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Top Sports Ratings Moments of 2021

The following list counts down the biggest sports ratings highlights within the past twelve months, based on its impact on the sports television spectrum.

Douglas Pucci

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During the year 2021, sports were approaching some sense of normalcy. Thanks to the available vaccines, fans returned to fill arenas and stadiums, while those at homes or elsewhere were gradually flocking back to their TV sets or mobile viewing devices. But as the calendar transitioned from 2021 to 2022, the pandemic remained a concern, with a continued impact upon the sports world.

The following list counts down the biggest sports ratings highlights within the past twelve months, based on its impact on the sports television spectrum as we all attempt to come out of the pandemic. America’s four major sports are represented, as are the WNBA, MLS, and PGA golf.

10. NHL Sees Immediate Gains Upon Returns to ESPN and ABC

After a 17-year absence, the National Hockey League returned to the cable network where it found its footing in the ’80s and ’90s, ESPN. Bolstered by its frequent mentions in ads and features throughout its studio shows (most notably, “SportsCenter”), the start of the season with marquee team Pittsburgh Penguins at defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning drew just shy of one million viewers. That was enough to have delivered the largest NHL opening night audience on cable on record (since 1993)

This is the first of three sports ratings moments on this list to have taken place at or surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday. ABC’s telecast of New York Rangers vs. Boston Bruins on Nov. 26 averaged 1.23 million viewers (with a peak of 1.57 million), marking the most-watched NHL Black Friday Gams since 2016.

9. Continued Growth for WNBA Finals

When the stars come out to play, fans will follow. This year’s WNBA Finals featured several notable names: Candace Parker, Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner, and Skylar Diggins-Smith. The series’ peak viewership came on Oct. 12 for the Phoenix Mercury’s Game 2 overtime win (their lone Finals victory) over the Chicago Sky. It delivered 763,000 viewers, having aired on ESPN — the most-watched WNBA Finals game on any network, including ABC, in four years. That figure lifted the Finals’ average to 548,000 viewers across its four games which is the championship series’ largest since 2017.

The Finals have steadily increased in consecutive years (2019-21) for the first time since 2004-07.

8. MLS Has a Postseason to Remember

It was, no doubt, assisted by its NFL lead-in, but Major League Soccer gladly accepted the viewer boost on Thanksgiving Day. The playoffs were already in full swing, and one of its important matches featured the Colorado Rapids versus the Portland Timbers. Taking place after NFL Bears-Lions, almost 1.9 million watched MLS action — the largest audience for the league since the 2016 MLS Cup, which aired on Fox and Spanish-language broadcaster UniMas. The mark was MLS’ largest on a single network since 2004.

Adding to its banner postseason, the No. 1 TV market in the nation became home to the MLS Cup champions, NYCFC. An average of 1.1 million had watched NYCFC’s victory over Portland, the most-watched single-network MLS Cup viewership since 2018.

7. NBA Gives Its Playoffs a Jolt with Play-In Action

Emerging from a season following one that was thrown into flux in 2020, the NBA devised a new look to their playoff format. There would still be eight top seeds in each conference to qualify for the postseason, but the determinations of the 7th and 8th seeds changed. In addition, a mini-tournament that also involved the 9th and 10th seeded teams provided a Wild Card-Esque feel that the NFL, MLB, and college basketball already implement.

Of the six available Play-In games, one was the clear must-see matchup: no. 8 seed Golden State Warriors at no. 7 seed Los Angeles Lakers. It was the first meaningful game between longtime rivals LeBron James and Stephen Curry in three years.

James had previously voiced his dissatisfaction with the new playoff setup. The NBA, on the other hand, could not have been more ecstatic by the monster ratings results from Warriors-Lakers. 5.6 million tuned in on May 19, cable’s top viewer mark for an NBA telecast (excluding playoffs and All-Star Games) since Christmas Day 2011.

6. The Manning Brothers Become NFL’s Newest Star Commentators

Since his retirement, TV networks have vied for Peyton Manning — a popular spokesperson for several products and companies throughout his Hall of Fame career — to join their team as a color analyst.

