Friday, February 25, 2011

Folks, I Have Seen the Future

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Powers That Be Speak--Not!

Folks, all of you need to go on over to Kris D's blog and read the response she got from a member of the PBR board about her petition to reinstate Justin McKee. It might be time to start boycotting the sponsors.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

There's Justin! Now--Where's Leah?

Because I know that some of my devoted readers don’t have access to RFD TV, I girded up my loins and watched PBR Now on that august channel, so I could report on the appearance of Justin McKee on that stellar program. I thought it was the least I could do, and never let it be said I failed to do the least I could.

Actually, I have to confess that I recorded the program, because I have heard RFD TV referred to by people I trust as “Real F****** Dumb Television,” and nothing I’ve ever seen on that channel has persuaded me that said appellation is unjust. I certainly don’t need to see another commercial that brags about how the owner of RFD TV beat out hordes of bidders to bag both Trigger and Bullet when the Roy Rogers Museum in Victorville, CA, divested itself of its collection. (This reminds me of a time when I overheard a coworker on the phone—he had been asked whether Gene Autry had had his fine horse Champion stuffed and mounted when Champ went to his reward. “Absolutely not,” my colleague stated. “All of Mr. Autry’s animals had proper Christian burials.” I SWEAR to you that’s a true story.)

The good news is that Justin McKee did in fact appear on the show, and he was absolutely brilliant—polished, adroit, articulate, professional, and funny in that impish way that I find nearly irresistible. In fact, you could say he stole the show from co-hosts Justin McBride and J.W. Hart.

In fact, you could say he SAVED the show from those boys, who frankly were not at their best that night. As a matter of fact, J.W. Hart was stammering and stuttering so much that I wondered if he might not be coming down with something. It was positively painful, watching him try to spit out whatever he was trying to say. Neither McBride nor Hart said or did one single thing in the hour-and-a-half-long show to persuade me they’ve improved one whit as talking heads. I do have to give the PBR folks credit for not putting those two together in the broadcast booth at the events, because when they’re in the same room, they behave like two frat boys turned loose at Hooters. Truly—it was that bad.

When the show started, with McKee ensconced in the station at the far right, McBride announced that the support of the fans was one reason why he was back, and referred to the Facebook page (Save Justin McKee), with its 2,000+ fans, as a primary mover and shaker in that support. I have no doubt that the Facebook page contributed to the effort, but I also suspect that the phone calls and emails the PBR received on the subject also had a lot to do with it. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that all told, the messages from the fans from all sources numbered in the thousands.

So for a brief, shining moment, it looked like we had won that battle—until McKee took the very first call from a fan. The woman on the other end of the line asked him pointblank if he was coming back to broadcast the events. McKee neatly avoided answering that directly—and that’s when I started to get a sinking feeling. So—the genuinely bad news is, Justin McKee clearly will NOT be back on the event broadcasts in any substantial and permanent way this season—if ever.

And I’ve also decided that the lovely Leah Garcia may well have saddled up and ridden out of PBR country for good. At the beginning of the season, we were assured she would be featured on alternating events with Erin Coscarelli, but we have not seen hide nor hair of her since the Madison Square Garden event. Of course, Leah may have decided to walk of her own accord, for all I know. If I were in her Ariats, and my bosses informed me that they were giving half my gigs to a gal who doesn’t seem to know a saddle horn from a shoehorn, I probably would have told them where they could put that saddle horn, and I would not have stammered when I said it.

So now I find myself on the saddle horn of a dilemma, so to speak. Shall I continue to watch PBR Now to get my McKee fix, or shall I just boycott the whole mess on principle? I’m still mulling that over, but if I do decide to boycott the program, I most certainly will not miss hearing McBride slapping the desk roughly one time per minute of the show. I’m not sure even the pleasure of watching Justin McKee can ease that pain.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Introducing: Pearl de Vere

My dear friends, please gather round and join me in welcoming a new hand at the Stockyard, the lovely Ms. Pearl de Vere. Like me (and as you've undoubtedly noticed, unlike Montana Barn Cat), she will be posting here when the mood strikes her. Ms. de Vere, a self-employed business woman, is a long-time fan of the Professional Bull Riders. Ladies and gentlemen, please give it up for the Divine Pearl de Vere!

Once Upon A Time

Once upon a time there was an organization called the PBR (our hero!), which started with a little cash and a whole lot of dreams. Through hard work and luck, the PBR grew and grew. Eventually the PBR grew so big that some problems (horrible monsters!) rose up to challenge the success of the organization. They were: the television production changed, including the removal of a beloved commentator; the event format was changed to "create more excitement"; and there was great hue and cry about chute time, soaking and Brazilian bull ropes (and Brazilians, for that matter) from the stock contractors and some fans. Things became so bad that the PBR was forced to shut down fan comments on their website.

But wait, you are thinking, that last thing hasn't happened this year! Which is totally true, because in this case, "once upon a time" was the year 2004. History seems to be repeating itself. This all struck me as I reread of Fried Twinkies, Buckle Bunnies & Bull Riders, a snappy little book by Josh Peter that takes one through the trials and tribulations of the 2004 PBR season (and if you haven't checked out, you really ought to do so).

