside than 6-8 of their peers, or “Authentic Fan,” feel outdated and disingenous.
So, we’ll argue that NBC Sports Philly, and many other regional sports networks, are right to do away with their stale fare. From a content standpoint, that stuff is no longer interesting. From a financial standpoint, it loses money.
The decisions to do so, including the choice to let go of longtime veteran on-air folks who excel at reading a teleprompter, are not popular, but they are necessary. You can’t teach someone who is used to a camera setup, a script, multiple takes, and a tightly defined framework to just pick up their phone and be creative. [A counter to this would be someone like John Clark, who has excelled on social media and uses his access to inform fans everywhere, and not surprisingly he has been elevated in the NBC Sports-Comcast family of networks.]
More relevant to this piece, though, is what NBC Sports Philly has done in the wake of unpopular decisions and cost-cutting. Some of those decisions can be excused as NBC-led initiatives over which the local shop had little control, while others can be critiqued from a local level. Both deserve attention.
So it’s with that framework and understanding of the business dynamics that we take you inside with current and former NBC Sports Philly staffers as they identify pain points within the once-hallowed halls of the Comcast SportsNet studios.
Early on in reporting this story, it became immediately clear to us that much of the criticism focused on Vice President of Content Michelle Murray, who has been with the network since 2008, and middle management in general. The source of discord is a belief that management “simply does not have any idea what they’re doing,” according to Person 3.
That was echoed by Person 1, who said this:
“She is clueless. She doesn’t know how to manage. She doesn’t listen to experts in their departments. She knows everything. She knows more than everybody. I think the biggest problem is Michelle Murray’s lack of recognition of talent, lack of recognition of where the company is going, and lack of understanding of what the market is.”
Person 1 went on to explain that Murray was previously in charge of the newsroom, but was promoted to her new role last March, one which gives her oversight of all content decisions, according to this person. She was described by one source as being “harder on women than she is on men,” with that same person explaining that they felt like Murray viewed other women as a “threat.” That may or may not have anything to do with the recent exodus of female employees, which includes Molly Sullivan, Jess Camerato, Dei Lynam, Leslie Gudel, Leila Rahimi, Rachel Micali, Jillian Mele, Colleen Wolfe, and Sarah Baicker, among others. One source believed that Murray didn’t view Wolfe as good enough for local TV– Wolfe, however, now has a prominent role at NFL Network. Rahimi is anchoring at NBC Sports Chicago, and Mele landed a huge gig at FOX News.
Another person described interaction with Murray as an “abusive relationship,” highlighted by belittlement and other behavior that was “crazy, controlling, and weird.” There also wasn’t much praise for other managers, who were painted as not having much power or influence working under Murray. One mid-level male manager was characterized as a “toxic pig who is bad at his job.”
“It’s a boy’s club and it pays to know people,” says Person 6. Another source pointed out that the station currently does not have a female producer or director, though Breakfast on Broad was directed by a woman for the entirety of its run.
Also worth noting is that Amy Fadool is prominently featured on the network, and that Murray has a high-ranking management role.
Almost every person we spoke with was very complimentary of Andy Schwartz, the longtime web guy who basically created CSNPhilly.com and oversaw the station’s digital product.
Specifically, Schwartz, who was let go more than six months ago, was said to be one of the more outspoken voices during station meetings, offering ideas on how to improve the product and move things forward. Marshall Harris, who recently left the station when his contract was not renewed, was another person who was portrayed as “vocal” in meetings and “challenged the status quo.” Murray, according to Person 3, was “clinically insecure and threatened by good, smart, productive ideas.”
This results in what sources explain is an atmosphere where nobody is willing to speak up and make suggestions about how to keep the station ahead of the curve. It’s a situation where employees would rather just “shut up and get paid as long as possible” instead of trying to “work together to make things better, but risk getting fired,” as Person 2 told us.
Brian Monihan, the station’s president, has, according to sources, addressed the workforce twice in the past year – once when Breakfast on Broad was cancelled, and again when a round of layoffs took place last November. “BOB” went through a rollercoaster of ups and downs over two years, with three different executive producers working on a show that some say had little support and an unclear directive from above. The program’s cancellation resulted in the eventual reassignment of Barrett Brooks and Rob Ellis, while Baicker and Mele ultimately left the station.