ESPN had especially eyed him for “Monday Night Football.” In 2021, they finally got him… but not in a conventional capacity: Peyton and his younger brother, fellow two-time Super Bowl champion Eli Manning as commentators on an alternate “MNF” broadcast for ESPN2.

The ManningCast caused an immediate stir. Its premiere attracted 800,000 viewers; it more than doubled to 1.9 million viewers by week two.

Their eye-opening nuts-and-bolts football talk, along with being joined by celebrities of all types like Charles Barkley, Phil Mickelson, Condoleeza Rice, and David Letterman, delivered much buzz for the casual sports fan. It even birthed a new player curse — the active football stars who made guest appearances on it wound up on the losing end of their subsequent games.

5. MLB Wild Card Sets New Milestones

At the publication time of this list, baseball owners locked out the players amidst negotiating terms for a new financial agreement. Among the ideas proposed during negotiations was an expansion of the MLB postseason to either a 12-team or 14-team format. That would lead to a larger Wild Card round, akin to the best-of-three first-round playoff structure tested out in the fall of 2020. Precipitating these discussions are the recently-agreed-to extended deals with ESPN, TBS, and Fox — the thought being that more playoff games will result in more revenue. Nonetheless, if 2021 was any indication, the higher-ups might be tempted to leave well enough alone.

The starting games of the postseason outdrawing almost every subsequent Division Series and League Championship Series game is nothing new. But in this past year, both single-game Wild Card eliminations achieved significant milestones. Of course, it helped that all four Wild Card participants were familiar teams with big fan bases.

The New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox on Oct. 5 — another chapter in their storied rivalry — averaged 7.69 million viewers across ESPN and ESPN2. It was the best viewer figure recorded by Nielsen Media Research for an MLB game on ESPN platforms since covering Mark McGwire’s now-controversial 61st home run (tying Roger Maris’ mark of 1961) back on Sep. 7, 1998.

On the following night (Oct. 6), the St. Louis Cardinals at Los Angeles Dodgers, which concluded with a walk-off win for LA, averaged 6.67 million viewers. It was the second most-watched MLB Wild Card game in TBS history; only Cubs-Pirates from 2015 had drawn more.

4. NFL Dominates the Holidays

We’ve already mentioned Thanksgiving for the NHL and MLS on this list. But when you think of the holiday, you think of the NFL and “America’s Team,” the Dallas Cowboys. Add into the mix the Raiders who triumphed over the Cowboys in overtime, and, with nearly 38 million viewers, you’ve got the biggest NFL regular-season telecast since the infamous 1993 Thanksgiving Dolphins-Cowboys matchup (the Leon Lett game).

Thanksgiving was not the only holiday the NFL flexed its ratings muscles. The league was the figurative bull in a china shop on Christmas Day, the perennial bastion for the NBA, with its doubleheader of Browns-Packers and Colts-Cardinals. Almost 29 million across Fox and NFL Network saw Green Bay’s close win over Cleveland from Lambeau Field, achieving the second most-watched multi-platform “Thursday Night Football” game on record (only the 3-network telecast of Patriots-Giants in 2007 when New England accomplished an undefeated regular season drew more).

3. Baseball Became a Field of Dreams Once Again

Kevin Costner was one of the biggest movie stars of the ’80s and ’90s. During the past decade, he’s been the king of the small screen from his Emmy-winning turn in the blockbuster miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys” to starring in TV’s No. 1 scripted series, the cable sudser “Yellowstone.” In August 2021, Costner achieved another massive TV audience courtesy of revisiting his 1989 film classic “Field of Dreams.” MLB and the Fox network turned the magic of Hollywood into reality in the small town of Dyersville, Iowa, for a game between the New York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox.

The backdrop of the cornfields over the outfield wall, the players’ vintage uniforms, and the game concluding with a walk-off home run by the White Sox all combined for a special night to remember. 5.9 million viewers watched the contest, posting the largest amount for an MLB regular-season game on any network since 2005.

2. The Majesty of the Olympics Loses Some of Its TV Luster

The world came together once more in the spirit of competition this past summer in Tokyo, Japan.

The figurative pandemic clouds still hovered over the proceedings, from athletes disqualified by testing positive for the coronavirus to the empty arenas where events like the Opening Ceremony took place. Overall, it was an antiseptic atmosphere that we American sports fans became undesirably accustomed to in the latter half of 2020.

