Ratings Sink Because Product Stinks
The book Fiasco describes George W. Bush’s can’t win, leave, or understand war in Iraq. Its title also etches much of baseball’s pre-World Series post-season television. Paraphrasing Churchill, seldom have so many watched so long for so little.
Baseball’s bust evokes a mosquito in the nudist company, not knowing where to start. Perhaps with ratings, biting the bigs’ behind. Bud Selig hallucinated, "Baseball interest is [sic] legendary." Actually, early post-season’s was largely sick, limited to playoff cities, the hard-core viewer, and increasingly, insomniacs.
Network suits like to say that less is more. Here less was less. TBS’ first-ever League Championship Coverage bred the four least-ever watched L.C.S. games. Only 2.8. per cent of U.S. TV households watched Rockies-Diamondbacks. ESPN’s Chick A-Fil-A Bowl bared 3.7 percent, ABC’s Little League World Series final 3.3, last year’s L.C.S. 10.5 million viewers v. this year’s 4.3. "Legendary" interest? Fox’s Are You Smarter Than a 5th-Grader? had a larger audience. Baseball gave a dinner, and almost no one came.
Ironically, TBS’ Division Series ratings had jumped 26 percent over last year’s Fox/ESPN, airing glamor teams in New York, Chicago, Boston, and L.A. Fox’s Hub-Cleveland L.C.S. actually topped 2006′s, Red Sox Nation again blaring the devoted and the crazed. By contrast, the National League was ignored like last week’s mashed potatoes. Its fiasco should teach Selig two things, neither of them good.
First, shrinking interest mocks the view that marquee local clubs can compensate for the bigs’ peewee marketing and network TV niche. "Good cities, good ratings," said a Foxer, "bad cities, bad." The 2007 Rockies never graced a Fox, ESPN, or ESPN2 game. The Red Sox blanketed 24. Pro football’s lure carries each of its 32 franchises. Baseball foolishly relies on a couple clubs — Sox, Mets, and Yankees et al — to carry it.
NFL interest soars because its network TV product is quick, compact, and riveting. "The game sells itself," said NFL FIlms’ David Plaut. "It almost doesn’t matter who makes post-season." Selig’s second lesson is how televised baseball can be intolerably uncompelling. "Network ratings stink," mused a Foxer, "because how TV baseball presents itself stinks."
From Here To Eternity. Even 2-1 games now routinely top three hours. N.L. L.C.S. Set 2 took 4 hours, 26 minutes, a Red Sox-Indians match an insufferable 5:14. Author Stephen King was shown reading a book between innings. During innings he could have read War and Peace. "In fan time, pitching changes equate to a day spent at the D.M.V. or the return line at Macy’s," wrote The New York Times‘ Selena Roberts, scoring baseball’s "slow-drip cadence." Pitchers dawdled. Batters stepped in, out of, and back in the box. Umpires did everything but enforce the strike zone. Viewers did everything but stay awake.
Scheduling spurred the stupor. Several games began at 10 p.m., slighting the populous East. "Hard to watch," Mel Allen once said, "if you’re asleep." Awful camera coverage hurts at any time. A typical game may put the ball in play 8-10 minutes. What happens when you can barely glimpse it? Post-season accented baseball’s refusal to make coverage camera-friendly. Yogi Berra said you can observe a lot by watching. Fans can’t observe what they can’t see.
Baseball’s home-plate camera is TV’s picture window: a prism through which we watch. "It’s your mirror on the game," Allen said, "so place it low, near the field." Fenway Park’s or Yankee Stadium’s exquisitely low home-plate shot is unobscured by a vertical wire backstop. By contrast, Cleveland’s and Arizona’s home plate camera is so high post-season players looked like ants. Worse, Anaheim’s and Colorado’s wire screen blocked half the infield, like peering through prison bars. We watch despite, not because of, coverage.
October’s most vocal criticism, announcing, was actually a fall guy for larger flaws. Jon Miller, Dan Schulman, and Dave Campbell aced ESPN Radio. (Joe Morgan, sadly, was Joe Morgan.) Fox’s Joe Buck sprightly re-emerged from his post-August 4 bigs sabbatical. TBS studio and analyst coverage was benign, if banal. Division Series ball and striker Don Orsillo adeptly tied insight, bite, and tone.
Alas, D.S. Yanks-Indians Voice Chip Caray was vilified, clearly unfamiliar with the American League. The New York Daily News’ Bob Raissman dubbed the Braves’ broadcaster "unsinkable," wishing Caray sunk. The Post‘s Phil Mushnick termed "his command of baseball language and concepts so confused that he’s like traveling by pinball." USA Today‘s Michael Hiestand mocked Caray’s calling the D’Backs "hole the size of the Grand Canyon here in Arizona."
Chip gave Richard Sandomir "agita," The New York Timesman detailing "a skein of faux pas. No fact is safe in the hands of TBS’ lead baseball announcer," he wrote, bewailing "errors and silly strategy." In fact, Allen, Red Barber, and Vin Scully couldn’t have saved baseball’s early post-season from itself.
Pro football is a national sport only incidentally regional, not caring which teams make the Super Bowl or AFC/NFC title game. Baseball has become a regional sport only incidentally national. As John F. Kenedy once said, "Our problems are man-made. Therefore, they can be solved by man." Baseball’s problems are self-made: therefore, they can be solved by baseball.
Earth to Bud: Make the pitcher throw the ball, umpire call a strike, and batter not leave the box. Make it constitutional for a game to sing, rock, move. Angle the backstop below the home plate camera, avoiding a wire lattice across the screen. Then, put each park’s camera as low as Fenway’s. America won’t watch players-turned-pgymies on the field.
It is too late to reverse George W. Bush’s fiasco. It is not too late to reverse baseball’s. Perhaps this offseason Selig will help put the bigs’ TV house in order. He’d better, given how America, tuning out, just voted overwhelmingly to condemn.