Specific charges against BOB from within center on the notion that there was a half-assed effort to make the show succeed. On one hand, NBC threw it’s heavy promotional might into marketing the show – including during live game broadcasts – but then relegated it to The Comcast Network, now NBC Sports Philly+, giving it little chance of success. It rarely registered in the ratings.
This is an observation that is in line with our beliefs on NBC’s use of specific formats. It seems they occasionally are only willing to go halfway with a modern product. BOB, while it wasn’t perfect and had difficulty attracting guests, was fine for what it was and, we feel, a better option than a SportsRise-like show or format for the reasons already discussed. But it still played second fiddle to the more traditional format and got relegated to the JV network, meaning it didn’t pick up important carry-over viewers from games the previous night.
Similarly, End Game, the more informal post-game show NBC Sports Philly occasionally airs after its regular post-game show, feels like the more suitable and modern version of the format, but the network seems to be hesitant to embrace it as a viable product and thus gives it little chance to succeed.
With regard to Monihan, his name only came up one other time in our discussions, with a former employee describing him as “awesome” and suggesting that he wasn’t part of many of the problems laid out in this piece.
But that same person lamented the lack of cohesiveness under him.
“There’s literally no communication and no direction,” said Person 4. “You can’t fire people and lay off people and punish people because they’re not doing what you want, when you never actually told them what you want.”
Talent and content
Harris and Camerato were mentioned just as frequently as Schwartz in our talks with current and former employees.
The gripe, specifically, was that it seemed like both were doing what management wanted, which was taking on a variety of roles, being active on social media, and showing a flexible and more wide-ranging skill set as the station “streamlined” its product.
“Here was somebody who was trying all of these different platforms,” said Person 1 of Harris. “And whether what he was doing was working or not, it wasn’t always his fault. And that was – literally – the directive is that we are supposed to be one room, one team, try all of these fucking new things.”
We tried our best to reconcile these comments. These are legitimate gripes with recurring themes. On the flip side, there are always going to be people who disagree with specific decisions or the general direction of the station. In some cases, specific examples were provided, so you can be the judge.
Harris did a short-lived web series called The Spot, which apparently ran into union issues. That was said to have been passed off to another department that later suffered a round of layoffs. The 700 Level Show was cancelled, and there was also “an unseen pilot of a Philly sports-based knockoff of SNL Weekend update,” which sounds interesting, if nothing else.
On the web side, a floated policy was to keep articles to 500 words or less. Some say this was enforced early on and has since become a general guideline, while others feel like it never got out of the idea stage. Regardless, you’ll now find that stories rarely eclipse 500-600 words, and the lack of clarity on the issue is notable. But the concept of a 500-word limit seems like a particularly shortsighted effort and a total misread of a market that increasingly values quality and differentiation. A word limit on an article comes with the goal of viral and clickbait content baked in.
Video clips running 90 seconds in length, the types that translate well to social media, also began to be featured prominently, though it’s unclear if that was Murray’s idea or if it came down from Stamford headquarters instead. Travis Hughes, a former SB Nation editor and founder of Broad Street Hockey who joined the station three months ago, is now in charge of digital content.
There was also confusion and bewilderment over the installation of televisions in the newsroom that featured a “grid” of sorts that was supposed to serve as a schedule for digital postings. For instance, maybe a podcast was expected to be published at 10 a.m. specifically, and when that happened an employee was supposed to update the grid to let everyone else know what content had been placed on the web. We were told that employees “just ignored” the grids entirely, leaving a bunch of new televisions sitting around the newsroom, unused.
NBC Sports Philly says they are in the process of a renovation of their newsroom in an effort to modernize the equipment and workspace.
On one hand, there’s something to be said for coordination. On the other, scheduling posts can often work against the spontaneous nature of successful digital media.
All of this seems to stem from the idea that “traditional television people” are being tasked with fixing and evolving the NBCSP product, as Person 1 explains. They described an hour-long staff meeting where management talked about “how to make a viral video,” a pep rally of sorts that concluded with the playing of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” as employees left the room.
“It’s not for a lack of trying, but the approach to incorporating legitimate change has been so ham-fisted,” Person 6 says.