Nonetheless, this was, after all, the Summer Olympics. It has long been a rating juggernaut, and it always outdrew its winter Games.

But those notions got debunked in 2021, having encountered the modern trends of home viewing. We probably should have known an Olympics still labeled as “Tokyo 2020” for marketing purposes was a bad omen for business at the very start.

Relative to what else is airing on TV, the Tokyo Olympics averaging 16 million viewers per night, is a solid achievement. But the Summer Games had never before dipped below 20 million/night, on record. The Sochi Games in Feb. 2018 did 19.8 million, so surely, NBCUniversal would have sold Tokyo as better than that to advertisers. Make-goods to those same advertisers were abounded, as a result.

Just five years earlier from Rio de Janeiro did the Olympics draw 27 million in prime time. The minimal time zone difference was an important aspect to the more robust number — Rio just one hour ahead of Eastern time; Tokyo ahead by 13 hours. But another factor has majorly affected the state of television since 2016. Audiences for linear offerings have massively eroded. Younger generations have sought other entertainment options, especially streaming services. NBC’s Peacock platform was established as a vital centerpiece for its Olympic coverage. Still, the nascent outlet has a long road ahead to be a go-to streaming option like Netflix, Amazon’s Prime Video, Disney+, or even HBO Max.

NBCUniversal may be bracing for another alarming dip for its upcoming Winter Olympics from, of all places, China.

1. Super Bowl Sets Off Domino Effect

The 2020 NFL season was a tumultuous one. The vaccine had yet to be widely available then, and multiple game postponements were a frequent occurrence. However, it all concluded on time, as Super Bowl LV was held on Feb. 7. And as a bonus, it was a battle between newfound superstar Patrick Mahomes and the GOAT himself, Tom Brady, in Brady’s first non-Patriots season of his career. With big names and known teams involved, CBS was bound for phenomenal ratings.

Or so we thought.

The following morning arrived, and no ratings were released. For what is the year’s biggest TV event since the 1970s, it was certainly an oddity that there was no early indication of how the Big Game performed. The longer the absence of such rating news, the presumption that it received not-so-great results had grown. By the morning of Feb. 9, the data was finally published, confirming the previous day’s concerns: the Big Game underwhelmed.

With over 96 million viewers (including almost 6 million on streaming platforms), the Big Game dipped to a 14-year low. It was also the lowest-rated in households since Joe Namath led the Jets to an upset win over the Colts in 1969; and the lowest adults 18-49 delivery since Washington’s win over Buffalo in 1992.

The results set the tone for the TV industry in the weeks and months that followed. NBC — despite its marquee events that were then-upcoming like the Golden Globe Awards, two Olympics, and an NFL season that culminated in their broadcast of the next Super Bowl — joined their public relations brethren of ABC, Fox, and The CW in ceasing publications of daily ratings releases.

And, in an unprecedented move, the Fox network, the broadcast home of Super Bowl LVII in Feb. 2023, began selling commercial time for that Big Game this past year to guard against any potential championship audience declines.

As 2021 came to a close, the NFL not only remained a ratings behemoth but — as noted on this very list — achieved some multi-decade highs. Perhaps the notion of erosion for the country’s biggest sport may be quickly fleeting. For the league and its TV partners, they sure hope those worries are short-lived.

Lastly, an honorary mention:

  • Mickelson’s Historic Win Lifts PGA Championship

Phil Mickelson was already among the legendary golfers of the 21st century. Back on May 23, he transcended his career even further by winning the PGA Championship. At the age of 50, he became the oldest to ever win a golf major, beating the previous mark by two years. The tournament’s final round averaged 6.6 million viewers — the largest amount in three years. A peak of 13 million was tuned in to CBS in the moments Mickelson had clinched his win. With the exception of The Masters one month prior, it delivered the largest PGA Tour golf audience since the March 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns.

Note: ratings were tabulated by Nielsen Media Research, and most of their provided context was originally complied and mentioned by Jon Lewis of Sports Media Watch at sportsmediawatch.com.

BNM Writers

Conservatives Latch Way Too Often Onto Cultural Figures

But, as talk show hosts, and conservatives, we seem to too often try to latch onto a cultural figure we think is ready or willing to “fight our fight.”

