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Barber, Feherty embark on media risks in hopes of career gain, taking conflicting approaches in hopes of public appeal

What does it takes for a superstar athlete to become a superstar broadcaster?
 
That’s the question hanging in the balance for a couple of big names in sports Tuesday night who are tackling TV about as different as you could imagine.
 
Tiki Barber begins a media redemption tour to repair his public image after his NBC career flamed out and his image tarnished in leaving his pregnant wife for a 23-year-old former NBC intern.
 
Barber is now training for an attempt at a historic feat – resuming his career as a running back after four years away from pro football.  He bares his soul a little bit for HBO’s Real Sports at 10 pm Tuesday, talking in-depth about the media meltdown that resulted when his marriage collapsed while he was failing as a TV personality.
 
What was most surprising to me, as someone who saw Barber in action several times, was his insistence that he prepared carefully for his transition into media work. From his perspective, the former New York Giant developed himself doing radio and TV work as a way to prepare for a new life as a top morning anchor.
 
But Barber seemed unaware of the difference between being a guest and being the talent, blindsided when he came up short in a job which he seemed to think, at least initially, had to be easier than dodging tackles in the NFL.
 
“Once you sit down, you have to nail it,” he told correspondent Armen Keteyian in the report scheduled to air Tuesday. “You have to connect with the subject. That’s a skill set I had never used or worked on.”
 
Indeed, the perception of Barber when he came to NBC’s Today Show was that he was immediately overmatched; stiff, uncomfortable on camera and yet radiating a confidence that came across a slightly arrogant.
 
As an athlete, he seemed used to having the world at his feet by virtue of his position. But in broadcasting, NBC is filled with people who worked decades to earn the kind of opportunities he was handed as a beginner. Barber’s attitude didn’t seem to reflect any knowledge that he was stepping on lots of toes just by showing up.
 
Worse, when he moved in with his twenty-something girlfriend just as his soon-to-be ex-wife was preparing for twins – months after Tiger Woods’ infidelity scandal made sports and sex hot topics in the tabloid media – Barber had no idea how such a scandal would tank his public image and ruin his usefulness to the network.
 
“I didn’t think it would destroy my career,” Barber said during the interview, admitting there were times at NBC when he would show up for work and sit in his office with nothing to do. “I felt like I was in this professional purgatory for a long time; then my life imploded.”
 
If Barber’s cardinal sin was a crushing lack of self-awareness and a too-willing ease with a top athlete’s sense of entitlement, then golf star-turned talk show host David Feherty may offer the polar opposite.
 
A former European and PGA tour player, the native of Ireland has transitioned into the kind of media career Barber wanted – writing four books, serving as columnist for Golf magazine and working as a reporter and analyst for CBS Sports.
 
Now he’s tackling something few other sports figures have tried; his own late night talk show.
 
At 9 p.m. Tuesday, The Golf Channel will unveil Feherty, an interview show that works hard showcasing its host’s quirky personality and well-known faults. Promising his unpredictable impulses can “make a TV executive soil his pants,” Feherty instead offers an hour of programming trying so hard to seem madcap and wildly unconventional, it feels like anything but.
 
From the start, we’re told by the star himself about his drinking problems – he once downed 2.5 bottles of whisky a day when his addiction was strongest – along with his bipolar disorder.
 
That may explain why he once wrote a column insisting that if a U.S. soldier found himself alone in an elevator with two bullets, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Senator Harry Reid and Osama bin Laden, “there’s a good chance that Nancy Pelosi would get shot twice, and Harry Reid and bin Laden would be strangled to death.”
 
Strangely enough, Feherty the program could use a bit of that edgy energy, at least, judging by the preview episode sent to critics in advance. In it, we see Feherty sitting reverently with Lee Trevino, talking about everything from how to use a lawn mower to the time some jerk tossed his car keys at Trevino thinking he was a parking attendant at a party.
 
Feherty the host might take a page from another cheeky talk show host with demons in his past, CBS Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson. Gifted with a similarly spotty history of drinking problems and personally dysfunction – along with a supremely cool Scottish accent – Ferguson drops his anecdotes about lessons learned and personal redemption at opportune moments which feel natural and appropriate.
 
Frankly, there’s no need to start a show admitting your sordid past any more than there’s a need to kick off a date that way. Give us to some time to get to know you – and, hopefully, like you – before you burden us with the baggage.
 
Instead of the pre-taped segments filling the show provided to critics, I would love to see Feherty host the program live, in front of an audience, with all the unpredictability and possibility for embarrassment that entails, because that’s what also forges great television.
 
Taken together, Feherty and Barber offer two different answers to one of sports media’s most interesting questions; how guys used to being the object of media attention become a part of the machine, and whether the talents which made them so successful in one part of the sports universe can be their undoing in another.   
 
Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.
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