We contacted NBC Sports Philly and offered an on-the-record interview for this story. They respectfully declined but offered up the following statement:
“NBC Sports Regional Networks invests heavily, and the most of any RSN business entity – in all markets, in both infrastructure and personnel. This is part of our strategy to best serve the fans where and how they are consuming content, which is across multiple platforms. We understand there are some former employees whose lives have been negatively impacted, and these types of decisions are always difficult. However, we strongly believe we are in a better position today to serve our fans and grow our business.”
There’s also an element, some say, of trying to mirror ideas and formats being used by ESPN and other national networks.
One example of that is Quick Slants, the nightly Eagles show that features Gunn, Brooks, Dave Zangaro, and others. Instead of putting the talent on a desk in a roundtable fashion, each person actually faces a different camera, giving you an “Around the Horn” vibe when the reality is that they’re actually sitting 20 feet apart in the same studio:
This format was literally parodied by Barstool Sports’ short-lived Spitfire (then Spinzone), which poked fun at the two-camera setup.
There was also some internal grumbling when Reuben Frank was taken off the show, as he was seen as a knowledgeable contributor who fit well with Gunn. But the format feels forced and like a very cheap takeoff of what worked for ESPN 10 years ago.
Other me-too opportunities (the old business definition, not the modern one) have fared better. Most are in agreement that the decision to simulcast Mike Missanelli’s show was a welcome, if overdue, addition to the virtually non-existent daytime lineup. The show has even begun to register in the ratings, something that is very rare for mid-day content on the network. This is at what is presumably a very low cost (though we don’t know the specific business arrangement between NBC Sports and 97.5 The Fanatic).
Many of these changes, particularly personnel decisions, seem to be driven by money.
The explanation from Person 2:
“That money is not flowing in Philly’s direction, nor is it to the other RSNs. The way I understand it is that the various RSNs typically delivered varied returns. Some were much more profitable than others and given more leeway on the monetary side. Philly and Bay Area were probably the most notable in that category. Others performed well enough and others operated at a loss. There are obviously a lot of variables that affect those performances (market size, fan base, team broadcast rights, etc.). However new management and directives came down from Stamford and now all RSNs are kind of being treated as equals, and with a more watchful eye over them. To put it simply, money that may have been there in the past (especially for Philly) is not there anymore.”
“You’re right that these decisions aren’t financially driven. They’re driven by some vague idea of a ‘new direction’ or ‘new vision,’ but it’s a direction and vision that hasn’t been clearly articulated to anybody. The staff literally has no clue what they are supposed to do or how they are supposed to do it or what their bosses want. People are basically getting laid off or not renewed for not carrying out a vision that has never been articulated to them.”
Two different viewpoints explain a similar problem.
The answer may be somewhere in the middle. Live game broadcasts and, to a lesser extent, post-game shows, is where the bread is buttered for regional sports networks. There may be some combination of cost-cutting and homogenization trickling down from NBC Sports proper, while on a local level the network seeks to trim the fat of shows and assets that can no longer support themselves. It’s been apparent that NBC wants to make everything look the same across their regional networks, which has eliminated any of the unique flavor CSN had back in the day, which – by the way – was often the model for the other networks. It’s like they created the format for certain shows, passed it off to their counterparts, and then NBC handed it back to them as a watered down, rubber stamp knockoff of the original version that created the asset in the first place. Like if Tony Luke’s were to start serving the microwave version of its pork sandwiches at its original South Philly location. Philly Sports Talk is a ready-to-eat version of Daily News Live, and it doesn’t taste as good.
Marc Farzetta plays Johnny Carson’s iconic character “Carnac the Magnificent” and Ray Didinger plays his sidekick Ed McMahon as they go through Eagles answers and questions.
One problem specific to money is something that NBCSP has no control over, and that’s the cost of obtaining game footage.
For example, you’d think that “30 for 30” type of content, as Russ and Kyle discussed on the podcast, might be perfect for this market, but despite being the broadcast partner for multiple teams, NBCSP still has to pay money for actual game film. That’s why most of the documentary type shows feature very little footage, because it’s too damn expensive. We saw this in the recent 2008 Phillies documentary, which felt predictably unsubstantial.
One of the biggest issues I (Kevin) had in television was dealing with labor unions.
I started at two TV stations in Georgia, a “right to work” state in the deep south where employees can’t be forced to join a union. This was something I enjoyed because the only things that really mattered were your skill level and work ethic. If you were motivated and did three jobs, you were fine. If you were lazy and did one job, you got shit-canned. Seems very reasonable to me.