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We’ve been watching in real time the fall of one of the most creative Americans of this generation: Ye West. A.K.A. Kanye West. 

It’s been clear for weeks that Ye has been in a weird place and has been spiraling emotionally and mentally. Things came to a head on Thursday, when in an interview with Info Wars’ Alex Jones, Ye went off on several antisemitic tangents, including this line: “Well, I see good things about Hitler, also. Every human being has value that they brought to the table, especially Hitler.”

The actions are strange (covered in a black mask during the interview). The words are gross (stark antisemitism).

The point of this column is not to try and dissect the mental state of Ye West. That’s a fool’s errand.

But, as talk show hosts, and conservatives, we seem to too often try to latch onto a cultural figure we think is ready or willing to “fight our fight.” Conservatives know Hollywood, Corporate America and Media are mostly stacked against them and their values, so when someone appears to step into their corner of the ring, we fall for them head over heels. We end up like the “soft six” who just scored a date with a “ten.”

It’s pathetic. And Ye West is our latest example of that. 

Whether it’s Ye, Elon Musk or even Donald Trump. No, I’m not putting them all into the same boat by any stretch, but there has been a similarity to each of their purposes to conservatives. Kanye would push MAGA and conservatism in Hollywood and Black culture. Elon would save us from the Big Tech war against free speech. And Trump would just, well, save us in general. Or something. 

We’ve put far too much stock into all of these individuals, at different levels and for different reasons. But we’ve done it. And admitting we were wrong about it in many respects is a good place to start. 

Looking up to individuals to singularly win cultural wars is a losing proposition. It’s all of us. It’s you. It’s me. Donald Trump certainly can play an outsized role. Elon Musk can help the cause. Ye West, nah. But you get the point. 

The reality is that we can’t search and hope for that God-like figure to solve the problem. Swinging the cultural pendulum from the left back to the middle won’t be fixed in one day, or one year, and it certainly won’t be swung back by one person.

In recent weeks and months, there have been cult-like beliefs from many in conservative media that any of the aforementioned individuals would solve our problems.

They won’t. They can’t. And we’re doing a disservice to our listeners to lead them in that direction. First off, worshiping individuals it’s everything conservatism is against. Our ideas are bigger than a singular individual and it sells ourselves and our listeners short to stray from that thought.

While the Ye West debacle in recent weeks has been a glaring example of that kind of mistake, there are certain to be others on the horizon. Let’s not make that mistake again. 

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BNM Writers

Christopher Gabriel Isn’t Crazy About Politics, But Is Crazy About Making People Laugh

“We’ve been number one in  Fresno for the past 19 months, one of the top stations in the state. We must be doing something right. When we’re not doing news, we’re light-hearted.”

Jim Cryns

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Talk about conflicted youth. Christopher Gabriel grew up a couple of miles from Wrigley Field, even though his father was a devoted fan of the White Sox.

“My dad was a southside guy,” Gabriel said. “I was a White Sox fan like him. My mom was the anomaly, a Cubs fan, but now she’s a Philly fan. We had a divided household. I was in the first row in the upper deck for the last game at Comiskey. It was gut-wrenching saying good-bye to it.”

Yup. Conflicted.

As a kid, Gabriel watched Dick Allen in the red stripe era Sox uniforms. “I saw Allen hit one so far up in left field, it hit the lip of the roof before flying over and out,” Gabriel said. “That’s the kind of power Allen had.”

Gabriel was a basketball standout in high school, recruited by several schools including Tennessee. He had a lot of connections with the school. His uncle attended Tennessee, but he ultimately didn’t think the academic program was right for him.

He said the film Hoosiers was emblematic of everything he was. “I think it mirrored everything I could have been if I’d stayed with basketball. I always knew I had the talent but admittedly didn’t put in the necessary effort. I should have stayed there. At the same time, I never would have had the other amazing experiences in my life if I had stayed.”

His father was a shrewd businessman. Living in the Chicago area, along with McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, his father  recognized the promise of the Golden Arches early.

