New Yankee Stadium Embodies Games TV Woe
Imagine the baseball in play 8-9 minutes in a three-hour game. (You don’t have to. It’s fact.) Now picture a television viewer unable to see even that peewee action. (Below, read about the new Yankee Stadium.) The mix makes baseball video-toxic. Paraphrasing Churchill, seldom do many watch so long for so little.
Baseball’s rhythm has been a TV problem since Viet Nam and Watergate. Yearly the bigs pledge to stop pitchers dawdling; batters stepping in, out, and in the box again; and umpires refusing to call a strike. If baseball were the Politburo, it would be in the 40th year of its first five-year plan.
“Next year,” Bud Selig vows of a quicker, better pace. Next year never comes. What has: a new problem compounding TV baseball’s plight. A vertical wire and mesh backstop obstructs the home plate camera, often blocking an entire field: akin to watching through Attica prison bars, or peering through a net.
The home plate camera is football’s 50-yard or hockey’s center-ice: a viewer’s picture window; the prism through which we look. Till the early 1990s, each park perched its camera low, near the field, and above the backstop: the screen rose 10-15 feet vertically, then angled at 45 degrees to just below or behind the camera, intersecting the top of the lowest deck.
The effect was intimate, wire/mesh-unhindered video: We watched because of, not despite, coverage. Today every park could use a similar up-close format: In fact, only Boston does. Elsewhere, declining local ratings show the madness of out-of-view, out-of-mind. Yogi Berra said you can observe a lot by watching. We rarely watch what we cannot see.
Last Decade TV Disaster
Opening in 1992, Camden Yards rivaled Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park as baseball’s most camera-friendly park. “It’s your window on the game,” Orioles Voice Chuck Thompson called the home-plate camera, “so you place it near the field.” Each’s shot was unobscured by any wire. All aped the best box seat.
In 1994, trouble rose at Texas’ The Ballpark in Arlington, designed partly by owner George W. Bush. (Full disclosure: I was a White House speechwriter for his dad.) Inverting custom, cash-hungry Bush fils put the broadcast booth over swanky suites: home-plate shot players looked like ants. Add lousy coverage to Bush’s Iraq, Katrina, and A.I.G.
Miming W., for 15 years new parks have favored in-person high rollers v. crucial-to-baseball viewers. Example: Instead of angling the backstop, each allows a towering vertical wire backstop to intersect the TV screen. Baseball calls it “safer”: in truth, the 45-degree wire protects more patrons. The real reason is contempt: Baseball doesn’t want to bother arranging a screen to serve the paying and viewing customer.
The new Yankee Stadium shows the error of mocking television. The old House That Ruth Built’s low home plate shot avoided the backstop. Today’s solely vertical wire screen blocks half the infield. “Depending on your sense of what a new $1.5 billion park should be,” said the New York Post‘s Phil Mushnick, “impaired-view TV likely lands between annoying and intolerable.” Playoff hockey never looked so good.
Incredibly, the team’s Yankees Entertainment and Sports (YES) Network didn’t investigate camera placement until weeks before the opener. (Also missing: the old Stadium’s birds-eye first- third-base camera wells: “a must for a new big-league park in 1989,” said Mushnick, “let alone 2009.”) A YESer added: “In the old Stadium it was impossible to show a bad angle. Here it’s impossible to show one good.”
Getting That Was Bad Gets Worse
The National Football and Hockey Leagues help teams ensure that TV lures new viewers, including kids. “When a new arena [or stadium] opens,” said an NHL official, “it reflects league input on how to position camera angles.” Its home-plate equivalent – 50-yard line and center ice, respectively – is usually near the surface. By contrast, Selig’s office is MIA, even as bigs TV cries SOS.
This decade A.C. Nielsen’s World Series, All-Star Game, League Championship Series, Game of the Week, and many local-team ratings have dropped. One reason is baseball becoming intolerably untelegenic. “Ratings sink,” said a Fox TVer, “because how baseball presents itself stinks.” Out-of-sight, out-of-mind.
Since 1994, 18 new parks have opened: e.g., Arizona, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, St. Louis, Washington, and now New York. Intimate in person, they are distant on the screen. Many blare players-turned-pygmies. Most brook a TV wire lattice. Unlike the NFL or NHL, Selig doesn’t seem to care if baseball puts its video house in order.
Make a 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. Put each park’s camera as low as Fenway’s. For what not to do, check Yankee Stadium. For what to do, check baseball circa 1960.