When I came home to Philly, CBS 3 was represented by two separate unions, SAG-AFTRA for the producers, writers, anchors, and reporters, and IATSE for the photographers, editors, directors, and technical folks. The issue was that a clash of responsibilities and goals always existed. For example, I wasn’t supposed to shoot or edit video, since that was someone else’s job. But I knew how to shoot and edit video and wanted to do both so that I could provide more value as a jack-of-all-trades type of employee while simultaneously bolstering my resume. That got me more shifts and more money, but was frowned upon by some of the IATSE people, who thought I was a “scab” trying to take their jobs, when I was really just trying to get the goddamn cold open edited before 5:57 p.m. So my experience was that the co-existence of two unions representing one staff with different endgames and values made no sense and was ultimately counterproductive.
It’s somewhat similar at NBCSP, where conflicts can arise because some employees are union members and some aren’t. PAs and broadcast techs, for instance, are IBEW 98 members, but directors, producers, and web people are not. On-air talent also does not have union representation, and most anchors or front of house types are going to have agents involved with their contract negotiations.
Person 5 describes a couple of scenarios where the union setup became an issue:
“In one department, you could do whatever you wanted. There were no restrictions. But, for example, there was a show that wasn’t done in the studio because the studio was (union territory). They wanted this cross-usage of video and stuff, but say one of the digital people created something, they weren’t allowed to use that on television. They would have had to find a workaround to get it on TV. That becomes annoying, because you’re putting restrictions on creative people. And some of the editors they used for TV, who are union-based, some of those people are super creative. But they were put into a box and couldn’t do anything. You’d get these situations, too, where, say television has four shooters, one at Flyers and three at the Eagles, and something happened with the Sixers. You couldn’t just send a digital person over there even if they were able to get the job done. Anything that was shot for television was a union job. That became a struggle.”
These are deep-down issues that largely interest only employees, however it’s indicative of the struggle regional sports networks face.
Gone are the days where only one group of people is capable of shooting or editing usable video. A skilled multimedia journalist can be just as effective with their phone as a professional videographer can be with $8,000 worth of camera equipment. Often, the most interesting video is now shot with a smartphone. While the high-end HD cameras are set up in a press conference, the beat reporter on their iPhone may capture a unique locker room moment or impromptu gaffe that’s worthy of attention. How does a network square this circle? To be clear, when it comes to sports talk radio, we’ve always been big proponents of “that’s their problem to deal with” when legacy issues such as having to fill 24 hours a day are brought up, so this isn’t an excuse for the network. The union issue is not NBC Sports Philly’s fault, but they have to deal with it just the same.
Beyond the labor and financial trickiness, there also seems to be a disconnect along generational lines, with one person describing the station as being “cliquey” as senior staff look to “pat themselves on the back” without listening to some of the younger staffers.
“They’re trying to hit an audience that they have in their newsroom, but they don’t want to listen to them,” is how one source put it.
That’s not to say that everything NBCSP does is misguided.
First and foremost, the live broadcast rights are what’s important. The network a few years ago signed a well-publicized 25-year deal to retain the Phillies, and they have Flyers and Sixers games. So that’s ultimately what will determine success or failure. But as is becoming a theme in this piece, there are, of course, moves that can be debated.
The network took over personnel decisions on Phillies broadcasts and put the likes of Matt Stairs and Jamie Moyer in the booth, both of whom weren’t particularly good on-air. Ben Davis is a palatable choice, while Mike Schmidt is there to do his best Jimmy Duggan, to wave his cap and give the people a thrill. With the Sixers, the so-far unpopular decision to let go of Molly Sullivan appears to have been made by the network.
But the pre- and post-game shows still offer something for the casual and hardcore fan alike. The game broadcasts are ultimately well-produced with professional commentary, even if we can haggle about individual personalities. If that’s the network’s bread and butter, they could do much worse.
Whatever the case, the recurring theme is that the station formerly known as Comcast SportsNet used to be a giant in Philly sports media, with entertaining shows, high-level content, and talent that moved the needle. Every single person we spoke to gave off sincere vibes of disappointment that the place has gone through such a meandering reconstruction.
“When I got hired, it was an honor to work there,” said Person 4. “It used to be a bustling place and now there’s nobody there. It’s a ghost town, and it’s just heartbreaking to me. It’s just sad.”