“It cost 100 thousand dollars in liquid cash to get into a McDonald’s franchise back then,” Gabriel said. “My father had 9 thousand, far short of the money he needed. He kept borrowing more and finally Ray Kroc put up the difference himself. When my dad was concerned about how he was going to be able to pay Kroc back, Kroc just told him to pay it back by giving back to the community.”

Wow. Good deal for the Gabriel family.

Gabriel’s radio career  has encompassed both sports talk and news talk, from Fargo to Fresno. He is the host of Fresno’s Morning News on KMJ 580 AM/105.9 FM and has a ton of fun on his show. He’s not crazy about politics, but he’s passionate about his opinions.

“When I started on this show, I wanted to make people laugh on their morning commute,” Gabriel explained. “It was my goal to keep people in their car to hear the end of a story. Deliver heart-wrenching stories. I think we do that. We’re interesting, engaging, funny. We take the work seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. It’s a fine line.”

Gabriel said there’s no screaming on his show, no agenda, no attempt to make listeners lean a certain way. “We’ve been number one in  Fresno for the past 19 months, one of the top stations in the state. We must be doing something right. When we’re not doing news, we’re light-hearted.”

Gabriel did his homework before accepting the job.

The story goes like this; Gabriel had been working at another station. They canned him despite his being responsible for raising most of the revenue the show generated. He refused to play the game.

“It was the only job I ever got fired from in radio,” Gabriel said. “The reason–I wasn’t a cheerleader. I told them I’d rather be fired than become a cheerleader for anyone. I told them I wasn’t the right fit. They eventually agreed.”

KMJ program director Blake Taylor was familiar with Gabriels’ work at the previous station.

“I don’t know how he got my phone number, but the same day I was let go, he called me,” Gabriel explained. “Blake told me he was a fan of my work and wanted me to do guest-hosting. After months of guest-hosting, he insisted one day he was going to hire me. Five years later an opening came along and I had two interviews. I turned it down twice. When they offered the job a third time it made me think perhaps they really wanted me.”

If you’re keeping score at home, it was basketball, theater, and then radio. Here’s the theater part. In high school, he met Regina Gordon, who ran the theater department.

“She grabbed my arm in the hallway and asked me to audition,” Gabriel said. “I was open-minded in school. I was never afraid to walk the line between all groups of kids. I didn’t hang out with only one group. It wasn’t like I only hung out with jocks or theater kids. I didn’t give a damn about sitting at a popular table.”

After Regina Gordon’s interest in Gabriel’s possible acting future, he was working at the college radio station. A temporary wall had been put up in between the radio studio and the theater office.

“Someone in the theater office would bang on the wall when they felt I got too loud on my show,” Gabriel explained. “The banging would ruin my show. I got so pissed, I burst into the theater office and was raising hell,” Gabriel said. “The girl who had banged on the wall was apparently impressed with my anger and said I’d be great for a part they were looking to fill.”

A sign? Probably. It gets better. At USC, he studied under John Housman. Yes, the John Houseman.

“He told us stories about working with Orson Welles,” Gabriel explained. “Mr. Houseman was one of the greatest people I’ve ever met, a classical theater guy. I was on campus reading my lines for Barefoot in the Park. It was hot as hell and he was dressed in a tweed jacket and bow tie, just like he would be in the film, The Paper Chase. He saw the script I was reading and seemed dismissive. He grabbed my script and said, ‘commercial crap Mr. Gabriel.’ I’ll never forget, he walked 30 feet, turned and said, ‘Don’t ever forget. Commercial crap pays the bills.”

During Gabriel’s first year of theater studies he was starting to get it. Understand the craft, as thespians say. One day John Houseman took him aside and explained it to him this way:

“He said I was talented, but raw. He said I needed a lot of work but believed I could become a good actor and ‘join him on the boards.”

That’s such a thespian thing to say, but also greatly encouraging. In order to do that, Gabriel would have to give up basketball. He did. 

“I was going to be a walk-on at USC, and I realized the theater season was almost exactly the same duration as the basketball season. One of them had to go.” Basketball bit the dust.

Gabriel takes time to talk to theater groups and tells them a simple truth–if they want to pursue acting, they have to be dedicated. Work as hard as they can. He tells them he’s been in 105 plays in his career, but auditioned for more than a thousand.