Sure, there are a few variants to keep us on our toes:

It's not that the PBR got its rights back and cut ties with TNN to move to OLN, as it did circa 2004, but the ushering in of the era of David Neal Productions and his "improvements" this year. It's not Donnie Gay who was given the boot from the broadcast booth because he wasn't interested in commenting live (not to mention Tuff Hedeman quitting the board/being removed as a commentator amidst much drama), it was Justin McKee being removed for whatever undisclosed reasons, as we are all so painfully aware. It's not that the Finals have added round points for 2004, it's the addition of the new Bonus Round. Sadly, the soaking/rope situation has apparently not been altered by the passage of time, and fortunately or unfortunately, the PBR is showing absolutely no signs of shutting down fan comments (formerly a message board).

But outside of the spooky similarities, what really stands out is: Why are we stuck in this Groundhog Day?

One could speculate that the loss of institutional memory with the departure of Randy Bernard is a large factor in the 2004 redux. While Bernard was around, a lot of fans loudly blamed his lack of Western background for anything questionable with the PBR, but now that he is gone, many seem to be lamenting losing his hard-earned knowledge of the sport, his canny business sense, and his relatively soft touch. It doesn't help that Jeffrey Pollack, after his initial flurry of press presence and invitation to the fans to email him, has been extremely quiet. In fact, the whole PBR has been exceedingly quiet on almost all of the issues, in what one can only suppose is a very questionable PR strategy--if we don't talk about it, maybe it will go away.

This only serves to highlight the passivity of the PBR overall. I don't know if this is part of some stubborn cowboy code of never admitting to weakness, or part of a PR campaign of "ignore and conquer," or due to an unease between the cowboy side and the business side of the PBR, but the stoic silence in the face of legitimate questions doesn't help matters. While in situations like "Where in the World is Justin McKee?" there are obvious HR implications that could be a factor, some basics regarding the who, where, when, and why of many decisions remain shrouded in mystery. This makes it difficult to say with any certainty that the PBR still doesn't have effective systems in place (as we saw with the judging fiasco), but it certainly leads to speculation.

Which leads us to, if in 2004, the soaking/Brazilian bull rope/chute time question was a burning one, why has so little of any substance apparently been done since? Yes, the PBR put in new rules as far as chute time and as far as how many people can pull a rope, and obviously the PBR must be incredibly reluctant to publicize any issues that might lead to the attention of animal rights groups. Not to mention the minefield of rider nationality is extremely daunting. But what about the allegation that the Brazilian rope can be pulled tighter than an American one? Especially considering the number of cowboys from all countries who use the Brazilian style rope, surely some sort of testing could be done to settle the issue and, if needed, decide upon a standardized rope style or three, much as was done with the rowels for the spurs. Yes, Ty Murray seems set on de-mystifying the Brazilian rope, and I thank him for that, but I'm not sure he's making much headway, and the problem is far larger than that. Letting this sometimes xenophobic-tinged issue simmer since 2004 has only made it worse, and while the issues here are not easy ones, it is apparent that they are not going to magically disappear.

While the PBR appears to carefully avoid some issues, when it comes to others it just can't seem to stop tinkering. The ceaseless urge to mess with the format is completely mystifying, considering that the sport, at its heart, is very simple. In 2004, the PBR wanted to make the finals more of a draw, so it put more points on the table. This way, one cowboy couldn't really cement a win over the course of the season--a good finals performance was nearly mandatory. This in theory would lead to more fan interest, which would lead to more viewership, more advertising dollars, more sponsors, and the like. But while the urge to tinker has remained constant, the goal seems to have changed, from potentially broadening the field to potentially streamlining the field. The bonus round and the Final Five Chase seem designed to narrow down the number of cowboys in the spotlight. In these economic times, one can understand the desire to ramp up the excitement, but it seems like David Neal Productions doubts that the average fan (or perhaps the new fans that he hopes to attract) has the attention span to keep track of 40+ cowboys and even more bulls. So instead of seeing all the rides, we get a song focusing on the top 10 or so, and a bonus round perhaps designed to narrow the field of interest to those who consistently do well enough to make the special new round. It remains to be seen how this will play out.

Sure, times have changed and the PBR has changed--stagnation wouldn't have served anyone. The PBR did and does and probably always will face the issue that it is a niche sport, and there isn't a whole lot anyone can do to change that. Having only two commentators in the booth is not going to magically turn the sport into something that someone who likes a mainstream sport will want to watch. Wiring the riders won't make the sport into something people magically want to watch, either (and honestly, listening to people grunt, or worse, be hurt, is just not appealing). Ridiculous commercial voice-overs and a Truth Booth also don't add much appeal.

But in the end, the format issues, while annoying, are not critical. Format issues can be fixed. We are back to the real issue: Why does the PBR never seem to learn? Why is there still is very little transparency, sudden and poorly explained moves made, and such bumbling PR attempts to cover it all? The fact that McKee has been asked back, on however limited a fashion, does give one hope that the PBR does recognize there have been misfires and they are trying to correct their course, and of course, only those there know what happens behind the closed boardroom doors.

To end on a slightly more optimistic note, it seems like for this weekend's event, some of the format issues were indeed tweaked for the better: the awful siren seems to have gone away in favor of the familiar buzzer, the scrolling sports scores that were screwing with the aspect ratio of our TV sets are gone, and there seemed to be less of the robotic female commercial voice-overs. Now if we can just get more Leah Garcia and more Justin McKee, we might be talking. After all, the PBR has a great product, and it's really hard to ruin bull riding. In the end, this sport is simple--one cowboy, one bull, eight (or less) seconds. That's what I want to see, whether it's a top 10 cowboy or a TPD alternate, a bull of the year or a debut bull. As long as there are great bulls and great rides, we should all survive the fight to escape this cycling back through the issues of 2004 and get back to some great bull riding.

Now that's what we hopefully will call, "living happily ever after."