He was a stellar athlete, but now his acting talent was gaining recognition. Mitch Albom went to see him in the play he penned, Tuesdays With Morrie in St. Paul, Minnesota. The stage play was adapted from Albom’s hugely successful book of the same name.

“Mitch Albom came to see me in Tuesdays with Morrie in St. Paul,” Gabriel said. “He liked the work and came backstage after the show. He said he’d like me to do another play he’d written. I thought he was bullshitting me, just being nice.When Mitch went back on the air on WJR in Detroit, someone told me he’d said he’d attended the best production of Tuesdays with Morrie he’d ever seen. That was our show.”

The accolades just kept on coming.

Gabriel worked with a director in Minneapolis by the name of Don Stolz. He ran the Old Log Theater, the oldest continuously run theater west of the Mississippi.

“He was a WWII veteran and was a theater major at Northwestern,” Gabriel said. “The guy who was running the Old Log once told him if he ever wanted to take over the theater, to send him a dollar. Stolz sent him a dollar and ran the theater for 50 years. He once told me, ‘You know what my idea of success as an actor is? You get that paycheck every Thursday. You get paid for doing what you love to do. I’ve always seen that as a critical message.”

Months later, Gabriel got a call from Albom. Turns out Albom was being sincere, and he wanted Gabriel to replace a guy in his play, Duck Hunter Shoots Angel.

“It’s a play about a couple of knucklehead brothers in Alabama who go duck hunting and actually wind up shooting down an angel,” Gabriel explained. “After a while, I told Mitch as much as I loved doing the show, I was burnt out. Mitch told me he thought I’d be good in radio, a good talk show host. He essentially pushed me into this business.”

Another door opens for our hero.

Gabriel had what could be called an apprenticeship at KFAN with Doug Westerman. “They didn’t need anyone on-air, but they were talking about starting a news-talk station,” he said. “Doug told me they were going to need someone to screen calls,” Gabriel recalled. Gabriel was apprehensive. “I thought I’d done too much in my career to start that low. Answering phones. I really didn’t know any better though so I asked him if I could have the weekend to think about it. Doug Westerman is a big and burly guy with a quick trigger. “F***that,’ Westerman screamed, ‘I need an answer now.’”

Whether Gabriel was intimidated or recognized a good opportunity when he saw one is only known by Gabriel himself. That’s where he started working with Pat Kessler, a TV political reporting legend in Minneapolis.

“Pat was like an older version of me,” Gabriel said. “He was a  real newshound. Pat was doing some speech on the air and I recognized it as the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. He paused for a moment so I chimed in with several lines and quickly felt I’d made a huge mistake.

“At the commercial break I thought I’d just blown this new career, and was anticipating Pat yelling at me. Instead, he loved it. He told me to go crazy, to create characters for his show. I did liners for the show as Kim Jong-il. There wasn’t a ceiling. He gave me the latitude to create. He allowed me to grow quickly. I couldn’t have asked for a better pro to learn from. And Doug, he is simply the man who gave me this awesome career. I’m forever grateful to him.”

Throughout his stage career, Gabriel has worked alongside some big names like Julie Harris and James Earl Jones. He said he was incredulous when he learned he’d be working with James Earl Jones.

“The first time I saw him I introduced myself and said, ‘Hello Mr. Jones.’ He said, ‘Call me Jimmy.’ I thought he had to be kidding. How the hell do you call James Earl Jones, ‘Jimmy?’”

With actors like Julie Harris and James Earl Jones, Gabriel recognized how much they cared about and respected their work. For them, it wasn’t about celebrity, it was about the craft, the work. They were so sure of themselves.

Gabriel is the father of two daughters. He was thrilled when one of their school principal’s insisted the students practiced their interpersonal skills.

“He had the students shake hands, make eye contact with each other,” he explained. “I saw it as an attempt to counter the phone culture. It forced the girls to communicate with aunts and uncles and be present. I’m grateful for his efforts.”

While he concedes no child is perfect, including his own, there was one incident he felt should be brought to my attention. When one of his daughters was 15, she sent Gabriel a text message.

“It began, ‘Hey Bruh.’ I wrote back, ‘Hey Bruh? Do you think this is your boyfriend?’ I told her ‘Here’s the thing. As your grandpa would certainly tell you, if you want to make it to 16, don’t ever text me ‘Hey Bruh’ again.”

In yet another Forrest Gump-ian moment, Gabriel worked with Andrew Zimmern, the host of Bizarre Foods on The Travel Channel.

“A lot of people don’t realize he was homeless and a drug addict,” Gabriel said. “He turned his life around and became an award-winning chef. He was a food critic on television and is a good friend to this day. He always made me feel important.”

Gabriel said when Zimmern visited a city, he didn’t want to eat in the heart of the city on the main street. The popular restaurants. Instead, he wanted to eat at the restaurant on the street behind the street. The family-run joint with real recipes.

“It’s kind of like how I approach sports,” Gabriel said. “I don’t care about batting averages, I look at the nuance and depth.”

You know, the sport behind the sport.

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BNM Writers

Are Fast Food Sandwich Stories News or Free Advertising?

The majority of these stories that make air seem to involve chicken but even then, hiding behind the latest “sandwich wars” justification seems a bit thin.

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Scarcely a week goes by where we don’t have an opportunity to watch, read, or listen to a “news” story concerning the latest menu item introduced or returned by a chain restaurant or fast food outlet. Yes, “news” is in quotations because I question just how this type of information finds its way into a legitimate rundown.

I’ve always wondered about this and nobody has ever successfully explained, argued, or come close to justifying this practice is legitimate. It’s advertising without the commercial spot break and I don’t know why we continue to do it.

First, let’s lay down the disclaimer that this is no criticism or finger pointing against any particular food, franchise, corporation, or drive-thru operation or employee. Additionally, no blame or negative evaluation is to be inferred against any news station, outlet, publication or staff member.

Frankly, you’re (we’re) all culpable and equally to blame.

I have sat in the control room and watched as a fast-food restaurant graphic popped up in between the anchor team or over the solo anchor’s shoulder as the prompter rolled out copy I myself would fight not to write.

And yet there it is, Murrow and other award-winning journalists enthusiastically telling us about the new chicken sandwich this place is rolling out next month or the latest two-for-one offer at that place if you go and eat there on a Tuesday.

“It’s their new olive burger…now with more olives!”

Actually, the majority of these stories that make air seem to involve chicken but even then, hiding behind the latest “sandwich wars” justification seems a bit thin.

So, again I ask why?

What makes this information suddenly become part of an article or news copy that costs a business nothing and not an ad campaign they should be paying for?

Seriously, we’re at the point where the lines have been blurred by mayonnaise or special sauce or two kinds of lettuce or several kinds of cheese if we’re really lucky.

I am on a soapbox here but not on either a pedestal nor an altitudinous mare. In other words, I myself have tasted the forbidden fruit. Often that fruit has come in the form of a free breakfast sandwich, flavored coffee, pizza or bacon double cheeseburger that found its way to the newsroom before suddenly becoming a topic discussed on the air.

Hey, I can’t review it if I don’t try it, right?

Well, yes and mostly no. I’m not advocating for it and unless I’m being compensated to extoll the wonder that is the addition of guacamole or coleslaw it’s not getting into my headline set.

On radio, the talkers can do it all they want. They’re about other stuff like fun and music and nobody is calling them out on credibility.

The newsroom is different.

When an individual does something good we go to cover it and a business, large or small should be afforded the same courtesy. So many fast-food chains and restaurant franchises do great things for charities and local people in-need and that is part of what we regularly like to showcase.

We get press releases, sometimes distributed as “news releases” from the food chains letting us know about the new offerings. “We’ve Added Wings!” This is not an ad copy, it’s meant to get in our shows and someone, somewhere decided this is okay and not to be questioned.

I tend not to read those memos that say, “don’t ask”.

In a different direction, there are legitimate incidents, developments and news stories that often must go through a screening process because the business involved is a paying sponsor or advertiser for news programming.

I’ve had and seen accurate and justifiable copy stricken, “massaged” until unidentifiable or outright killed because somebody’s commercial ran during the show or one of the dayparts.

No naiveté here, one understands the concern. However, if a pizza joint is facing a class action sexual harassment suit and good journalism has been practiced do we run from it because they’ve bought air time or worse yet have now added cilantro to the cheesy-bites?

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